Good morning, dear readers of Tecnogalaxy. Today, we will delve into the connection between Discord and the evolution of the internet.

The majority of long-time Discord users share a similar origin story. They enjoyed playing video games and interacting with their friends, using applications like TeamSpeak or Skype to communicate while gaming. However, they often harbored a dislike for TeamSpeak and Skype, as they were the primary options available at the time.

Eventually, many of these gamers came to a realization. They wanted to chat with their gaming friends even when they weren’t in a game, and they desired conversations beyond just gaming topics. Fortunately, in the early part of 2015, a new tool emerged on the scene, and it was called Discord. It featured text chat, which was a welcome addition, but most notably, it excelled at voice chat more than any other platform.

One of the co-founders, Jason Citron, was one of those gamers who wanted to connect with his friends through gaming. He explained, “That was the era of I was playing a lot of online Warcraft, fooling around with MMOs, Everquest.” At one point, he risked not completing college due to the countless hours spent on World of Warcraft.

Citron learned programming because he wanted to create games. After graduating, he decided to pursue this goal. His first company started as a game development studio and even launched a game on the iPhone App Store on the first day in 2008. However, it didn’t perform well, so it transformed into a gamer social network called OpenFeint, which Citron described as “essentially like Xbox Live for the iPhone.” He later sold it to the Japanese gaming giant Gree and then started another company, Hammer & Chisel, in 2012 with the idea of building a new kind of game company, primarily focused on tablet gaming and basic multiplayer games. He developed a game called Fates Forever, an online multiplayer game that resembled League of Legends, and integrated voice and text chat into the game so that players could communicate while gaming.

Then something very Silicon Valley happened: Citron and his team realized that the best aspect of their game was the chat feature. It was around 2014 when most people were still using TeamSpeak or Skype and still despised them. Citron and the Hammer & Chisel team knew they could do better and decided to give it a try.

This transition was painful. Hammer & Chisel disbanded its game development team, laid off a third of the company, shifted many people into new roles, and spent about six months reorienting the company and its culture. It wasn’t even clear that their new idea would work. “When we decided to go all-in on Discord, we maybe had ten users,” Citron said. There was a group that played League of Legends.

After talking to users and studying the data, the team realized the problem: Discord was certainly better than Skype, but it wasn’t yet very good. Calls would fail, and the quality was lacking. Why should people abandon a tool they hated for another tool they might come to hate? The Discord team ended up completely rebuilding its voice technology three times in the app’s early months. At around the same time, they also launched a feature that allowed users to moderate, ban, and assign roles and permissions to others in their server. This was when people testing Discord immediately noticed that it was better.

Discord now claims May 13, 2015, as its launch day because that’s when strangers truly began using the service. Someone posted on Discord in the Final Fantasy XIV subreddit, linking to a Discord server where they could discuss a new expansion pack. Citron and Discord’s co-founder, Stan Vishnevskiy, promptly joined the server, entered the voice chat, and began talking to anyone who showed up. Redditors returned, saying, “I just talked to the developers there, they’re really great,” and sent even more people to Discord. “That day,” Citron said, “we got a couple hundred sign-ups.”

From a technical standpoint, none of this is easy. “It definitely requires a different way of designing the system,” Vishnevskiy said. Discord spent a lot of time making it easy to be in a voice channel on your phone, then switch seamlessly when you open Discord on your computer. They continue to work on reducing latency, the nemesis of every real-time communication developer.

More recently, the company added video chat, considering it the next level of high-fidelity conversation Discord needed. The team wanted to create a way to screen-share during a game, essentially creating a Twitch for small groups or private sessions where users could stream games with their friends watching. Doing it in 4K at 60 frames per second was challenging. They weren’t even sure how to add it: should they create a separate channel for video, or would users have trouble choosing between voice and video? They eventually added it to the voice channel, making it an incremental step up from voice rather than a separate thing.

In early 2020, as Discord was embarking on a major redesign and rebranding exercise to make it more appealing to a wider audience, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. Suddenly, with everyone stuck at home, everyone’s social life shifted to the internet. Discord’s user base increased by 47% from February to July, and all those newcomers discovered what millions of gamers already knew: that having a place to hang out with friends is a powerful thing, and Discord did it better than anyone else. Study groups began using Discord; teachers used it for lessons; friends used it to hang out, just like they would after school or on weekends.

By the end of June, Discord’s rebranding was complete. Its new slogan was “Your Place to Talk,” and its homepage was mostly free of gaming jargon or confusing instructions. “If we look back at the last few months,” Citron and Vishnevskiy wrote in a blog post announcing the redesign, “it’s clear that as people spend more and more time online, they want online spaces where they can find genuine humanity and belonging.”

In the months and years ahead, Discord has much work to do, particularly in improving moderation tools and ensuring that communities on its platform function as the company envisions. As it continues to add more features, VR and AR, among many others, will eventually be on the wishlist of gamers and beyond.

But five years later, it’s clear that Discord has accomplished something extraordinary. It has built a space that feels different from anything else on the internet. It’s not quite a group chat, not exactly a forum, not precisely a teleconference. It’s all of these things and none of them. In that messy middle ground, there’s a place that reflects what it means to be human and interact with other humans more closely than anything else on the internet.

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