A friend of ours has been struggling with RSI. As part of their plans to address this, they decided to create a secondary Discord account to use on their phone, for direct messaging purposes. That way, they could still talk to people from their phone, but wouldn’t be tempted to participate in active discussions in group channels. As part of the signup process, Discord forced them to provide a phone number for account verification. They provided the same phone number they used for their primary Discord account, and in response, Discord locked both accounts, cutting them off from a huge part of their social circle. Discord’s support was unable to unlock the account or provide any information on when it might be unlocked.
Now, we’ve since heard that this was likely a technical error and not intended to function this way, but that’s hardly a consolation. There’s plenty of reasons beyond this that someone can get locked out or banned from a centralized social platform; reasons including using an unapproved client, joking about your age, making an account before age 13 but telling the platform your age after you’re an adult, tweeting an image from wikipedia, getting report-brigaded, breaching terms of service on a technicality, talking about something which is illegal in the country the company operates out of, connecting in from a VPN or TOR, really the list goes on. Cadence has a great post about all the ways Discord in particular is just an awful platform if you want more of that, but this problem pervades all modern social media.
The problem is that these lockouts tend to happen immediately, with no warning, no good means of recourse, and no way for the affected person to pick up the pieces. For many people, they only have one avenue of talking to someone. Even we’re prone to this, despite our efforts to maintain multiple ways of talking to as many people as possible. When you’re immediately cut off, you don’t even get a chance to tell people where they should go to talk to you. You’ve got to hope that you can find some way to get a message to them through a friend of a friend, or that they take a guess at what happened and go looking themselves.
But this cuts people off from more than just individuals. It cuts them off from entire communities. A lot of scenes have largely migrated away from forums, wikis, and self-hosted or IRC chat rooms, to exclusively using Discord. Losing access to your account means you lose access to ALL of these at once, largely excluding you from being able to participate in them. The increasing number of measures intended to prevent spam and abuse can make creating a new account to evade the ban extremely difficult, unless you’re in a position to easily get ahold of a new phone number that they’ll accept for a new account verification. We are social creatures, and the trauma of that loss cuts deep.
This isn’t exclusive to Discord. The same story has played out over and over on basically every centralized social media platform out there, and it will keep doing so. There is no incentive for this to stop.
A lot of the propaganda around decentralized chat and social media talks about the privacy benefits of using them. Yeah, those benefit are pretty cool. We think though that the resistance to a third party heartlessly excommunicating you is far more important. A platform can be a constellation of federated shards run by real independent people you can actually have a conversation with. In this reality, suspensions can be discussed and errors can be corrected. If someone has to leave they can be given the opportunity to provide a pointer to where to find them. Even when amicable communications fail, you can find another shard that will let you make it your home, and you can pick up where you left off with those you care about. You may be cut off from part of the network, but you will never be mercilessly cut off from the whole thing with the flip of a switch.
To be clear, there are user interface and user experience problems with most decentralized platforms. The work to improve that gap is ongoing, but not the point of discussion for this post.
In a time where so much of someone’s interaction with the world is through the internet, it’s become increasingly clear that companies do not wield their immense power of their users’ lives responsibly. Using decentralized communication tools is a reclamation of the keys to your heart from the corporations that quietly took them without you even noticing.
But I want to be clear about something. Using decentralized systems is a solution that doesn’t rapidly scale. Network effect is HUGE, and those communities entrenched in closed platforms aren’t all going to just up and leave. It would be ideal if we could hold these platforms to some standard of responsibility at a regulatory level with regards to their users’ wellbeing, but we’re not confident in that actually happening. Still, if you’re willing to fight that fight, please do.
As someone who tends to a community, one of your best options is to reduce barriers to people who can’t use the platform you’ve chosen. If you’re on Discord, setting up Discord to IRC, Discord to Telegram, or Discord to Matrix bridges is a great start. Avoiding toxic platforms like Fandom in favor of running your own wiki is also fantastic. Redundancy is the name of the game here, and the more options you can provide to people the better.
These are things you can do from the top of a community to make it more available to everyone, and you can find options like this that apply no matter what platform you’ve settled on. They’re also hard and require technology knowledge you might not have - lean on your friends and ask if they can help. There is no easy way to escape this hole that’s been dug for us, but we can certainly try, and maybe end up somewhere a bit better than where we started.
Addendum: What can you use instead if you’re willing to leave?
Here’s some technologies and tools that foster self-hosted or decentralized communication. Not all of them are federated. We don’t use all of them ourselves. An appearance on this list is not an endorsement of the team behind it, as we simply don’t know enough about them all.
None of these are perfect. Most of them are very far from it. We hope they continue to improve and grow. Taking back our right to communicate with each other is far too important to give up on.
What does ‘federated’ mean?
Basically, a lot of people run different servers, but all the servers talk to each other. Say two of your friends ran two different minecraft servers. Imagine if you could log in to one, chat with people on the other one, and even walk through a portal to play on the second server all while your game is connected to the first server. It’s a little bit like that.
When using something like Mastodon, you can talk to and see posts from anyone across the federated network. But, if any of those servers go down, it doesn’t matter too much to you because your server still works fine. If your server goes down, you can go create an account on a different one. If a server gains a reputation for providing a haven to spammers or abusers, your admins can block it so you don’t have to see them anymore. If you don’t like your admins’ decisions, you can find new admins. It’s neat!
Is your favorite tool missing? Consider emailing us about it!
- matrix - a federated chat network, supports text chat, voice calls, video calls.
- on mobile try out the fluffy chat app, its a lot nicer to use than the element app in our experience.
- mastodon - like twitter but federated.
- forums, just, in general - hey remember forums? you can still use them!
- mediawiki - run your own wiki, because the absolute hellsite known as Fandom is never something you want to interact with.
- mumble - open source voice chat. Works like discord voice channels. there’s server providers you can pay for but you can also run your own for your friends if you’ve got the knowhow. User experience is not very modern by today’s standards.
- teamspeak is also reasonable if you want something with a bit more modern feel, or it was when we last used it years ago. its not open source, but unless things have changed you can at least host your own server for free for up to 32 concurrent users.
- gitea - self hostable git frontend, its like github.
- pixelfed - basically a federated instagram clone.
- peertube - on the surface it looks like federated youtube, but its also got some cool peer to peer file transfer tech to reduce the bandwidth load on servers.
- etherpad - its like google docs! real time collaborative editing. there’s a list of etherpad servers on their github.
- hedgedoc - Another real time collaborative document editor, this one uses markdown. Anecdotally we’re told its faster than etherpad.
- revolt - basically an open source and self hostable discord clone, and a pretty comprehensive one in terms of features. However the self-hosting support is mostly non-existent currently and we’re told the app can’t work with self-hosted instances, so your mileage may vary.