Honestly, I’m not keen on this discussion. It’s tough to have, considering people exist in two camps. Mostly me in one camp and everyone else in the other one. Discord has become a huge platform for both small and large communities alike, and many are quick to adopt it. It offers a large list of features which makes it a very effective tool, and is completely free to use (with limitations). I have used it to interact with larger communities, but I have been hesitant to adopt it for my personal friend circle. This hesitation often frustrates friends whom I ask to adopt alternate solutions, and I want to talk about it. I’ll be explaining my perspective on the situation, as well as explore it from a user perspective as well.
The Solutions we tried
First I want to touch up on some history which influences my opinion on the matter. It all started with a friend group that needed a way to talk to one another. You have a circle of friends who need a voice chat platform to interact, mostly for gaming purposes. You also have the need for some sort of builtin board system, or chat system. Over the years, before Discord existed, we have explored many different options. In the beginning, we used Skype for voice communications. Fifthdread.com’s phpbb Web Forum was also used for posting topics and having discussions. We also had various chat platforms like Steam, Skype, etc. In the current year, Discord satisfies most community discussion needs through various topic threads and the like.
Ultimately, we needed three things. Voice communications, group chats, and direct messaging.
For Voice Chat, we jumped between several solutions over the years. Skype, Teamspeak, Mumble, Ventrilo, Raidcall, Steam Voice Chat, etc. I’m sure there are more. We have been on Teamspeak ever since, although I ultimately wanted to switch to Mumble, we haven’t made the jump just yet. As of today, Teamspeak remains a reliable, high quality solution which offers Voice, text chat, and upload / download file sharing support.
For Group Chat / Direct Messaging, we have also jumped between several services over the years. Currently, we use the Element Client (using Matrix Synapse as the back-end) which acts much like Discord does, with Slack like channels, voice and video chat functionality, and file sharing. However, my current installation does not support Voice / Video calls.
Overall, Fifthdread services has most bases covered with the exception of Video chat / desktop streaming support. I could include this support into Element if so desired, but it hasn’t been a high priority for me at the moment.
Discord offers many if not all of these features, but often with limitations for free users. They offer high quality voice and text chat, but limit video calls to 720p resolution which can hamper your ability to see a desktop stream. Discord also falls short in the file sharing department, only offering you 8MB file sharing for free, and 100MB file sharing if you pay for their “Nitro” subscription service.
Why Fifthdread Services is often better
I often have to make the case to my friends as to why we use Element to begin with, when we could “just use Discord”, and I understand. Many of my friends have already begun to adopt Discord, and I also use it to communicate with many communities online. It’s become the “go-to” location for many communities, and it’s easy to understand why. I personally love what the service does for these groups, so why don’t I want to use it for our small group? It comes down to a few key things. Privacy, data ownership, and history.
First, let’s tackle history. Raidcall was a super neat voice solution when we used it, but it had a few big flaws. First, it wasn’t self-hosted, and we had to rely upon the uptime of the provider. Raidcall would often go down, and we’d have to wait on services to be restored or use an alternate solution. Reliability was in question, which is always a pain when it is outside your control. When self-hosting a solution, I can quickly address any outage concerns myself on the fly if necessary, or provide alternate solutions. Also, Raidcall started including intrusive advertising into their platform, which made sense considering it was free to use. They had to make money somehow, or they would simply go under due to server and data costs from offering so much for free. Makes sense, but it’s still annoying to the user of the platform to see ads. Ultimately, we left Raidcall since it was better for us to self host. By self-hosting Teamspeak or Mumble, we have the ability to control uptime, get access to unlimited file sharing, and we also get encrypted voice chat which is a win for privacy. As history has shown, a self-hosted solution often wins, especially on features, and privacy. Other solutions have continuously offered similar but gimped solutions, like limiting voice quality, file sharing restrictions, including ads, not offering encryption, etc.
I have a feeling that regardless, many people will defend Discord for its ease-of-use. It has everything from voice chat, video chat, text rooms, etc. However, it does have many limitations like the ones listed above, the obvious ones being the requirement of Discord Nitro (at 10 dollars a month, 100 a year)if you want to raise the measly 8MB file limitations, or 720p video streaming limits. Discord does not have end-to-end encryption, meaning they have the ability to look at your video calls, voice chats, and group chats. They claim that they care about user privacy, and do not view this information, but you have to take the word of a for-profit company which historically hasn’t been very promising.
Speaking of privacy specifically, Discord has a insane amount of access to your valuable data. From the groups you join, to what you write, to the software you are running on your PC, users of Discord often grant it access to a jarring amount of data about you. While you may think this is mostly harmless, it’s spooky to think that Discord has access to such a large pool of data, and it’s only increasing. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before they decide to flip the switch and start raking in massive profits by either selling this data to advertisers (if they aren’t already), or advertising to you directly.
It doesn’t feel like long ago that Discord didn’t exist, but it actually launched May 13th, 2015, around 6 years ago. In that time, Discord has become one, of if not one of the largest social networks on the web. I assume it’s definitely the largest for gamers, but even beyond gaming. It’s avoided many of the pitfalls of those who came before it, as they haven’t included ads, is reliable, and offers modern features like solid desktop applications and phone apps. However, is this sustainable? The real question is…
Does Discord Make Money?
All platforms have an operating cost, especially one as large as Discord. Fifthdread Services is backed by me, and I invest both my time and money to ensure it stays online and operational. I also have accepted many donations over the years from various community members, which have helped a lot. Discord, on the other hand- how does it make money? Fifthdread Services operates via charity, but a company such as Discord are in it for profit. What’s their strategy?
I’ve done a lot of reading on Discord over the years, and they are playing the long game when it comes to profitability. Most articles can’t say for certain if they are profitable, but they do say where the money comes from currently. So what makes Discord money? One article states the following:
- Optional Cosmetic Items
- Discord Merchandise Store
- Discord Nitro
Discord claims it does not sell user data, and respects user privacy, but looking at the above, do you really think that Discord can be sustained by optional cosmetics, merch, and Nitro? I can’t tell you for certain, but I’d wager the answer is NO. There’s simply no way. Discord is massive, and to handle so much data, all while asking for so little? The company clearly is playing the long game. Currently, Discord is supported largely by Venture Capital, meaning Investors are helping Discord grow in hopes of a return. Discord can afford to operate at a loss in the near term if it means profit in the long term. I worry that while Discord today is a respected and loved platform, it will go the way of Facebook and those before it and begin to milk its users for more and more. Companies like Tencent, a notorious Chinese tech company and the largest game publisher in the world, have money invested into Discord as well. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the investors would want a return on their investments, and Discord continues to become a more and more valuable platform for both the users who use it, and the investors who have invested in it. To me, their strategy is to become an essential and widely used platform, then slowly start selling data, introduce ads, and/or find other ways to exploit their foothold as a social network.
Social Networks come and go. We came from AOL instant messaging, Yahoo Chat, Internet Forums, IRC, MySpace, Facebook, SnapChat, etc. Some are still used today, but many people migrate to the new hotness. Currently, Discord is the new hotness, and if you ask Discord, it’ll continue to be. However, many that came before it said the same. Look at YouTube- they’re still on top, but they are continuously making changes to the platform making it worse and worse. Netflix just dropped 30% on the stock market because they raised the prices, dropped lots of content, all while pissing off their users. Dropbox and OneDrive offered large amounts of free storage in the beginning, but then cut it back and wanted to charge their users more and more. The mighty always fall, but Fifthdread Services always remains.
Either way, things always change. Fifthdread Services just lets us have full control of the process. We don’t have to accept the bullshit that these companies keep pulling if we just control the platforms we use ourselves. Many, if not all of the services we use online can be replicated and self-hosted ourselves, at least partially. With Fifthdread Services, you don’t worry about ads, file size limits, restrictions, or privacy concerns. You even get direct tech support. Most of all, you operate on services that you can TRUST. Many of the platforms I host are open source and trusted by the community at large. I research each solution before implementation to ensure it is safe and secure, as well as offers features which we require.
Even if I feel like I have solid grounds to justify using Fifthdread Services such as Element, this isn’t a dictatorship. I’m not here to enforce the use of these platforms, and many of you choose to use other services. I acknowledge this, and accept it. Not everyone shares the same values when it comes to their internet usage, and people have different priorities. I know personally, I’m willing to accept some inconvenience for the chance to feel good about the online platforms I am using. To support the underdogs, support open source, and support the privacy focused options. Using Element and other Fifthdread Services feels GOOD because we control it, and in a world where we control less and less, that feels great.
Discord VS Element
Both Discord and Element are great in their own ways. As of now, I use Discord to access large communities, and Element to talk to my inner circle of friends. Element offers many advantages like unlimited file sharing, encrypted chat rooms, optional end-to-end encryption, and many of the features you love from Discord like desktop and mobile apps. It’s solid, but does come with the drawback of having to have yet another app. Element notifications can get annoying if not reined in as well, since the default notification settings are aggressive. Despite this, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
If you’re wondering why we don’t just use Discord since I’m already using it, that’s a valid question. I use Discord within reason, limiting all its extra functionality like the ability for it to spy on what applications I am running, etc. I also only open it when I intend on interacting within the larger communities, and close it otherwise. Limiting my use on Discord prevents me from becoming overly reliant on it. I like running my own voice chat, my own group chats, and my own private messaging service. I know my personal communications are private, as they should be. I can’t deny that Discord offers strong features and functionality today, but I worry the platform will end up like Raidcall. Regardless, I’ll continue to be a self-hosted advocate as I have complete control over my data and privacy.