Discord has the potential to create a business offering that could rocket their valuation into the tens of billions and knock Slack out of the #1 spot.
Some (subjectively) good news happened this week with a company I love. Discord will not be selling to Microsoft and will instead look towards IPO. It makes me happy knowing that Discord will continue on down their path and manifest their own destiny, avoiding the gargantuan pull of Microsoft’s gravity. Now, I’m not inherently anti-Microsoft. The last few years of their commitment and investment in open source has shown us that they’re taking it seriously. In my opinion, though, converging too many paths under one umbrella is bad for consumers.
Anyway, that’s not what this article is about. Their IPO decision got me thinking about something I started mulling over early last year when almost everyone who could, started working remotely. Discord has the ability to do something I don’t think any other chat app has done. Discord server’s build a sense of community.
Work. As A Community.
Fundamentally what feels good about going into an office is the sense of community. Being social, hearing some gossip, knowing your co-workers better than just their day-to-day accomplishments, bumping into someone and having an off the cuff conversation to toss ideas around.
This is what I’ve heard time and time again from everyone that’s reminiscing about what it was like going into the office. They miss being social. This is what feels so broken right now with Slack, Microsoft Teams, Twist and the handful of others in the market. Slack doesn’t feel social. It feels sterile. It feels like email. The way it functions is almost anti-community.
It’s Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.
Slack and Teams operate on a hidden-first communication basis. Every interaction is done from an individual standpoint. An individual invites others to a private chat, an individual can call another individual, or start a call with multiple folks, but they need to be selective about who. There’s no such thing as an open door on Slack, other than channels. However, even channels are based on individual interaction. Channels are hidden by default and require the individual to seek them out. Alternatively, a lot of people just learn about them through word of mouth. Everyone’s had the “oh, we have a #pets channel for that!” experience at this point. Great. I’ve been here for two months and didn’t realise I’m not in the crowd of people who had the idea to create a channel for #whatever-thing and I wouldn’t have found it unless I mentioned my interest.
At best, this self-discovery works mildly okay for those who are ambitious enough to want to jump into more community feels with something like Slack. At worst, in my opinion, it contributes to massive breakdowns of communication across teams and alienates individuals from each-other and their companies. Loads of companies are promoting
transparency as a value they hold dear and yet their Slack text communications are about as transparent as a brick wall. The text itself is great for transparency, the way Slack intrinsically forces users to hide their text with each-other, is not. People get used to their regular DMs. They get used to their regular channels. They get used to silo communication at every turn, because the pathway to trying to make things open door is almost non existent. How many of us want yet another group chat with random individuals polluting our Slack sidebars? #general or #announcements gets too noisy, then what? Where do we put those things? These questions are being asked at thousands of companies around the world right now and there’s no good answers.
Discord operates on a community-first communication basis. Every channel is visible in the sidebar as soon as you join. Text chat is there, but so is voice and video. Discord has the ability to create user groups, give users roles, hide channels with per-channel permissions, but by default it expects you to actively pick what you might want to hide. It can emulate Slack’s insidious hidden behaviours, but you need to opt into it. You need to choose what to hide from the folks that will be in your community. It’s not going to assume private by default.
As an individual who’s probably new to the company, I land in a place where I can see what’s available to me and jump in as I see fit. There’s open voice channels sitting there just waiting for me to join them. I can look across the landscape of the company culture immediately. Beyond the business-centric channels that I’ll use for daily communication, is there a
#memes channel? What about
#outdoors? I get a quick sense of where I might fit, and if this place fits me back.
If you wish to take something private, you’ll need to actively break out of the community-first interface that Discord forces on you.
Voice channels. Nothing beats em. I can see who’s in the voice channel and quickly pop in to see if they want company. By the channel name, I can probably judge what I could do without thinking over it too much. If the channel name they’re in might is
#watercooler I know I can just drop in to chat. I can relax and maybe meet someone new, catch up on what people have been doing. With a channel named
#exec-meetingsI’ll probably leave it alone unless I’ve been invited to an executive meeting. It’s possible that
#exec-meetings is private and I don’t have access, but that I can also see when things are happening there. No different than being in the office.
There’s no time restriction on voice channels either. Channels are always open. It’s not someone’s private zoom room that will disappear if they leave. There’s no host juggling. It’s the same as an open room in a building. It’s opt-in, but it’s very clearly there. No different than the conversation in the lunch room in the office. There’s no requirement for video either, even though it supports it. You can just hop in with your microphone and start gabbing.
Zoom fatigue is setting in deeply by this point in most of us. The endless blocks of time booked into our calendars just draining the hours away. The way video calling works in Zoom and Slack sucks. I don’t like it. It’s a massive context switch to another program. Slack’s video window pops over the existing Slack chat window and I need to tab around to find it again, yuck.
I think Discord’s voice & video channels (broadcasting as well) present a better way. They don’t rip you into a separate context, they just present you with new information in the same context. When you join a voice channel with participants that have video enabled, or they’re sharing their screen, you can open up that view by just clicking the channel name. Need to answer something in a text channel? Click it, it’s right there. Video is, again, a feature that’s right at your fingertips of you want it, but it’s a much more subtle focus of the program versus the Zoom/Slack interface.
Quality of Life.
Discord has a host of things that are great quality of life items. It gives individuals very granular control on how they experience the app and others. The ability to choose to mute others voice and video. Tired of seeing people? Disable their video. Someone’s mic too quiet? Bump their volume. Add notes to people. Mute a channel straight away.
The invite system works very well compared to Slacks convoluted signup process. This might be something Discord won’t be able to escape when approaching single-sign-on for the business world, but I’d imagine they’d find a nicer way to implement that loop as well.
Here’s a few features I think would be killer for Discord.
- Implement meeting rooms. Include the ability to knock on a voice channel to see if you could hop into the meeting, imagine how nice that would be?
- Send a quick voice message to someone. Allow users to send a voice message with an invite attached to join a voice channel. Not much different than yelling across the office. “Hey, do you have a sec to help us with
thing you know about?”
- Have a bulletin board channel type. Folks can post pictures or events on a feed. It’s not meant to be engaging, it’s meant to get the word out about stuff going on at the company/department. Have one for each department. That way, you can “walk past” their bulletin board and see what they’re up to.
Changing What “Business” Means.
Most folks I’ve talked to about this idea have said the same thing. Discord is was built for gaming. What I think many businesses are missing is the fact that communicating in games is just as important as it is at work. Sometimes more important. Not often during any average day running a business do you need instantly clear, concise communication that could mean the life or death of your business. Gaming often requires exceptional communication to bring players together to win epic battles, coordinate detailed mission details at specific timed intervals and the ability to be clearly heard while in high intensity situations. Discord owns that. They’ve done incredibly well at it. They’ve built their platform upon solving the communication problems gamers have been having online for over two decades now.
I’ll offer an interesting anecdote. When I played in a Guild (a group of players that organise themselves like a company) in World of Warcraft, that guild was much better organised and communicated better than companies I’ve worked for professionally. We were focused on goals. Organised dates and times where we all had jobs to do and deadlines to meet (Bosses can spawn at specific times). We put in the work to ensure we were prepared as individuals and also executed reliably on teams of players. Tell me again how gaming is so much different from business? Instead of updating JIRA tickets or excel sheets to complete a project, a player might be harvesting materials and mining ores for potions or equipment that their guild-mates need to complete a goal. My point is, I think a lot of businesses could benefit from seeing how great self-organising gaming communities run.
One valid critique I’ve come across, which I agree with, is the sense of security around video sharing sensitive business meetings or content with Discord. To that, I would say that Discord just needs to have a think about what a community-minded security model could look like. No different than the feature above, have the ability to give users different levels of clearance. Maybe restrict video sharing on certain channels at certain times and have the ability to unlock it by request. Who knows? There’s a huge hole in the market right now that’s making work less fun for everyone. I think Discord could fundamentally change what “work” and “business” means for all of us.