When the pandemic lockdowns began, everyone started flocking to Zoom. It makes sense. It’s easy to set up a meeting with any group of people, even if you’re not already connected with them on some other service. But for regular social groups—like my own circle of friends—Discord servers and their video chats have so completely replaced Zoom that it’s hard to imagine using anything else.
If you’re not already familiar with Discord, it can seem like there’s more of a learning curve than there really is. It’s a chat app that features text, and voice channels where members of a server can talk to each other and keep conversations organized by topic or event. The “server” and “channel” terminology can, in my experience, sometimes throw new users, but if you’ve ever used an app like Slack or Microsoft Teams, it’s not too different.
However, Discord has one very slight difference that makes it perfect for pandemic get-togethers: the ease with which members can hop in and out of a conversation. It’s a subtle feature, but it’s made my group’s social calendar that much easier to manage.
What Sets Discord’s Voice Channels Apart
When it comes to text channels, Discord works just like most other chat apps. Name a few channels with common topics like #general-chat or #movie-talk and members of the server can head to the right room to chat. However, Discord handles voice chats a little differently than most apps. Instead of making users initiate a voice call with others, voice channels work just like chat channels. Name a channel and users can hop into the channel to talk whenever they want.
This subtle change gives conversations a much more casual, open feel. Like you’re at a friend’s house party and you wander into the kitchen where a conversation is already going on. Want to wander over and see what they’re talking about? Sure, join in. Did you start the conversation, but now you want to leave? You can hop out without worrying that, because you’re the “host,” the conversation will end for everyone else.
This approach also makes it possible to have casual meetups when members of a server are online at the same time. Unlike Zoom calls, which come into existence when an invite is created and disappear once the call is over, Discord servers and their voice channels are always there. Once you’re invited to the server, you can join or leave voice channels at any time. You can also opt in to sharing your video only when you’re comfortable. It’s always there, but not on by default, which goes a long way toward making people feel comfortable.
The result is voice channels you can treat like the break room at work. For example, sometimes during the evening, in the server I set up for close friends, I would hop into a voice channel with no one in it. This signals to anyone else in the server that I’m open for a chat. Invariably, someone else will hop in eventually and we’ll talk, maybe share what we’ve been working on, or start an impromptu game.
This leads to the other huge benefit of Discord.
Discord’s Screen Sharing Is a Revelation
Voice and video chats would be worthwhile enough during a pandemic, but in late 2019, Discord introduced a screen sharing feature that brought it all home (before the rest of us started staying home, too). This feature let users stream specific windows or their whole screen to other people in the chat. Multiple people can stream at once, and members of the chat can choose which stream they want to watch.
This lets chats take on the same kind of “gather ’round the TV” feel that you can often get at parties. When one person decides to put on a YouTube video, then before you know it everyone is taking turns finding their most recent favorite sketch to share. In fact, it’s even easier via Discord, where every user can share their window, rather than fiddle with who controls casting to the TV.