Foldable Discord and the Beautiful Chaos of Community Building

| 12 Sep 2019

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on Medium.

Just 5 years ago, the ideal way for many communities to have a relatively contained means of talking online in real-time was quite different.

The communities of OverClocked ReMix and Kotaku’s reader-run blog Talk Amongst Yourselves were on the popular text-only IRC. Most gaming clans were on TeamSpeak, with the likes of Ventrilo and Mumble close behind. TeamSpeak was, in a way, the Texas Roadhouse of voice-over-IP (VoIP) chats. Other communities with no means of funding a host used Skype groups.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came Discord, which billed itself as the perfect disruptive platform — a melding of the best features from VoIP and IRC without the hosting fees — and promptly became one of the fastest-growing platforms on the Internet.

That massive growth, however, came with a familiar unfamiliarity with the nuances of what made Discord so powerful, and thus with the nuances of what made Discord so dangerous.

Discord as a platform is so disruptive — because of the way that it democratized community building — that we now have the means to watch a predictable cycle of chaos whenever a popular figure decides to open up a new server.

And that’s exactly what happened with the seemingly unprompted creation of a Discord server by Dan Olson, host of the popular YouTube channel Folding Ideas. Olson is best known for a number of video essays on major cultural forces, like Gamergate, Vid.me, Triumph of the Will, and Vsauce.

This incident, however, evokes a self-evident truth about the inherent chaos of YouTube fandom by way of loosening the faucet in a controlled environment. In a way, it’s similar to an incident by YouTube personalities Tom Scott and Matt Gray, in which they live streamed a dot-matrix printer being fed comments from the stream, and the printed paper is fed directly to a shredder.

In this case, however, the setup is familiar to anyone starting a Discord server for the first time, especially without having done more than a trivial amount of setup because most people are not community managers.

A Condensed Timeline

Olson’s server began with three channels: an entry text channel named #this-discord-will-be-deleted, a second one named #post-here-get-banned, and a default General voice chat with the voice permissions removed.

The following is a selection of moments that happened over the first 90 minutes of the server’s activity, saved for posterity and demonstration.

1:29 PM — FoldableHuman: This Discord Will Be Deleted Friday, September 13th
1:38 PM — Olson posts on Twitter: Alright, I did it, I broke down and started an official Foldable Discord. (The first user to join is niknarcotic)
1:39 PM — (Crowd): Who’s going to post in that other channel first?
1:43 PM — cobaltcerberus and lesserangel are the first acknowledged bans.
(Crowd): F (to pay respects)
1:45 PM — (Crowd): Comparing the server to the Titanic
1:46 PM — Server reaches 69 users. Crowd reacts accordingly.
1:48 PM — Foldable TildaSwinton: we gotta unionize (first instance)
1:55 PM — clearascrystal is given mod powers after asking to become mod in the ban channel, and is promptly banned within 10 seconds.
(Crowd): F
2:00 PM — DoubleCakes: The Anthem Of The Foldable Discord (linked)
2:04 PM — gaydrian: plot twist: there is no video…there is only the void
(Crowd): The V O I D
2:05 PM — Vortex, a moderation bot, joins the server.
2:06 PM — (Crowd): TRAIN DAY
2:07 PM — (Crowd): WHY ARE WE YELLING
2:14 PM — Icelaic is given the role “Ban-Thirsty”, and is decreed the Chosen One by the Crowd. Others change their nickname to FoldableHuman.
2:18 PM — lokijki tests text-to-speech capability.
(Crowd): Oh no (text-to-speech spam for two minutes)
2:21 PM — OGmandias: Hello. Is this the official discord server for popular Fortnite streamer Dan Olson A.K.A. FoldableHuman? Thank you, have a nice day 😃 (occasional spam from here)
2:24 PM — CrystalDonovan: GIVE ME MOD POWERS (is quickly given them)
2:25 PM —(Crowd): Give me mod powers too! (are not given them)
2:28 PM — (Crowd): (start swearing, including fake-swearing like ‘hecc’)
2:30 PM — (Crowd): (argues over whether or not to read Homestuck)
2:35 PM — An egg picture is posted in the ban channel.
(Crowd): EGG F / FEGG
2:37 PM — CrystalDonovan: This is the worst server and the worst mod powers
2:40 PM — IceLaic: (in ban channel) I’ve spent my whole existence in this place dancing on the edge of the volcano, cheering as the Banning Dan threw people in. I gladly accepted my role as prophet, but perhaps the truest enlightenment can only be accomplished by the acceptance of your fate. Perhaps instead of dancing and cheering at the edge, I must dive into the volcano and embrace its power with open arms. I wish you all well my friends, and I will see you as well, eventually, in the warm embrace of the Banning Dan
2:45 PM — RobotGhostToday: (in ban channel) I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. People changing their name to foldablehuman off the shoulder of Orion. I watched IcyLaic glitter in the void near Tannhauser Gate. All these moments lost, like posts in the ban. Time to die.
2:57 PM — A new channel named #amy is created, with two photos of similar-looking cats and no other posting permissions. The main chat reacts predictably.
3:01 PM — (Crowd): #MakeAmyMod

The first hour and a half is a sufficient timeframe for gauging the survival of a new server on Discord.

As you might be able to see in this log and infer from the expected noise of posts in-between, the ambient meme culture of social media is almost guaranteed to spill into any new space and fill the cracks of its structure before there is much of a chance to build a community the way you might prefer it to be long-term.

Performative Art

Olson has given his game away a bit by mentioning to someone that despite not having the resources to commit a long-term community, that he “can provide fleeting entertainment by turning a system into a form of public performance”.

In essence, he has chosen to create an environment where the people who join are able to perform for each other, with no other support other than the grace of his presence and a gimmick that lets them exit in a dramatic fashion.

That gimmick is nothing new, either. xkcd’s forums have long hosted a “post here and get banned” thread. Many personalities and even mainstream celebrities have often made gimmick posts along the lines of “reply here to get blocked”, especially on Twitter.

In a way, however, it was a big risk to introduce chaos in a space that might have easily gone sour. Discord servers are no stranger to raids — either by friendly groups as a gesture of good faith, or by hateful groups with the aim to harass people, oversaturate channels, and otherwise disturb the peace — but the temporary nature of this server has perhaps created an environment of novelty where people have embraced the concept for what it is.

This server might be one of the best possible expressions of audience as performance. It exists as a limited span of time with a finite set of posts, and yet the chaos within that space finds a way to create predictable moments that flow from one to another through the simple introductions of new features, new turns of phrase, and new ways for people to go out with a ban.