June 10, 2021

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been

How I carved my community's lane, what Discord has improved since 2015, and why Stages and music are its future.

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Illustration courtesy and property of Robert Beatty.

Six years and some change after the platform launched, Discord has established itself as a dominant force within the chat app ecosystem.

Hundreds of millions of monthly active users, tens of billions of messages, it has achieved scaling successfully.

With an established brand identity, a loyal cult-like following, and more growth than anyone ever expected, there’s really only one question outside of the looming acquisition/IPO that remains — what is its future?

Here are some thoughts, critiques, and insight about what I’ve learned since 2015.

Who knew what this would be?

Uphill Both Ways

When Discord was unknown to most, it was a rough app. Anyone who used it before about 2017 will probably tell you similar. It was the annoying friend we still invited to gatherings.

The voice channels were completely broken if more than a dozen people joined, the theme was changing every week, and servers had poor baked-in moderation toolset to utilize.

Third-party sites for passive server exposure and promotion were almost non-existent, which meant bootstrapping lived up to its name.

Organic partnerships? Forget it. It was dog eat dog.

A trickle of maybe half a dozen people on a good day, and zero on a rough one, would be the norm.

  • Have you tried Discord?
  • Have you heard of this thing called Discord?
  • Oh, Discord? It’s like Skype, but better…

It’s no surprise how Discord went for Skype and TeamSpeak’s neck from the get-go — it really was like Skype and Slack had a kid, except this kid was way smarter than its parents and knew ahead of time that its distant cousin TeamSpeak always failed their community interactivity exams.

It was around this point I started to think about that one overused life advice idiom — ”you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole” — sure you can, you just need to make it small enough.

Know Your Roots

At the core, when you own and manage a non-profit community as a hobby, it should thrive off organic discussion, interaction, and whatever else comes with it. Selling out voids trust permanently.

The fundamentals of running a healthy community are polar opposite to selling one out.

So, when two huge hip-hop communities I frequented started selling out and taking bribes behind the scenes, I knew two things: there was greener grass on the other side, and I could find it myself if I wanted to.

Forums and communities in general were not new territory for me, but owning one definitely was. I was terrible at calculus, but still knew how to add things up — I knew this would be an uphill battle if I wanted to make it work.

Always remember your roots; never forget where you came from.

The Reason

The first obstacle was convincing people to migrate was an uphill battle from the beginning. I knew from past experience that people hate change. It wasn’t going to work if I begged.

The second obstacle was giving them a reason to stick around versus relapsing, once they had migrated over. What could I do with my community on Discord that would separate it?

The answer was simple — actually care about the community.

The Execution

The moment I found out the website I had visited daily for years was sold out behind the scenes to a huge corporation, all faith was lost and it only reaffirmed my desires to make my own community.

It was not so much that I viewed myself as a noble knight that would never bend or break under such offers to be bought out, but instead, I was genuinely just sick and tired of every community I joined being victim to corporate greed and the owners being flexible enough to give in.

Friends clowned me for enjoying hip-hop as much as I did; it got boring, and I took my chats online. Then every other year, it seemed the community I was on sold out or got bought, or had bad management.

I wanted to create a space where users were never judged outside of their Top 5. Not their sexual orientation, not their ethnicity, not anything.

On the eve of 2016, me and a crew of tight-knit friends from forums past put it into action. The HHD (Hip-Hop Discord) server was born in the evening hours of September 25th, 2016.

We knew we had something special on our hands, a potential movement that was burgeoning and had no ceiling, but no one had any idea how big it really was.

Talk is Cheap, Chat is Cheaper

Remember how I mentioned Discord had almost zero baked-in moderation tools in the early days?

The server took off quick, and with it came all the growing pains. There was no slowmode on Discord, users would come in and raid, from all angles.

It became a server meta to interact with these raiders and stranger that’d come in and try to disrupt us. Sometimes it’d become a virtual turf war, but that’s what made the server so fun.

It didn’t have to be high brow chats around the clock. It just had to be live, and fun, and be something new each day. It was a Pandora’s Box, in live chat form, unlike any other server on the platform.

More importantly, communication was key. Tending to the server from its infancy until present, never skipping a single day.

Ask Me Anything

Hate or love reddit, they did the whole AMA (Ask Me Anything) structure very well for what they had to work with. Shout out to Victoria, an innovator. This energy was exactly what I wanted to try and replicate on Discord.

Our very first server guest was Stanley “Substantial” Robinson, a multi-talented artist and educator who is known for being one of the earliest collaborators of the late Seba “Nujabes” Jun.

Text-based, our first AMA took place a month after the server opened, and we made them regular events. Anyone and everyone we could find, as long as they were interesting and had a story.

After about the first dozen AMAs being text-based, we knew we needed to step it up and set it apart, so we transitioned it to voice channels. It was no longer just reading text, it was a live interaction.

Discord continued to improve voice channel quality and stability. We thought we were in the clear, until Pusha T showed up.

The Exact Moment

Word spread of the movement HHD was becoming on Discord, and Summer Watson, Push's long-time business partner, caught wind of it. We linked up, inked a time and day, and that was that. Direct and succinct.

No business, no agenda, no promotion, no shilling — Pusha was just as genuinely curious as anyone else about what exactly Discord was, how a hip-hop community could survive on a gaming app, and he wanted to be there before it blew up.

If you were the ask me the exact moment of when I really went all-in on the idea that Discord was going to be the next big thing in social media, I’d say it would be 7:00PM on August 8th, 2018 — the moments leading up to Pusha dropping in.

Voice channels had just lifted the 99-person limits, and we sure were putting that to the test. We had over 700 people queued up, hundreds more divided among our other overflow voice channels trying to fish a way in.

It was the first time on Discord I was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do. There was way too much going on, with a severe lack of tools to provide an adequate onboarding gate of this magnitude.

I had just moved into a new house. Internet connection was there, but no desktop PC at the time, only an old Chromebook.

There he was. Pusha T, on a hip-hop server, within a chat app made for gaming.

At the first glimpse of him in the server, the users completely lost it. Thousands of messages a minute. My phone becomes frozen as soon as he logs on and people realize it’s actually him. I pop open my Chromebook, which also instantly freezes as Discord boots up. Back to the phone, and I can hear audio.

I can’t move anything on my screen; then as soon as users flood in by the hundreds, the audio turns into static. It balances out, we mitigate users into our relay channel, and do the AMA for a few minutes, but it ends up tapping out and completely breaking. The server goes out for a few minutes, then pops back up on the list.

Many would think this was a complete disaster, but I couldn’t stop smiling.

This was very literally seeing the next big thing before your eyes on a screen a few inches in front of your face. It was this overwhelming rush and excitement of real-time community and interaction that had been absent from social media for years, ever since the “glory days” of Ventrilo or TeamSpeak faded.

I knew it, Summer knew it, and maybe a handful in the crowd knew it.

Corporations Cometh: Curiosity Killed the Cat

It’s mid-2021. Six years since Discord launched, three since Pusha came, and one since they pivoted out of a “gaming app” and made it a general chat platform (this IP is way better than the current one).

I’ve always said it, since the very first day I heard about Discord — the potential to open very insightful, valuable dialogues on Discord is immense, perhaps more so in music than any other field, just given its nature. No one believed it, I got pushback from staff at Discord in the past, was told AMAs were not to be hosted due to bandwidth usage on such a platform, the long list goes on. Ok, next.

However, within the last half year, corporations have caught on.

After Microsoft wanting to acquire Discord and ending talks, Discord announced a formal partnership with Sony, amplifying buzz at a mainstream level.

It's obvious — large companies want a piece of the pie on the window sill.

The problem which lies therein is execution and onboarding. Discord is very foreign to reps from majors [major labels], and need proper onboarding.

It doesn’t need to be a forward-facing promotion, either. It could be something like an integration that may be more friendly as an approach. Millions of Discord users love the Spotify integration; I even went ahead and did my vision of its future.

Remember my point about corporate-backed communities? Nobody wants that, nor is interested in that. Look at existing social media. There are many reasons for this, and only a small percentage of brands would succeed with their own Discord community.

Most just want to promote a brand, and be done with it.

Little-to-no actual interaction.

Selling Out: The Reality

Corporate presence en masse on any platform is double-edged sword. It is not 100% negative, as many may want to suggest. It’s exposure at the cost of authenticity, and there’s no going back. Discord needs to ask itself if that’s something they’re willing to sacrifice to get acquired or seek IPO.

I’ve been “in” the esports scene since 2000, I’ve been in “the industry” part of it since 2007, learning about how it works behind the curtains. Not egotistical enough to throw the timespan in my Twitter bio, but I’ve witnessed it evolve into something I no longer recognize, while still being able to appreciate its growth.

In many ways, esports has become very manufactured and robotic, yet it’s larger than it ever was. Very similar to the progression of the Korean pop music industry. Maybe that was meant to be.

Large sponsors, huge companies pumping money into teams, huge premier-level tournaments, millions in prize pools. Something I would never have expected to see in a million years if you would have asked me in 2010. Esports has done a lot of good, and the purist “grass roots” mindset may be too far gone as an alternative.

Me personally, I’ve been contacted by over two dozen large conglomerates, major labels, or otherwise for free or paid promotion, acquisition of the server itself, offers to bring on guests (none successful, thus far), or low-tier astroturfing tactics to sneakily win my trust.

It’s not charity to the culture, it’s a business opportunity.

That’s not hip-hop, that’s greed.

In a few conversations, several have revealed this is a widespread effort across hundreds of servers for targeted verticals. That makes me a bit worried.

Are the numbers they throw at me nice enough for me to bend over? They never will be. I know if they offered even 10% to a younger, more impressionable server owner looking for a quick bag at the cost of destroying their user base’s trust with an @everyone ping, they’d sell out in a heartbeat.

Then, we’re back at square one. A community has sold out behind closed doors, maybe in such a case has not even changed ownership, yet an agenda will be put in place. It doesn’t have to be something extreme, it could be something like trying to push a certain label’s upcoming artist.

One of my favorite quotes, from a piece I was fortunate enough to work on with the late and great Chi Modu:

I look at hip-hop as an art form. It was a voice of the people. You can go wherever you want but if you leave the roots, and to me the roots are the voice of the people, you lose your soul.

What does Discord look like if it leaves its roots?

Two edges of the same sword, for better or for worse.

Discord’s Secret Weapon: Stages

Since 2016, me and this insufferable idiot I've known for over a decade named Levi —one of the initial crew guys from earlier —have been pitching a one-page pitch to join the server. Deemed "The PDF," we send it to every single artist team, PR team, agency, anyone we can find for AMAs. Well over 1,000 emails sent out.

We googled names, scraped old profiles, searched old Tweets for emails, pitching ideas of Discord to random companies and corporations. Not many responded, but a majority of those who did, rejected the idea of this weird "Discord" thing, saying it did not "fit our [their] vertical" and otherwise —funny, since a lot of those majors and YouTube personalities are now sitting on Discord years later.

No backing, no sponsor, no budget—just a single PDF. To date, we're just under 100 AMAs hosted, and not a single penny either way.

Every guest you've seen on HHD, every event you've seen run, it's all rooted in that PDF, somehow.

Now, there's Stages.

About three months ago, Discord launched Stages, a more fleshed-out way to host AMAs and otherwise. It’s like a less pretentious in-app version of Clubhouse for people who don’t have a butler.

This puts Discord in a very strange spot from a marketing perspective; Discord’s greatest strength, by far, is its in-app reach.

It is not its social media presence, nor is it the high engagement they can secure through Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube. Play into the users you already have, versus attempting to pull in new activations. Those will come naturally — ever heard of a company called Facebook?

Within the last week, HHD has seen a 1,107.9% increase in visitation. This is the largest day-to-day growth we’ve seen since the server’s creation, with nothing coming remotely close.

Tell me Stages don't work.

So what’s the future of Discord?

Music (see: artist) presence within Stages.

100%.

Don’t Let It Slip

Discord needs to take advantage of Stages to the fullest extent, and curate what events are highlighted. They need to do a better job about opening serious dialogues up, and not stray too far into immature meme territory. It’s not a gaming app anymore.

This will open up a much wider market, both geographically and demographically.

Secure large hip-hop and pop artists which people identify with, and make the brand shill campaigns and collaborations secondary. There are important, real life and real world dialogues that can be opened through the voice of hip-hop while utilizing Discord as a vessel. Use it for such.

HHD is an existing example where such dialogues have been opened in the past.

Low quality collaborations with brands which are 100% pay-for-exposure, such as The Weeknd and Eminem where it obviously is some intern on a artist-branded Discord account shilling NFTs in a server, is doing more harm than not when it comes to authenticity and integrity of the platform as a whole, and how it looks from the outside.

These sort of events, which are essentially cash grabs to use the artist’s name and likeness, are immense wasted potential, and Discord could have easily secured either of these artists for genuine conversations or huge collaborations and drawn in tens of thousands. Discord is a large startup — half a billion in funding, valuation north of 7 billion, probably closer to 10 now — not some server like HHD with zero backing or sponsorship and a one-page PDF pitch.

It seems even the Cactus Jack collaboration with Travis Scott has been deleted from Twitter for unknown reasons.

Ok, I get it.

Mitigate the corporate presence so that it’s transparent. Execute Stages in an intelligent way, and get someone who knows music inside and out to run that sector. Remove the memes, and promote real conversations that affect people’s lives and wellbeing.

Music has depth, and that’s rarely explored in such territory as Discord, so why not try it out?

Chi Modu

I had known about his photography for some time, and as mentioned earlier linked up in early '18 for a piece, albeit a virtual encounter. He was kind enough to lend his time, and many words, to make that happen.

On the way home from work I'd try my hand at some low tier on-the-fly long exposure from my phone when I'd stand at the crosswalk waiting to hop on a bus home, and I would send those to Chi. I knew they weren't that good, but it was something to keep us in touch, and no matter what, he always dapped the pics and gave me small tips here and there.

Near the end of '19, I found myself in NYC. One thing led to another, and Chi was kind enough to meet up on the very last day before I left the city. My wife and I posted up in the lobby of the Meatpacking District's Soho House.

Chi showed up, UNCATEGORIZED book shrink-wrapped in his arm, with a sharpie and a small bag.

"Let's do this," he said.

Chi was humble, but he knew the power his photography held. We sat there for over two hours, talking about hip-hop and the city. Stories from his favorite shoots.

"What you see is 1% of what I have in the vault."

He bought us lunch, autographed the book, and he told me something that I'll never forget, something which prevented me from giving up on HHD after three long years of feeling stagnate:

"You see the beauty in this city—in its flaws. That's rare these days. I can tell you genuinely love hip-hop."

He joked about moving away from the noise to Jersey City, and that if I ever found my way back to the city, I'd probably do the same.

As we parted ways, Chi took a Leica M3 out of his bag. He wrapped the strap around his wrist, turned it inward, and asked rhetorically, "...mind if I get some for the road?"

I just smiled, and there it was—a few selfies with the GOAT.

"I'll send these in a few. Until next time. Peace!"

I held onto that moment, and ran it back in my mind over and over on the flight back.

I've shared this anecdote close to a dozen times with large outlets wanting to feature HHD. None have ever included it, citing irrelevancy. An example of how when it becomes corporate, all that matters is the amount of traffic, not the message.

Knowing an outlet would probably never publish this in full, I wanted it to be out there how much Chi influenced people on the daily, even if you never hear the story behind the story.

Gone way too soon.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Community can’t be forced, and there’s no way to make them form quickly. Like fine wine, it takes time and patience.

In many ways, the server itself is much more to me than just a Discord server, and in many ways, it’s still just a Discord server.

  • Laugh at yourself, and have fun with it. Loosen up.
  • Care about your community. Stay honest. Be transparent.
  • Pick your staff properly; respect them. Everyone’s time is valuable.
  • Communities are dynamic entities; neglect them, and fissures spawn.
  • Stay on top of trends.
  • Don’t put effort into restraints; just abide by ToS. No one reads rules.
  • In retrospect, the flaws along the way are what made the journey so fun.

Would I do it all again?