6 min read

Beyond Discord

Beyond Discord
'Swamp' by Chibionpu
Join our new Matrix space: #home:commune.sh

The web is awash with reasons not to use Discord, especially for open source projects. One of the easiest ways to trend on HN is to rant against the use of Discord for OSS or information storage:

Discord Is Not An Acceptable Choice For Free Software Projects
Discord is not an acceptable choice for free software projects
Please stop closing forums and moving people to Discord
Please stop closing forums and moving people to Discord
Please don't use Discord for FOSS projects
Please don't use Discord for FOSS projects
Discord, or the Death of Lore
Discord, or the Death of Lore
Discord is not documentation
Discord is not documentation
Don't use Discord as your Q&A forum
Don't use Discord as your Q&A forum

In spite of countless pleas, not much has changed. Before Discord was the subject of these admonitions, Slack was the popular punching bag:

Please don't use Slack for FOSS projects
Please don't use Slack for FOSS projects
Why Slack is inappropriate for open source communications
Why Slack is inappropriate for open source communications
Use forums rather than Slack/Discord to support developer community
Use forums rather than Slack/Discord to support developer community

Minimum Viable Community

Chat is minimum-viable anything
Chat is the minimum-viable tool for online organizing. Without complete control over our means of communication, our ability to organize depends entirely on the goodwill of the very same hegemonic incumbents which we seek to surpass.

6+ years ago at Discourse where I used to work we were particularly confounded by the prevalence of Slack in open source communities. It didn't support threads at the time, and users couldn't even join by link. Either they had to be invited manually, or you'd go through the trouble of setting up a custom invite-link service.

Why would anyone in their right mind opt for Slack?! Three reasons:

Discourse partially solved for the first two with our free 'groups' plan (which I started and ran for several years) and in-built chat, although neither was ever fully committed to for a total re-framing of Discourse as a viable first stop for community builders.

As for the missing networking effect, we never got around to that, in spite of some great ideas and founders who had previously made the very successful Stack Exchange network.

Slack maintained its dominance for minimum-viable communities in OSS circles until Discord came along with open invites and an even more ubiquitous network: Gamers. Many open source practitioners are on a Slack chat for work, but nearly all of us are on at least one casual Discord server for gaming.

Discord also operates more like a social network than Slack:

Beyond its Slack-like functionality, Discord has functionality like a social graph, seeing what games your friends are playing, voice chat, etc. These have been misunderstood by the market. They aren’t random small features. They are the backbone of a central nervous system.

Competing with Network Effects

A legitimate alternative to Discord - as is Commune's foremost aspiration - will have to match it on all three aforementioned differentiators, along with some additional edge.

How to do freemium without imploding is a very solvable business problem, to be covered in another post. Short preview: open source self-hosting, partnerships & micro-tiers.

The 'minimum-viable community' problem is solved by making a community platform that's chat-first rather than forum-first, to be incrementally threaded from there.

The big one - making a network - is simultaneously a technical and social problem. The larger a network is, the more likely users are to join it in order to have access and be accessible to the people who are already there.

Our basic strategy for 'the network problem' can be divided into three pieces:

Open Networks

During the user exodus of Twitter and Reddit we witnessed the power of open networks as something which netizens understand and seek out in favor of centralized alternatives.

Even though there were plenty of both open source (but centralized) and well funded proprietary alternatives feverishly competing to be the new home for the large wave of digital migrants, the clear winners of these migration events were the two most mature network platforms at the time, Mastodon and Lemmy. They weren't perfect, but they were the best alternatives lying around.

When the over-leveraged and centralized Discord platform inevitably enshittifies, like Twitter and Reddit before it, there's only one clear contender for migrants in search of an open messaging network: The Matrix protocol. By leaving the lower level chat infrastructure to the experts, we can focus on higher level user experiences.

Early Adopters

While its 4.5 million monthly active users (last report from FOSDEM 2024) may not yet rival Discord in terms of network size, the Matrix network is almost exclusively made up of geeky software enthusiasts, which is Commune's first-mover target market.

More specifically, the emerging market of COSS companies developing in the open, which are under constant pressure [1][2] from their constituents to use open comms platforms.

So when we're asked 'why Matrix?', this is why. It's not just an established network, but also an established market. Element already employs ~200 people in the business of catering to governments and large, privacy-oriented institutions. This makes them very enterprise-y and Slack-like.

Commune takes aim at the other end of the spectrum by positioning itself as an open source and federated Discord-like for public-facing communities. The first half of our product rollout is set to begin next month, as we begin publicly testing our uniquely community-oriented Matrix client.

Competitive Compatibility

The thing about big network incumbents is that they are very hard to leave, especially the ones with profound utility like Discord. The stickiness of these mainstream apps is such that it's not enough to simply build a more attractive product.

No matter how cool your new place is, you're asking the masses to leave the comfort of their familiar metropolis for your obscure ghost town. That's the 'collective action problem' in a nutshell.

This is where another strength of Matrix enters the chat: Bridges. The clever folks at Matrix have been aware of this adoption challenge since the project's inception, so Matrix has been built with cross-platform interoperability in mind. Bridging enables an incremental, non-disruptive transition from the old to the new.

Thanks to Matrix' open API and a community-developed gem of a bridge-bot called OOYE, we can follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation's anti-monopolistic playbook of competitive compatibility to the letter.

While we're not violating any Terms of Service, it's true that by spelling out our intentions in the open we're running the risk of Discord lashing out. But with the winds of regulation blowing in our favor, we'd frankly advise Discord-corp against doing anything rash. Maybe pull a Threads-to-Fediverse move instead? We'd much rather do amicable rather than adversarial interoperability 💞

Commune's Edge

An open and protocol-based alternative to Discord is a good start and an innovation in its own right when taking open business development and interoperability into account, but there's no reason we should stop there.

Commune aspires to elevate the group messaging paradigm to new heights. From where we're standing, digital comms tooling has only achieved 1/10th of the full potential of what's possible with the tech we've already got right in front of us. You'd be amazed what can be achieved with software that's incentivized to elevate its users rather than oppress them.

Coming next we'll be exploring our added "edge" thusly:

If you'd like to come talk to us about any of this, now's the perfect time as we've finally gotten a proper bridge set up between our provisional Discord server and our longer term Matrix space.

Join whichever one you fancy; let's chat!

Discuss this article on Mastodon or Lemmy.