Discord vs Community Values
I wrote this piece in response to a particular organisation that empowers local people to create tech solutions matching community values, on hearing they chose to use Discord because of its “usability”.
I was dismayed. To me, the choice embodies the opposite of the organisation's values.
“Discord is great for enabling our community,” people tend to say: it's “free”, and it's great to use, once you're inside. I know. Those are some more-or-less correct facts about it, on the surface.
So what's my beef with it? Why am I so upset that I spend hours writing this? Why can't I just see the value in it, see the pragmatic decision, see that using it benefits the community's work, and be happy for us all?
I nearly replied on the spot, a quick denigration of the decision, but I realised it deserves a much more detailed and balanced response. I think about this stuff all the time. I should be able to express my position clearly and helpfully.
My immediate reaction: I'm so fed up with seeing one supposedly public-values project after another locking itself in to yet another walled garden. I'm fed up with one supposedly open-participation community after another assuming I'm willing to subject myself to yet another Big Tech walled garden if I want to engage. There's a reason I ditched Google and the rest: because I care about using open tech, community-values tech. I care about not being forced into using and depending on a third party against my will, especially when that's a company working in opposition to my values.
You, the community organisers, will certainly have thought of this, I soon realised, and I suppose you decided you need to prioritise a higher level kind of community tech: getting people to work together to create something their community owns, even if they don't own the tools for doing so. That's the main goal of your work and I respect and admire your endeavour. Of course you have to focus on that, and make it possible for your contributors to focus on that.
First, I'll unpack why I'm dismayed. Second, how to keep the gate open (by bridging), as a practical and community-valued way forward if one portion of the community is going to be using Discord.
Free and Convenient
It's “free”, they say. Yes, it's free of direct monetary cost, initially. While I was writing this post, Dave Lane was thinking about the same thing and helpfully posted his explanation of Why 'free' proprietary software will always end in tears.
It's great to use, once you're inside. Convenient. Surely that's of supreme importance? Surely there's nothing worse than impediments to getting on with your primary tasks?
Moulded by Our Environment
At the same time as the platform makes certain patterns of engagement familiar and convenient, indeed helping your community to get started and focus on their central mission, yet, inevitably, not owning one's tools does restrict what one can do and say. One's tools and environment subtly frame how one behaves. It's a well known observation that projects and products tend to be built around an architecture that reflects the structure of the company or organisation that produced them. A software product from a rigid top-down management has a top-down design with lots of rigid authorisation enforcements; a product from a loose flat team has components that are customisable, optional, and interoperate flexibly.
What kind of community tech do we expect will be built by a community using tools designed in the mould of surveillance capitalism? What kind of tech platforms and business model thinking will they in turn build in to their solutions and expect their local businesses and neighbours to use?
Their Way or No Way
Discord like many proprietary platforms says you have to use their app. Anything wrong with it for you? Doesn't run on your phone/computer? Doesn't meet your accessibility needs? Tough. Marcel built an alternative client for people to use, and got banned: Cordless closing down.
I feel we would agree we're into building and using tools that meet our needs, that we control. Whether we purchase them or get them for free, we want them to operate not so as to maximise their master's profit and world domination, but rather in ways that serve our interests.
We're All In This Community
Let's turn our attention for a moment to the people who work in all the various areas of community-owned or “open” software systems, whether it be messaging, video, accounting, or tools of any and all kinds. If we're in, say, the higher level occupation of empowering local communities to bend technical systems and tools to serve their needs, then we might refer to them as building the lower level tech, the tools that we will need to use. Those people, those community neighbourhoods, also share the “community tech” values. Their areas are part of the same continuum with ours. It's all about empowering people with the ability to use tools and systems that we control, instead of using systems run by a single owner that controls us. Those people working on the community-owned lower level tools are our distant relatives. We're all cousins.
I'm particularly interested in open educational tech, and just last week was in an OpenEdTech discussion about this, with people who have the experience in providing open tools, training materials and so on. Collectively we had heard of many incidences of a group with some kind of community tech focus choosing a proprietary system, be it for their conference, their documents, or their teaching. Several participants expressed how they were willing to help such communities, and have been for years, to choose a solution that better matches the community's values. They all agreed on how hard it is to make their help known and available to those who would benefit.
These people, if asked, could help suggest a community-owned tool, supply it, operate it, give training, adjust it to our needs. There's a big wide open tech community who care and would love to have the opportunity to help in this way, only they have no sales and marketing department to link them to the potential customer.
If we're in the same community, even as distant cousins, we have to seek them out, keep it in the family.
That's what really gets to me, I now realise. I am one of the many pouring our souls into that wider community, trying hard to make a difference. We keep wondering why more people don't understand the issue and at least start to use the available open tech solutions in order to support our shared cause. We find it endlessly frustrating to see others choosing proprietary instead of “leaning in” and asking for help from our wider community. Each time a distant cousin in this community chooses Big Tech it feels like an own goal, a slap in the face, and a setback to my personal efforts. That's one more community adding to the proprietary thing's success and fame, and one fewer contributing to the solutions that support our cause.
Let's reverse this. Let's take one more community away from the people farmers, and add one to the kind of community we want to see and be.
We describe Big Tech's platforms as “convenient”, but convenient for whom? By delegating the gate-keeper role to the distant Mega Corp, we give Them sole discretion about who among us are allowed to join the communication and when we will be banned from it. Wrong nationality? Tough. Outside their age limits? Tough. Time and again we people (“platform users”) are being cut off from our online communities. As Artemis writes in “Discord Holds the Keys to Your Heart”:
There’s plenty of reasons... someone can get locked out or banned... The problem is that these lockouts tend to happen immediately, with no warning, no good means of recourse, and no way for the affected person to pick up the pieces... you don’t even get a chance to tell people where they should go to talk to you. We are social creatures, and the trauma of that loss cuts deep. This isn’t exclusive to Discord. The same story has played out over and over on basically every centralized social media platform...
Communities Build Bridges
If you end up using Discord anyway, at least consider not forcing all your collaborators to have to sign up to Discord.
Decentralised communication systems give people alternatives: not everyone is subject to the rules or whims of one and the same dictator, instead each individual or subcommunity can live in their own neighbourhood with their own variation of the community's terms and conditions, and can change to a different service provider that suits them better, without losing contact.
Artemis goes on to say of decentralised systems,
Even when amicable communications fail, you can find another shard that will let you make it your home, and you can pick up where you left off with those you care about. You may be cut off from part of the network, but you will never be mercilessly cut off from the whole thing with the flip of a switch...
As someone who tends to a community, one of your best options is to reduce barriers to people who can’t use the platform you’ve chosen. If you’re on Discord, setting up Discord to IRC, Discord to Telegram, or Discord to Matrix bridges is a great start.
Bridge it to Matrix
Keep the gate open. If you have to use Discord, bridge it. And bridge it to Matrix (because).
See for example how Authelia's contact page looks, clearly listing Matrix and Discord as options to access the (same) chat channels.
Bridging doesn't lock-in your users on the matrix side to any bridging “platform”, so you can start with a public bridge if it's convenient and sufficient, and still have the option, if your needs ever outgrow it, to change later to using a custom bridge. In that situation, see the video Matrix Tutorials #11 — Hosting your own (Discord) Bridge.
Community Tech Values Open Protocols!
If you are interested in reading more on this issue, you might look at a detailed comparison of Matrix vs. Discord by Austin Huang who “used to be heavily invested in Discord [but then] became a proponent of ethical platforms, namely Matrix and ActivityPub”.
One could also read read why System Crafters switched from Discord, and why Mozilla chose Matrix for their community, citing “accessibility” and “safety”, along with Universities, the French government, the German healthcare system, and many more.
Choose Community. Choose Open.
See (why not Discord): – Discord Holds the Keys to Your Heart — Artemis, 2022-01-30 – Why you shouldn't trust Discord — Cadence, 2020-06-06 – Why 'free' proprietary software will always end in tears — Dave Lane, 2023-10-04
See (Matrix and Discord): – Making Your Org Move Communications from Discord to Matrix — Franziska Heintel — Matrix Community Summit 2023 – https://joinmatrix.org/guide/matrix-vs-discord/ – t2bot.io/discord public bridge – Matrix Tutorials #6 — Bridging to Slack and Discord shows using the free t2bot.io Matrix-Discord bridge (video) – Matrix Tutorials #11 — Hosting your own (Discord) Bridge using mautrix-discord (video) – OOYE, a Matrix-Discord Bridge you can self-host
See (Discourse and Discord): – https://blog.discourse.org/2018/04/effectively-using-discourse-together-with-group-chat/ – https://blog.discourse.org/2021/05/discord-and-discourse-better-together/ – https://meta.discourse.org/t/discourse-chat-integration/66522
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