It’s a weird time to be online. Nearly every social media site feels like it’s imploding, either in a desperate attempt to become more like TikTok, or because it’s been bought by an eccentric billionaire who plans to do God knows what with the platform. If you’ve found yourself fleeing your typical social spheres in search of something new, you may be eyeing Discord.
Discord has exploded over the seven-or-so years since its launch, growing from a humble bit of chat software into a juggernaut of the social internet. It’s for texting, voice calls, or video calls with friends or strangers with common interests. It’s like Zoom, but more flexible and fun. It’s Slack, but without that feeling that your boss is always lurking. Facebook, without an algorithm that prioritizes the types of posts that turned your aunt into a racist. Twitter, without the whims of a mercurial overlord. You know, different.
You can participate in Discord’s text, voice, or video chats on mobile devices or desktop computers. The kind of conversations you have there will vary depending on the community you’re in, but in general, users tend to be more laid back than those on other social media sites. Discord was originally built for gamers, and you’ll still find a lot of communities dedicated to gaming on the platform. But Discord has grown into a space where the conversations reach far outside of gaming territory into music, culture, politics, art, finance, and even dating. And since it’s a multimedia experience, you can use Discord to stream videos, play board games remotely with friends, listen to music together, and generally just hang out. The platform is free, though you can pay for some premiums.
It’s also a little complicated. As the name might imply, Discord can be a chaotic, sprawling platform, with tons of options and settings to wade through. Let’s start with the basics.
How do I Discord?
You can run Discord on your phone or your computer. There are mobile apps for Android and iOS. On a computer, you can run it in your web browser if you want to keep it simple, or download a desktop client to use the more advanced features like game overlays. There are free downloads for Windows, macOS, or Linux.
The very first thing you’ll have to do after opening the software is choose a username. It can be anything, even your real name, though most people tend to use pseudonyms. (Discord automatically attaches a random string of digits to the end of every username, so whatever you pick will be unique.) You’ll have to link your username with an email and password later.
Next, it will prompt you to start or join a server. Servers are the main forums on Discord, and likely what you came to the platform for. Think of them as micro communities, each with different users, rules, and in-jokes. Some are public, while others are private and require an invitation to join. There are servers for your favorite games, bands or music genres, political ideology, or just hubs for sharing some random memes. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a Discord server for it.
We’ll get to how to manage your own servers in a minute, but you’ll probably have some more pressing questions when you first log in.
What's going on here?
For the uninitiated, the Discord interface can look a little chaotic. Here’s the lay of the land.
There are four main sections on the main Discord interface. On the far left side of your screen, you’ll see the servers that you’re a part of. Each group has its own icon. If you’re on mobile and you don’t see your list of servers, tap the hamburger menu in the top left corner.
When you tap or the name of a server, the screen will change. You'll see a list of channels show up in the panel that appears on the right. These are all the chat rooms within the server, and each room is about a specific topic. This structure keeps everything from becoming a conversational free-for-all. Channels are separated into multiple dropdown menus called categories. So for example, a Movies' category might contain channels like “marvel-movies” and "scorsese-films.” Select a channel and the main chat window will open up right in the middle of the Discord interface. There, you’ll see the conversation in the selected channel playing out in real time. To switch to a different topic, click on a different channel.
To the right of the main chat panel is a list of all the users in that server. You can see who’s online and what their activity status is (e.g. playing a game or listening to Spotify). If you’re on mobile, swipe side-to-side to switch between all the panels.
The blue Discord logo at the top left labeled Home. Click or tap this to see your list of friends and any DMs you’ve received.
I came here to talk smack, let’s goooooo!
There are two main ways to communicate on Discord: text and voice.
Text channels have a hashtag (#) symbol in front of them. These are the channels where you go for typing. When the name of a channel is in bold font, that means there are unread messages in the chat.
If you’ve been cryogenically frozen since the early ’90s and have never been on a message board before, note that the most recent messages are at the bottom. Some will have other people’s messages just above them in smaller font. When you see that, it means the newest message is a reply to the older one. If you want to reply to a comment or react with an emoji, select the message and look for the buttons to the right of the text. You can also start a thread, which nests more comments below the one you've selected. It's a way to digress on a topic without cluttering up the rest of the channel feed.
Voice channels are usually down toward the bottom of the channel panel (if you don’t see them, keep scrolling). They’re marked with a little speaker icon. Beware! If you click or tap on one of those voice channels, you’ll be instantly connected to the voice chat. Depending on the server’s settings, everybody in the channel might suddenly be privy to your heavy breathing. (Tip: Down by your profile name, there’s a mic button. Tap that to mute yourself. It’ll stay muted even when you join new sessions.)
On the desktop, there’s an indicator down in the lower left corner—just above your username—that says Voice Connected. It means what you think it does. On mobile, there will be a persistent green band at the top of your screen letting you know your audio is connected. To disconnect from the channel, tap Voice Connected and hit the end call button.
If the server allows it, you can also toggle on your camera for a video chat. The active video screens will pop up in the main panel.
How do I make sure I don’t embarrass myself?
Check your privacy settings. Discord enables a lot of data collection at the start. If you want to tamp down on what everyone can find out about you, take a look at what’s exposed by your privacy settings. Tap or click the little gear icon by your username (User Settings). Go into User Settings, then Privacy & Safety. There, you can tell Discord to filter NSFW messages and servers, decide whether to let strangers message you, and control the types of activity data you send back to Discord.
Discord will also display some of your activity by default. If you’re playing a game on your computer, for example, Discord automatically shows what you’re playing to everyone who can see your status. That means all your friends, and anyone in a public server. To control that visibility, tap your profile pic. You’ll be able to choose a status there, either Online, Idle, Do Not Disturb, or Invisible. If you want to appear offline and hide your activity, select Invisible. As an extra precaution, you can go into your User Settings, then go down to Activity Settings. Uncheck “Display current activity as a status message.” That will keep your activity out of your status even if you’re set to Online.
Know your etiquette. Some servers may ask you to read the rules before you can start posting. Do that! Every group has different policies. If you’re starting your own server, you can make whatever rules you want. But if you’re joining an existing group you’ll want to take some time to figure out what flies and what doesn’t.
That’s great, I’m basically a hip Gen Zer now. How do I find stuff?
Down at the bottom of the servers panel is an icon that looks like a compass called Explore Public Servers. Open that up and you’ll find some of the top servers across Discord. The big categories are Gaming, Music, Education, Science and Tech, and Entertainment. If you’re in school, Student Hubs can help you find groups and clubs with your classmates.
There are a ton of communities on Discord, some massive and some tiny. The more obscure ones may require invites from people already in the server. Some Substacks, Patreon creators, or Kickstarter campaigns offer access to private Discord servers as rewards for paying backers.
Am I gonna get a bunch of spam on here?
Like just about anywhere online, Discord has its share of spam. Sometimes accounts post fake links in channels, or pop into your DMs to try to entice you to download something or click on a link that slaps you with malware. Basic online security practices should be applied here too. Don’t open anything if you don’t know the person sending it to you.
I have all this money, can I do anything with it?
The core Discord experience is free, but if you want more room for creative expression, there’s a paid subscription tier called Nitro. Nitro lets you upload files with larger sizes, set up multiple profiles, and have profile banners and animated profile pics. Nitro also gives you access to custom stickers, a cross between a gif and an emoji that you can use to express specific emotions or react to something outrageous in text chats. Nitro is $10 per month, or $100 a year. For a slimmer selection of premium goodies, Nitro Basic costs less than half that.
If you’re feeling generous, you can also pay to “boost” a server, which gives the community some benefits that everyone can use. This can mean more emoji, higher audio and video streaming quality, and the ability to upload bigger files. The more users that boost, the more premiums unlock for the entire community.
I just want to make my own server!
Whether you want to make a cozy space to stay in touch with a few friends and family members or a massive hub for all the Nintendogs fans that you know are still out there, the creation process is pretty much the same.
Tap or click the + symbol on the bottom of the servers panel. Options will pop up to let you start a server from scratch, or build it from a template. You can make a server geared toward gaming groups, study buddies, community activities, or artists. Name it something cool, and add a pretty picture to serve as your server icon—the thing everyone will see in that leftward servers panel.
Next, you’ll need to add at least one category to your server. To do this on the desktop, right click somewhere in the channel panel and select Create Category. You can click the little dropdown arrow by your server’s name to get the option too. On mobile, tap the three vertical dots up by your server name, then Create Category.
To add channels within categories, just hit the + sign next to the category name. You can choose text or voice for each channel. Up top, next to your server’s name, you’ll see a little dropdown arrow. Select that and go into Server Settings. From there, you have a whole host of options for how to run things.
To let people join your server, click the big blue Invite People button, just above your list of channels. You can invite them directly if you’re already Discord friends, or copy and send a link address that will grant them access. To empower other users to help you moderate the server, go into Roles in the server settings. A role gives certain users whatever permissions you choose. This can mean the power to help you moderate the server by creating new channels or banning misbehaving users. You can call roles whatever you want (maybe “Grand High Inquisitor,” just as a suggestion).
If you plan on growing the space to serve many people, you can turn on Community Server settings. This will require all users to have a verified email address to join, and will allow Discord to scan all media uploaded to the server to filter out explicit content. Go into server settings, then to Enable Community. Follow the next few steps to set up your server’s guidelines and user permissions.
To get some automated help with running your server, check out our WIRED guide to the best Discord bots. If you feel like flexing your creative muscles, mods like BetterDiscord let you customize your server as much as you like.