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1. Discord Finds Its Niche
In retrospect, Discord was inevitable. PC gamers had been trying to find a good way to talk to each other during multiplayer for many years. To do so, they were stuck using apps like Skype or TeamSpeak.
There was just one problem: those apps are pretty bad, especially for talking during long gaming sessions. Even getting connected to something like Skype to join your buddy in a game would take too long and end up disrupting both people’s gaming sessions.
Thus, Discord had an instant niche carved out: CEO Jason Citron wanted to create an intuitive and seamless communication platform for gamers. So he created an app that worked with both desktops and smartphones, allowing users to use text and voice chat without having to exit the game they were playing.
2. Discord Becomes the New Forum Culture
Part of Discord’s early success may have been accidental. In designing the platform, they created an app that appealed to different generations of gamers in different ways.
Younger gamers enjoyed finding new ways to communicate and share media with one another. For example, younger gamers enjoy the ability to watch movies and other media together on Discord as well as the ability to pass the virtual aux cord with special servers and music bots.
Older gamers, meanwhile, found that Discord was the closest modern equivalent to old-school forum culture. While some would say Reddit’s different subreddits are like forums, the whole thing is still very public, with people vying to go viral and end up on the front page. Discord, with its private servers, ended up being a fun throwback to hanging with virtual buddies in dark, unseen corners of the internet.
3. From Dark Origins To Accessible Communities
Of course, creating an anonymous chat platform filled with private servers was always going to be a double-edged sword. And two years after the app went live, something happened that might have spelled the end for Discord.
In 2017, Charlottesville, SC was host to a controversial “Unite the Right” rally that brought together Klan members, neo-nazis, and other extreme-right figures. And one of those figures ended up using his car to kill one protester and injure 35 others.
After that, it came out that many of the white supremacists at the rally had been using Discord to organize themselves. The Discord CEO and team did their best to root out these supremacists and save their image. And they were so successful that, ironically, #BlackLivesMatter protesters and others who oppose the alt-right would start organizing into their own Discord platforms.
4. No Gaming Friends, Just Real Friends
Chances are that this happened more by accident than design. But one of the biggest reasons that Discord became explosively popular is our increasing awareness that there is no real distinction between “gaming friends” and “real friends.”
Since before the early days of Xbox Live, it wasn’t uncommon to find a few buddies online that you could regularly play games with. Someone might start out as your Overwatch buddy, for example, and you later move on to play other games together.
But even if you never meet in person, spending hours of virtual time together soon means the two of you are more than just video game friends. And Discord provided an opportunity to keep your conversations going long after the two of you have exited the game.
5. Discord Tries--And Fails--To Get Into Game Development
From the very beginning, Discord’s “bread and butter” was video games and gamers. And at first, Discord was all-in on video games. They went so far as to dabble with offering games users could play online via their Nitro premium subscriptions to Discord.
However, they quickly discovered that nobody was really playing these games. Part of the reason, honestly, is that the games kind of sucked. But the other reason is that, increasingly, people were using Discord for much more than gaming.
In reaction, the company went hard in rebranding the entire platform. It still serves as the best way to chat while gaming, but countless new communities now revolve around entirely different hobbies. For example, my best friend uses a Discord server to trade and collect antique coins--pretty much the opposite of playing video games.
6. The Pandemic Changes Everything
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 ended up being a real crucible (no, not the Destiny kind) for many businesses. Some of them had to fold and others had to make extreme changes. And in rare cases, the pandemic ended up being great for business.
As you can imagine, Discord benefited immensely from the pandemic. In fact, the number of monthly users literally doubled during this time.
Many of these users were gamers, as those stuck at home during the pandemic had little else to do but game. But others were students using the app to organize online study groups when they were forced into online learning environments. And, of course, many used Discord to discover new hobbies and find new communities that shared their interests.
Long story short? The pandemic made our world more digital than ever before for gamers and non-gamers alike. And Discord was in the right place to offer an intuitive and dynamic way to communicate, play, study, organize, or simply relax in a digital space.
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