WhatsApp, Slack, Messenger, etc. etc. We’ve seen seemingly scores of free chat platforms that offer personal and corporate access to online conversations via text, voice and video. You can’t flip a digital coin without hitting at least a couple chat apps in the virtual ether. But if your kids are into videogames (and how many aren’t these days?), there’s a good chance that they’ve used a chat service called Discord.
Discord is a free chat app that’s designed with the latest gamer-friendly tech and tools built in. It was launched in May, 2015, and has been growing at a dizzying rate: It currently boasts 250 million users, and 14 million daily active users. Yep, 14 million people, young and old, are connecting around the globe and sending out some 350 million messages each and every day. That’s huge!
The app makers compare Discord’s attraction to the old-school poker or bridge-club meetings of yesteryear. You know, those weeknight or Saturday afternoon gatherings where adult friends got together and chatted about the world at large while they sat around the kitchen table playing their games. “Modern gamers do that as well,” Discord’s marketing chief Eros Resmini says. “They just happen to do that from their living room and in front of their computers.”
If you’re wondering how Discord draws in cash—especially given people value the company at a cool $2 billion—it’s from games, of course. The app offers a games market where players can buy the latest titles or sign up for ongoing game subscription services. Buy a copy of the latest hot action game and Discord gets a 10% slice.
The Discord creators regularly point to the many user-friendly features that their program offers over other competitors, such as connectivity on any platform and the ability to send attachments in a variety of formats. But one of the major advantages they boast of is their privacy settings—something they highly value.
Anyone can create a chat group, called a server. (Your supposed to be at least 13 to do so, but Discord doesn’t check ages.) After the server has been created, users can only talk to friends if they join, and they can only join up if given a custom invite. The channels can be set to “private” if desired. And server moderators are given a number of special tools to make sure everything is kept on the up and up: They can control the chat space, make sure the conversations meet a certain level of acceptability, and even ban users if they want.
That’s all great stuff. But strict privacy barriers can also be a double-edged sword.
Those closed-up servers can become walled-in places of bullying, racist memes, foul jokes and other disturbing content if not properly maintained by users. In a Wall Street Journal article called “The Dark Side of Discord, Your Teen’s Favorite Chat App” a Maryland child psychologist named Adam Pletter estimated that about 20% of his gamer patients have reported being harassed while on Discord.
“I have several patients who take the attacks on Discord very personally because they often go to school with the same kids. They may struggle socially at school during the day and the same kids are even meaner on Discord,” he said.
Dr. Pletter, who treats patients with ADHD, depression and anxiety, said kids who struggle with those issues are more susceptible to the bullying. “If you’re starting off with some vulnerability, you’re more vulnerable in life and more vulnerable on Discord,” he said.
On top of that, it’s been reported that the platform’s anonymity can be a big draw for any group of bad actors who want to hide. And they don’t have to be gamers at all. There have been reports of far-left groups and alt-right crowds using Discord to sow their rotten seeds, spew hatred and plan violent protests. People have complained, but adjustments have been slow in coming because of Discord’s hesitancy to jump in and change things up.
“We will not go into a private server unless something is reported to us. We believe deeply that privacy is a right and something we should support as a company,” Resmini said.
Again, that attitude can be good. And not so good.
Now, that isn’t to suggest that Discord is any worse than any other chat platform out there, only bigger. Let’s face it, there is and always has been a lot of awfulness on the internet because, well, people. You’ll find servers on Discord where users are very respectful, and others where decorum goes south in a hurry. But the negatives are things that all users should be aware of going in: whether you’re a game-loving sort with a desire to share around that virtual kitchen table, or a parent who wants to keep your younger game-loving users safe from harm.