Six years ago, I wrote a post speaking out against the use of Slack for the instant messaging needs of FOSS projects. In retrospect, this article is not very good, and in the years since, another proprietary chat fad has stepped up to bat: Discord. It’s time to revisit this discussion.
In short, using Discord for your free software/open source (FOSS) software project is a very bad idea. Free software matters — that’s why you’re writing it, after all. Using Discord partitions your community on either side of a walled garden, with one side that’s willing to use the proprietary Discord client, and one side that isn’t. It sets up users who are passionate about free software — i.e. your most passionate contributors or potential contributors — as second-class citizens.
By choosing Discord, you also lock out users with accessibility needs, for whom the proprietary Discord client is often a nightmare to use.1 Users who cannot afford new enough hardware to make the resource-intensive client pleasant to use are also left by the wayside. Choosing Discord is a choice that excludes poor and disabled users from your community. Users of novel or unusual operating systems or devices (i.e. innovators and early adopters) are also locked out of the client until Discord sees fit to port it to their platform. Discord also declines service to users in countries under US sanctions, such as Iran. Privacy-concious users will think twice before using Discord to participate in your project, or will be denied outright if they rely on Tor or VPNs. All of these groups are excluded from your community.
These problems are driven by a conflict of interest between you and Discord. Ownership over your chat logs, the right to set up useful bots, or to moderate your project’s space according to your discretion; all of these are rights reserved by Discord and denied to you. The FOSS community, including users with accessibility needs or low-end computing devices, are unable to work together to innovate on the proprietary client, or to build improved clients which better suit their needs, because Discord insists on total control over the experience. Discord seeks to domesticate its users, where FOSS treats users as peers and collaborators. These ideologies are fundamentally in conflict with one another.
You are making an investment when you choose to use one service over another. When you choose Discord, you are legitimizing their platform and divesting from FOSS platforms. Even if you think they have a bigger reach and a bigger audience,2 choosing them is a short-term, individualist play which signals a lack of faith in and support for the long-term goals of the FOSS ecosystem as a whole. The FOSS ecosystem needs your investment. FOSS platforms generally don’t have access to venture capital or large marketing budgets, and are less willing to use dark patterns and predatory tactics to secure their market segment. They need your support to succeed, and you need theirs. Why should someone choose to use your FOSS project when you refused to choose theirs? Solidarity and mutual support is the key to success.
There are great FOSS alternatives to Discord or Slack. SourceHut has been investing in IRC by building more accessible services like chat.sr.ht. Other great options include Matrix and Zulip. Please consider these services before you reach for their proprietary competitors.
Perceptive readers might have noticed that most of these arguments can be generalized. This article is much the same if we replace “Discord” with “GitHub”, for instance, or “Twitter” or “YouTube”. If your project depends on proprietary infrastructure, I want you to have a serious discussion with your collaborators about why. What do your choices mean for the long-term success of your project and the ecosystem in which it resides? Are you making smart investments, or just using tools which are popular or that you’re already used to?
If you use GitHub, consider SourceHut3 or Codeberg. If you use Twitter, consider Mastodon instead. If you use YouTube, try PeerTube. If you use Facebook… don’t.
Your choices matter. Choose wisely.
Discord had to be sued to take this seriously. Updated at 2021-12-28 15:00 UTC: I asked a correspondent of mine who works on accessibility to comment:
I’ve tried Discord on a few occasions, but haven’t seriously tried to get proficient at navigating it with a screen reader. I remember finding it cumbersome to move around, but it’s been long enough since the last time I tried it, a few months ago, that I couldn’t tell you exactly why. I think the general problem, though, is that the UI of the desktop-targeted web app is complex enough that trying to move through it an element at a time is overwhelming. I found that the same was true of Slack and Zulip. I haven’t tried Matrix yet. Of course, IRC is great, because there’s a wide variety of clients to choose from.
However, you shouldn’t take my experience as representative, even though I’m a developer working on accessibility. As you may recall, I have some usable vision, and I often use my computer visually, though I do depend on a screen reader when using my phone. I didn’t start routinely using a GUI screen reader until around 2004, when I started writing a screen reader as part of my job. And that screen reader was targeted at beginners using simple UIs. So it’s possible that I never really mastered more advanced screen reader usage.
What I can tell you is that, to my surprise, Discord’s accessibility has apparently improved in recent years, and more blind people are using it now. One of my blind friends told me that most Discord functionality is very accessible and several blind communities are using it. He also told me about a group of young blind programmers who are using Discord to discuss the development of a new open-source screen reader to replace the current Orca screen reader for GNOME. ↩︎
Discord appears to inflate its participation numbers compared to other services. It shows all users who have ever joined the server, rather than all users who are actively using the server. Be careful not to optimize for non-participants when choosing your tools. ↩︎
Disclaimer: I am the founder of SourceHut. ↩︎