Citron, 35, uses a lot of offline analogies to describe Discord, in part because by his own admission its appeal is “hard to explain”. If Facebook and Twitter are the town square, shared and public, Citron says Discord is a collection of rooms, each arranged according to its purpose, with its own rules, and requiring permission to enter.
Contrasts to today’s social media giants are deliberate, he says. “It’s not like a performance, or showing off, people come to Discord to be with their friends and their community, and they relax. You get to feel comfortable in that space because you’re not trying to game algorithms. It’s not this open forum that you might have on other social media, it’s an invite-only place, so you have some comfort and safety.”
In other words, you can discuss your love for jazz-fusion without annoying the aunt who visits your profile to see baby photos.
Citron was not always aiming to create the antidote to Facebook. A lifelong video games enthusiast who received his first Nintendo console aged five, he attempted to create a game studio after selling his first social gaming company OpenFeint to a Japanese game maker for $104m in 2011. While it proved unfruitful, Citron was inspired to develop a way for people playing online games such as League of Legends to hold group voice calls online. Discord (the name has no real significance, but was chosen for being short and not trademarked) was born.
Since its launch in 2015, Discord became a popular hub for gamers, an already internet-literate demographic, to trade items and discuss tactics. But it was not until last year that Citron’s ambitions extended beyond those boundaries.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept the world and locked down hundreds of millions of households, its tagline has shifted from “chat for gamers” to “your place to talk”. “Our goal was to build an amazing way for people who play games with their friends to spend time together and talk. It just so happened that this same set of communication features actually enabled all this other awesome stuff,” says Citron.
To that end, although games easily remain Discord’s biggest area, there are servers for making bread, horror stories, and investing. It all carries a whiff of the subject-oriented internet message boards that gradually emptied out as the social media giants rose.
Social networks based around communities, rather than public profiles, is not a unique idea. Mark Zuckerberg has bet Facebook’s future on online groups, partly in response to many of the scandals that have enveloped the company in recent years. It has also led to concerns that by allowing each group to set their own rules, as Discord does, online companies are abdicating responsibility, allowing harassment, or encouraging dangerous fringes of the internet to congregate in a way that both distorts reality and mobilises dispersed individuals into armies.
Citron is all too aware of what can go wrong by allowing self-policing groups to gather online. Discord, once labelled “the web’s new cesspool of abuse”, was notoriously used by white supremacists to help organise a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 that ended with the killing of a counterprotestor.
Discord users celebrated the deaths in private groups, and because the company does not monitor private messages, they were only shut down after being alerted by others. “That was definitely a wake-up call for us,” says Citron. “We had built a lot of this privacy tooling into the product, but didn’t realise: technology is neither good nor evil, it’s just a tool, and people will use it for what they want to use it for.
“The ethos in Silicon Valley for a long time has been free speech, open, let people be libertarian stuff. I don’t really think that’s what is right because that means you’re allowing these things to flourish. We took a very hard stance and said Nazi ideology is not allowed on Discord. I do believe that Discord is generally quite hostile to bad actors.” The company says teams working on “trust and safety” make up 15pc of its staff and has invested in automation to improve how it polices the service.
— to www.telegraph.co.uk