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Why Does Discord Not Use Ads? And Why Is Microsoft Interested? We Asked Discord's CEO

Discord chief executive Jason Citron said the chat app's active monthly users have doubled in the pandemic.
Provided by Discord
Discord chief executive Jason Citron said the chat app's active monthly users have doubled in the pandemic.

Social networking platform Discord is having a moment.

What started as a community for gamers has in the past year become a hub for virtually everything: conferences, karaoke, book clubs, group therapy, homework help, sneaker trading andanalyzing Wall Street stocks.

It doubled its users during the pandemic, with nearly 150 million worldwide now using the chat app every month.

And now, the rapid growth has caught the attention of Microsoft, which is reportedly in talks to acquire Discord for $10 billion.

Discord is not supported by advertisements, instead relying on subscriptions for add-ons to the free service like better streaming quality and niftier emojis to generate revenue. Those wary about the intrusive data-tracking practices of many leading social media apps say not being carefully monitored by advertisers is a major draw.

Discord CEO Jason Citron talked to NPR about the company breaking out of its gaming roots during the pandemic, the future of the app and the challenges ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Discord?

Discord is a place for people to talk and hang out with their community and friends.

You can text chat, voice chat, video chat seamlessly, switch between them on your phone or on your desktop. And it's great for playing games together, studying homework, hosting an online book club or even a karaoke night.

Discord started in 2015 mainly as a videogame community. But that identity was really shaken up during the pandemic. Talk more about that.

Most people on Discord are in invite-only servers that have less than 30 people in them. So it's typically relatively small groups of people who know each other. So it's like friends of friends.

You can almost think of it like an online potluck where you know some of the people, but not all the people. There's no food, of course. But that's kind of what the vibe feels like.

If you just go and look for a server in the discovery section, you'll find more big public communities forgames like Minecraft or influencers like Mr. Beast, and that's a very different kind of experience, almost like walking into like a big community center. While that is a highly visible part of Discord, it's a small part of the overall community's usage.

In 2019, we started hearing a lot from people about how they were using Discord for much more than gaming and memes.

We started hearing about, like people who trade sneakers or come together because there's a musician that they're really passionate about and they hang out with.

Was it always in the cards for Discord to shake its affiliation with the gaming world?

We surveyed 20,000 of our users and asked them questions like, 'What is the biggest misconception that people have about Discord?' The resounding answer was that the biggest misconception is that Discord is only used for gaming.

So in 2020, we relaunched the company to tell the world how people on are doing so much more than playing video games. And with everything that happened with COVID, it dramatically accelerated that transition.

Audio has for years been a part of Discord. How has this worked?

You can have Discord basically idling in the background so people can see that you're there. If you're listening to music on Spotify, for example, it'll show music you're listening to, or if you're playing a game, that can show up.

So these act as almost like conversation starters that people can then reach out to you and spark the conversation, or text, or audio or video, if you want.

So you get to feel like you have your own private living room, your bar, dorm room, pick your place, a coffee shop, whatever, that you and your friends are kind of hanging out and you can kind of run into them by accident, which is really magical, because the way that our audio rooms work, and have worked since 2015, is you can be in a channel. We call them voice channels.

And if you and I are talking and, let's say, our friend Claire is also in the group with us, she opens up her app and sees that we're talking, she can tap a button and just pop right in. And then, all of a sudden, now Claire is hanging out with us and then more people can show up and we've already invited them to that space. So it very much creates this opportunity for serendipity with your friends.

On Wednesday, the company announcedretooling its audio featuresto hold live audio events similar to the hit audio appClubhouse, which has spawned dozens of rivals. Why does Discord think it can outshine Clubhouse and all of its imitators in what's known as the social audio space?

I think innovation is really exciting and it's really cool to see what people are doing out there in the world because of shelter in place.

So many people have now been thinking about audio experiences and how to create new ways for people to come together.

Just last year, there were 1.4 trillion minutes of people having conversation throughout the year and 656 billion messages sent in chat. So the scale that we're operating at from starting with audio and text in 2015 to now is just massive.

Do you have Clubhouse?

Of course, everyone in Silicon Valley has it.

Do you use it much?

I don't use it, no.

How has video chat been doing on Discord?

During the pandemic, we launched video chat so that it was really, really easy to actually hang out and see your friends' faces, and it's one of the fastest growing features we've seen across Discord.

Discord asks for your age and email to sign up and that's about it. Most are chatting under anonymous usernames. Aren't these ripe conditions for trolls and harassers?

What's amazing about Discord is that you can kind of choose how you show up. Discord is not anonymous, like you pick a name and that's how you show up. But you don't have to be Jason. Like, I don't have to be my name. I can pick an avatar effectively.

And in the gaming context, where you might be chatting with people who you've met through the game, like it's good to be able to kind of wear your avatar and show up in kind of a fun name.

On abuse reports: All our communities have moderators who have full control and ability to vet and kick people and enforce their norms, as well as our community guidelines, which are very clear about what is acceptable, what is not.

And we have a trust and safety team on staff that is at the core of moderators. We will investigate reports that violate our guidelines and we will take action to ban people.

When you're on Discord, would people know it's you?

Probably not.

Why? What's your username?

It's a secret.

You've said that Discord not requiring people to reveal who they really are, like many other popular platforms, is crucial to how people interact on the site. What do you mean by that?

There are cases where you may join a community for an interest or a part of your personality that maybe you don't want people to necessarily know about.

We hear a lot from LGBTQ+ folks, that the pseudonymity really lets them share in a more authentic way and really be more of their authentic self because they're not worried about people judging them because they can show up with a pseudonym.

The misuse and abuse of Discord is well-documented by the company itself? More than 250,000 users were banned from Discord last year. What does this say to you?

We have almost 150 million people using our service. So you can imagine we receive reports quite frequently. In fact, we have published a Transparency Report multiple times on our website. Go check it out and see all of the data around volume and actions and how we think about all this stuff.

Discord uses a mix of volunteer moderators, artificial intelligence and a trust and safety team to deal with abuse reports. Can you talk more about that?

From the beginning, privacy has been built into Discord, and the way we've approached it is as an individual user, all conversations are opt in. You choose which service you join and which people can message you. You can block people and you can leave the service. So people can't just show up out of nowhere and start sending you messages.

In addition, the second pillar is that each server is its own community that has the ability to have moderators and admins who can enforce the norms of their community for whatever that means for them, including choosing who they invite and also kicking people out if they want.

Now, as a platform, we have community guidelines that we expect everyone to uphold. And if people don't, and we find out either through proactive investigation, AI, or reports, we will go investigate and we will take action and and ban people. We have a zero tolerance policy against things like hate and terrorism.

How does Discord do proactive content moderation?

If someone tries to create a group and recruit people from the open Internet to that group, regardless of how large the group is, we may discover that and then go look at that group and then realize that there are four people here trying to recruit more people. And the group is based around a topic that violates our guidelines. We shut it down.

Many users point to Discord being ad-free as part of its appeal. It's like the anti-Facebook business model. Why's this so important to Discord?

We believe that people's data is their data and that people should feel comfortable and safe to have conversations and that their data is not going to be used against them in any way that is is improper.

We take privacy very seriously. We do not scan peoples' messages. We do not read them. However, Discord does not have end-to-end encryption. So if you break our community guidelines, we will go investigate. And if we do find that you are doing that, we will ban you, so that we take privacy very seriously. But we also have a trade-off where we also take safety very seriously.

What will change or stay the same about Discord, especially the decision to not track and sell user data, if Microsoft does acquire Discord?

I'm not going to comment, or engage with the rumors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.