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It's never been easier to find an online community — and lose track of the diverse perspectives outside our groups.

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Friends gather to watch a movie on Netflix Party; classmates trade study notes in a Discord channel; millions of viewers attend a live concert on Fortnite. Over on Animal Crossing, island-dwellers decorate their homes and visit each other.

These are the contours of our social life, defined by virtual hangouts in an age of physical distancing.

Plugged in

As social lives migrate online, communication apps and social games have been indispensable in keeping us connected.

These digital platforms attempt to recreate the feeling of in-person gatherings. Perhaps no other app has come as close to offering that experience as Discord, which allows users to connect over text, audio and video.

Originally designed for online gamers to play together in real-time, Discord gained traction with the mainstream with its customisable, collaborative platform.

Their servers are highly flexible; they can be private or public, remain exclusive to a small group of friends or host millions. People can come together to work and play, conversing freely about any number of topics across multiple mediums.

# 💬 | #discord-faq

Junglejim29 showed up!

Junglejim29

Today at 7:40 PM

hello everyone! :)

Discord Bot

Today at 7:41 PM

Welcome to Discord! Our platform is home to:

140 million

active users
monthly

105 million

users outside
North America

4 billion

minutes of
conversation daily

Junglejim29

Today at 7:42 PM

thanks! signed up at the request of my teacher

Discord Bot

Today at 7:43 PM

Message # 💬 | #discord-faq

Sources: NPR, The New York Times, The Verge (1, 2)

# 💬 | #discord-faq

Junglejim29 showed up!

Junglejim29

Today at 12:01 PM

hello everyone! :)

Discord Bot

Today at 12:02 PM

Welcome to Discord! Our platform is home to:

140 million

active users
monthly

105 million

user outside
North America

4 billion

minutes of
conversation daily

Junglejim29

Today at 12:03 PM

thanks! signed up at the request of my teacher

Discord Bot

Today at 12:04 PM

Message # 💬 | #discord-faq

Sources: NPR, The New York Times, The Verge (1, 2)

# 💬 | #discord-faq

Junglejim29 showed up!

Junglejim29

Today at 12:01 PM

hello everyone! :)

Discord Bot

Today at 12:02 PM

Welcome to Discord! Our platform is home to:

140 million

active users
monthly

105 million

user outside
North America

4 billion

minutes of
conversation daily

Junglejim29

Today at 12:03 PM

thanks! signed up at the request of my teacher

Discord Bot

Today at 12:04 PM

Message # 💬 | #discord-faq

Sources: NPR, The New York Times, The Verge (1, 2)

The third place

Virtual hangouts help us find like-minded individuals and bond over shared interests in various groups, from anime fandoms to crochet circles, gaming guilds to sneakerhead crews.

With such diverse possibilities for social interaction, the Internet has emerged as a third place — a public and civic space where communities are built.

These online spaces facilitate open discourse and the mobilisation of communities. Last year, local neighbourhoods in the United States organised Black Lives Matter protests on Discord, while a Hong Kong democracy rally was hosted on Animal Crossing.

In February 2021, Chinese netizens used a new audio-chat app, Clubhouse, to discuss Xinjiang’s internment camps for Muslim Uighurs — a topic that cannot be raised in real life without risking arrest. A Uighur woman shared her relatives’ internment to thousands of listeners, giving a first-hand account of the human rights violations in Xinjiang.

These digital hangouts accommodate a wide spectrum of views and elevate marginalised voices, encouraging the robust debate vital to any democracy.

How Discord is keeping everyone safe

266,000

accounts deleted for exploitative content

>27,000

communities banned for cybercrime

>2000

communities removed for extremist and violent content

Sources: NPR, The New York Times, The Verge (1, 2)

The challenge of moderation

Such platforms exemplify the Internet’s potential to democratise information and bring us together, but they are not exempt from problems.

Issues like racial and gender discrimination are more pronounced online, as people can easily split themselves along ideological lines.

The privacy and anonymity of chat apps can be exploited to spread extremist ideology, even precipitating actual violence. In 2017, white nationalists and neo-Nazis used Discord to post swastikas, praise Hitler and plan the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Only after the march turned deadly, killing one person and injuring others, did Discord commit to purging extremist content.

In addressing harassment and hate speech, moderators often have to play catch-up. Unlike social media posts which stay up longer, real-time communication is harder to monitor. Moderating multimedia content also poses a challenge, as the tools to detect audio or video content lag behind those for identifying text.

Beyond these technical issues, platforms face a larger question: how far should privacy and free speech be permitted before they cause harm?

Sowing seeds of discord

Online hangouts hold broad appeal for the freedom of expression and open dialogue they enable.

They offer valuable spaces where Internet subcultures flourish and anyone can find a community, however niche their interests.

But the same forces that promote connection also harden divisions.

When interaction is limited to those like you and those you like, people shut themselves in echo chambers and circulate hate-fuelled messages with impunity. When that happens, prejudice, bullying and calls for violence gain a firmer foothold on the Internet.

Read about how such division is intensified by fake news in “Free-for-all”.

Sources: The Guardian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Protocol