The Rise of Discord Among Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic roughly a year and a half ago, students have had to get creative to connect with others and make friends.
Lockdowns, social distancing mandates, and the transition from in-person to mainly online schooling at various colleges and universities, including UWindsor, have precluded young people from socializing with their peers in person. However, Discord, the online chatting platform, seems to have afforded them a viable alternative.
THE DISCORD ORIGIN STORY
According to the company, Discord was originally created in 2015 as a platform where gamers could build communities and chat but has since attracted a much broader user base, from student communities to fandoms.
In a few words, the app allows anyone to create their own chat server and organize it into various text, voice, or video channels, each dedicated to a specific topic. Server owners and moderators can attribute different roles and permissions to their server members, create their own emojis, and much more.
DISCORD, THE PANDEMIC, AND STUDENT LIFE
Discord has exploded in popularity since the start of the pandemic, especially among young adults and students. According to a recent CNBC article, Discord had 56 million users at the end of 2019, but Discord’s current About page reveals that this number has risen to 150 million.
UWindsor students have not been immune to the Discord phenomenon. In fact, students have created a plethora of servers dedicated to the general UWindsor student community, UWin programs, and UWin courses since 2020.
The largest among these, named the University of Windsor Student Discord, boasts a whopping 1,589 members as of the publication of this article and has not stopped growing since its creation on September 22, 2020. The substantial membership of the server is nothing short of impressive when you compare it to the total number of students currently enrolled at the University: 16,321.
BUT WHY DISCORD?
I wanted to understand why Discord, as opposed to other social media platforms, became so popular during the pandemic. What about this platform, originally designed as a communication tool for gaming communities, has struck a chord with so many young people and students?
To help me answer this question, I reached out to Taylor, a 2nd-year Political Science and Concurrent Education student at UWindsor and the owner of the University of Windsor Student Discord. I also spoke with a few members of his server, including Sana, a 4th-year Political Science student, and Mya, a 3rd-year Family and Social Relations student.
We talked about Discord, its meteoric rise, and its impact on student social life and wellness during the coronavirus pandemic.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WINDSOR STUDENT DISCORD
Taylor originally created his server in 2020 with the intention of connecting first-year students in the Concurrent Education program. Its membership quickly grew, and so he opened it up to all students of the University, regardless of year or program. UWindsor alumni are also welcome to join and participate in this digital community. “It is a place where students can connect with one another, seek resources, and make friends off-campus,” he explains.
Although his server originally grew by word of mouth, a new wave of members arrived after Discord’s introduction of the School Hub feature. Catching onto the popularity of the platform among students, the company created hubs dedicated to specific universities, where servers run by students of those schools could be compiled in one place and easily found by users by inputting their school-assigned email. “This enabled existing users to find servers they previously would have only been able to discover through word of mouth,” elaborates Taylor.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE SERVER
Taylor has taken advantage of Discord’s sophisticated customization features to refine his server and its users’ experiences. For example, the server is organized into various specialized chat rooms. Some notable ones are the Question of the Day chat, where students respond to and engage in conversation over a daily question asked by a moderator, a Homework Help chat, where they can study together, and even a Memes chat.
Upon entering the server, students must also assign themselves roles, which then appear in their profiles and help their peers easily find them. Roles include their year, faculty, and pronouns.
It is this versatility in customization, Taylor believes, that has contributed to Discord’s rising popularity. “Consider this,” he asks, “where else among other popular platforms could you sort a chatroom by different categories, channels, roles, and permissions?”
This sentiment is echoed by Sana, who believes that “part of what makes [Discord] so much more appealing than something like a Facebook group is that it allows extensive online self-expression that very few other chat platforms boast. You can upload a GIF as your profile photo, use custom emojis, and update your status to show the video game you’re playing or music you’re jamming to on Spotify.” She points out that all these features add up to a platform that is truly “geared towards the younger generation”.
The laid-back, silly, and casual atmosphere of the platform leads Mya to describe it as “a place away from professors and school, almost like a coffee shop, where you meet to take a break with friends”.
THE DARK SIDE OF DISCORD
Despite Discord’s strengths, it has its shortcomings like every other platform, and this is something Taylor and other users of his server acknowledge.
For Taylor himself, Discord has often been a tempting source of distraction when he doesn’t feel like doing schoolwork: “When a discussion is going on in the chatroom, Discord becomes a convenient excuse to procrastinate”. This point resonates with Mya as well, who often feels “an inability to turn off social media” like Discord because she is constantly connected.
For Sana, addiction and harassment are always sinister possibilities looming in the background for users of the platform, although she believes that a good moderation team can help counteract the latter.
“Like any form of technology, users risk addiction and being holed up in their bedrooms for far too long when they really just need to go outside and touch some grass,” she says. “The anonymity that Discord provides can be a plus and a downside. The fact that many people choose not to reveal their faces, gender, or age means that you connect with people you would not think to approach in real life. This means unexpected discussions, new perspectives, and friendships where you wouldn’t think to look. But I have also seen my fair share of harassment and sexism, especially in more male-dominated spaces and servers, and people are far braver behind a screen.”
The anonymity of Discord is something Mya also takes issue with because she feels it allows users to pretend to be someone they’re not. She feels that “there is definitely more mystery about who I am talking to now. Before, I would know because I could see and physically meet someone. Now, it’s hard to know if people are who they really say they are or a persona they put on to be more agreeable”.
IS IT ALL WORTH IT?
Nevertheless, in discussing the influence of Discord with these UWindsor students, it seems that the good has far outweighed the bad.
For example, Taylor believes that the platform has had a marked positive impact on his wellness and social life during the pandemic: “I will be blunt when I say that I met the entirety of my university friend group in first year through the server. We were all lucky enough to meet for the first time a few weeks ago. Undoubtedly without the server, these connections would not have occurred.” He summarizes that “the server has also been an outlet for myself and many students to discuss our lives. Whether that be academically or personally; good experiences or grievances”.
Sana also feels that Discord has helped her make friends, maintain her social life, and generally have a good time. “We’ve found ways to have fun in an online environment,” she says, “such as doing PowerPoint nights, live streaming movies, and playing Jackbox games”.
Finally, for Mya, Discord has been useful for both socializing and academics: “I have made more meaningful (although virtual) connections with classmates and created a better group atmosphere in working with my classmates to learn and understand assignments. I’ve spoken to more people than I ever thought I would have.”
Discord is not a perfect platform by any means, but it has certainly filled a gap in the social media world and provided a useful community-building tool for students during these unprecedented times.
* This article is not sponsored by Discord. The author just has an unhealthy obsession with the platform.
** The University of Windsor Student Discord is in no way endorsed by or affiliated with the University of Windsor administration, sub-organizations, or student-led bodies. The University of Windsor Student Discord is an independent community run by and for students without assistance or involvement from any other institutions.
*** Last names have been omitted to preserve the anonymity of the interviewees.