When the pandemic lockdowns started, everyone started flocking to zoom. It makes sense. It’s easy to set up a meeting with any group of people, even if you aren’t already connected with them on another service. But for regular social groups – like my own circle of friends –Discord Servers and their video chats have replaced Zoom so completely that it’s hard to imagine using anything else.
If you’re not already familiar with Discord, it might seem like there’s more of a learning curve than there really is. It is a chat application that offers text and voice channels where members of a server can talk to each other and organize conversations by topic or event. The terminology “server” and “channel” can, in my experience, sometimes attract new users, but if you’ve used an app like Slack or Microsoft Teams before, it’s not too different.
However, Discord has one very slight difference that makes it perfect for pandemic meetings: the ease with which members can enter and exit a conversation. It’s a subtle feature, but it made my group’s social calendar a lot easier to manage.
What sets Discord’s voice channels apart
When it comes to text channels, Discord works like most other chat apps. Name a few channels with common threads like # general-chat or # movie-talk and server members can go to the correct room to chat. However, Discord handles voice conversations a little differently than most apps. Instead of requiring users to initiate a voice call with others, voice channels work like chat channels. Name a channel and users can go to the channel to talk whenever they want.
This subtle change gives conversations a much more relaxed and open feel. Like you’re at a friend’s party and walking around the kitchen where a conversation is already going on. Want to walk around and see what they’re talking about? Of course, participate. Did you start the conversation, but now you want to leave it? You can go out without worrying, because you are the “host”, the conversation will end for everyone.
This approach also allows for occasional meetings when members of a server are online at the same time. Unlike Zoom calls, which originate when an invitation is created and disappear when the call is over, the Discord servers and their voice channels are still there. Once you are invited to the server, you can join or leave the voice channels at any time. You can also choose to share your video only when you are comfortable. It’s still there, but not enabled by default, which goes a long way to put people at ease.
The result is voice channels that you can treat like the break room at work. For example, sometimes in the evening, in the server I set up for close friends, I would jump into a voice channel with no one. This signals to anyone on the server that I am open for a discussion. Invariably someone else will eventually walk in and we’ll talk, maybe share what we’ve been working on, or start an impromptu game.
This leads to the other huge advantage of Discord.
Discord’s screen sharing is a revelation
Voice and video chats are worth it during a pandemic, but at the end of 2019, Discord introduced a screen sharing function it brought it all home (before the rest of us started staying home too). This feature allows users to cast specific windows or their entire screen to other people in the chat. Multiple people can stream at the same time, and chat members can choose which stream they want to watch.
This allows cats to take on the same kind of “gathering around the TV” feeling that you can often get at parties. When someone decides to put on a YouTube video, then before you know it, everyone takes turns looking for their most recent favorite cartoon to share. In fact, it’s even easier via Discord, where each user can share their window, rather than playing around with who controls the broadcast on the TV.