How Discord, born from an obscure game, became a social hub

In 2015, Jason Citron, a computer programmer, was struggling to break into the video game industry. The new multiplayer game he had created with his development studio, Hammer & Chisel, was not catching on.

So Mr. Citron staged an abrupt about-face. He fired his company’s game developers, made the game’s chat feature his only product, and gave it a mysterious name: Discord.

“I think at the time we had maybe six users,” Citron said in an interview. “It wasn’t clear it was going to work.”

At first, Discord was only popular with other players. But more than six years later, driven in part by the pandemic, it has exploded into the mainstream. As adults working from home flocked to Zoom, their kids downloaded Discord to socialize with other young people via text and audio and video calls in groups called servers.

The platform has more than 150 million active users each month – up from 56 million in 2019 – nearly 80% of which connect from outside North America. It has grown from gamers to music lovers, students and cryptocurrency enthusiasts.

In September, San Francisco-based Discord said it was raising $ 500 million in funding, valuing the company at $ 14.7 billion, according to PitchBook, a market data provider. It more than doubled its workforce in 2021, to around 650 people.

The evolution of Discord to a mainstream tool was an unexpected turning point in Mr. Citron’s career. Mr Citron, 37, said he grew up playing video games on Long Island, almost failed to graduate from Full Sail University in Florida because he spent so much time gaming in World of Warcraft and had his first date with his future wife in an arcade. .

“So many of my best memories have come from these experiences, so my whole career has been about empowering others to create these kinds of moments in their lives,” he said.

Prior to Discord, he ran a social games network, OpenFeint, which he sold in 2011 to Japanese game company GREE for $ 104 million. Mr. Citron was viewed by other members of the gaming community as innovative as he tried to keep gamers’ attention through social interactions with their friends, a new strategy in the burgeoning mobile gaming market.

“At least he’s trying to bring something new to the market,” said Serkan Toto, games analyst in Japan, adding that Mr. Citron’s reputation was “like a geek, in a good way.”

Now Mr Citron finds himself leading a leading communications platform, a change he described as “surprising, wonderful and humiliating.”

Discord is divided into servers – essentially a series of chat rooms similar to Slack’s work tool – that facilitate informal and fluid conversations about games, music, memes, and everyday life. Some servers are large and open to the public; others are by invitation only.

The service has no ads. It earns money through a subscription service that allows users to access features like custom emojis for $ 5 or $ 10 per month. Discord also started experimenting in December by allowing some users to charge for access to their server, up to $ 100 per month, of which the company is taking a 10% discount.

Discord made over $ 100 million in revenue last year, according to a person familiar with the company’s finances who has not been authorized to discuss it publicly, but company officials have not. meant if it was profitable.

The most significant change in the business came at the start of the pandemic. In June 2020, Mr Citron and his co-founder and CTO Stanislav Vishnevskiy wrote a blog post acknowledging that Discord had gone beyond video games and strived to become more accessible to everyone. Months earlier, the company had changed its motto from “Chat for gamers” to “A new way to chat with your communities and friends,” a nod to its wider audience.

This transition was accompanied by growing pains. Discord has faced the same thorny questions other social media companies have about regulating speech, protecting against harassment, and keeping young people safe.

Discord allows people to chat using fake names, and the task of making sure people live up to its community’s standards is largely left to the organizers of the individual Discord servers. It makes the platform feel like ‘Lord of the Flies’, with groups of young people forming online companies and deciding their own rules.

In 2017, white nationalists gathered on far-right Discord servers to plan the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. place, according to the New York Times.

In the process, the company has become more serious about moderation of content. Mr Citron said about 15 percent of the company’s employees work on trust and security. The company started publishing semi-annual transparency reports in 2019 and banned those under 13 from Discord.

In its most recent report, Discord said it received more than 400,000 reports of misconduct between January and June, about a third of which were related to harassment, and had banned more than 470,000 accounts and 43,000 servers.

The company’s efforts did not end frequent problems. Those interviewed for this article, some of whom were 11 or 12 years old, said they knew many underage Discord users. And an internet search of eating disorders communities on Discord, for example, revealed dozens of servers, some explicitly encouraging people to develop eating disorders, in violation of Discord’s community guidelines.

The company said it takes “immediate action” when it encounters violations such as underage users or inappropriate content.

Many say they joined Discord for healthier reasons, like connecting with friends. Larger public servers, like those dedicated to Minecraft chats or anime, have hundreds of thousands of members. They can be chaotic, with colorful memes, profanity, and jokes inside.

Others are only for people who know each other in real life or share a particular interest. Some have strict rules prohibiting profanity, graphic content, or political discussion. Server owners can delegate moderators to enforce the rules.

Clément Leveau, 21, has a powerful role on Discord: the owner of Kanye, a server hosting discussions on the eponymous artist, music, pop culture and other topics with more than 58,000 members.

Mr. Leveau, a student from New York, wields ultimate authority, with the power to appoint moderators and imprison people who break community rules in an isolation channel known as jail. He said he tries to “let people play the fool, have a place to relax,” but he does not tolerate hate speech or bullying. Due to the isolation caused by the pandemic, Mr. Leveau said, the connections people have made on Discord have become crucial.

Former Discord employees, investors, and gaming industry watchers say Mr. Citron has remained adamant in his vision of Discord as an independent business as it has grown.

Joost van Dreunen, a professor at New York University who studies the video game business, said staying independent would suit Mr Citron’s tight control over the company, which has seen some high-ranking executives leave in recent years. .

When it comes to revenue at Discord, the company said its rapid growth resulted in parts of its business changing “dramatically” in a short period of time, which sometimes meant “the skills and scope the work we needed with our management team also changed. just as quickly.

Discord has been in talks this year with Microsoft over an acquisition that could have exceeded $ 10 billion, according to people briefed on the talks who were not authorized to speak publicly about it. The case did not succeed. (Microsoft declined to comment.)

Mr. Citron has repeatedly declined to comment on conversations with other companies, saying only there is “a lot of interest” in Discord. He didn’t want to say if he was considering taking the company public, but said that “there are only a few ways this stuff can turn out.”

Kevin roose and Erin griffith contributed reports.


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