The internet's biggest chat app is introducing new ways to extract cash from the people who use it. Discord is expanding server subscriptions, a Patreon-like subscription button that's been available to large servers since 2022, with tiered subscriptions and longer-term plans to effectively turn servers into storefronts.
"To date, we've paid out millions of dollars to thousands of creators and communities, and we're seeing more creators and communities earning on their Discord servers every day," wrote product manager Derek Yang in a blog post published today. "...Today, we’re excited to share new tools that help you get started earning money faster."
The nickel-and-dime-ification of Discord servers begins this week with "media channels," a new type of channel (currently in beta) designed to host subscriber-only content, including, for instance, "exclusive memes and wallpapers." You could see an art creator using this Discord feature to post subscriber-only illustrations, as many comic creators and other illustrators already use Patreon to do.
Not a bad deal for creators, but that's only the start of the new revenue streams Discord, who currently takes a 10% cut of server subscriptions, plans to implement. Here's a full list of what the free (now with three asterisks) chat app has in the works:
- Tier Templates: Formalized subscription tiers with prices set by Discord ($3.99, $4.99, $7.99, and $9.99)
- Downloadables: One-time purchasable digital products or subscriptions sold by server owners, which will be accessed via…
- Server Shops: "A single home for server owners to sell Server Subscriptions, Downloadables and Premium Roles"
As a longtime Discord user, this update makes me feel icky. Seeing Discord encourage locking conversations behind paywalls and sharing tips to "convert people into paying customers" makes me miss the days when it felt like Discord was making Discord for me. The company's calculated, mercantile tone is a far cry from the Discord that won me over by identifying exactly what I need from a chat app and surprising me with features I didn't know I wanted, like the Go Live button or quality noise cancellation.
Of course, this is the playbook for almost every tech company over the last decade: accumulate market share by subsidizing your product for years in order to gain a monopoly, then figure out a way later to charge users for it and make money once everyone has adopted your service. I guess Discord isn't satisfied with my monthly Nitro fee.
Why Discord's monetized future is a bummer
In recent years Discord has set its sight almost exclusively on large communities—launching (and then often forgetting) features like forum channels and live stages designed to turn Discord servers into siloed social networks. It's all kind of excess baggage if you, like me, operate a small server of 15 friends who play games together.
Discord remains the easiest and best way to talk to friends online, but today's update makes its current trajectory hard to ignore. By opening the floodgates to itemized monetization, Discord is inherently making Discord a less welcoming place.
Two years ago I urged us all to enjoy Discord while it's still good. My worst fears at that time (crackdowns on Go Live streams and the end of radio bots) haven't come to fruition, but now I'm wondering if Server Shops and Tier Templates are the start of something worse.
Of course, Discord doesn't see it that way. Yang says paywalled media channels are a way to "give your subscribers lavish insider content" in addition to what the server already offers for free. That's fair—obviously there's nothing wrong with selling what you make (thanks PC Gamer magazine subscribers), and these new payment features are largely just Discord integrating what Patreon already makes possible. I'm mostly sad that what used to be my oasis away from an increasingly paywalled internet is becoming just like it.
Giving moderators free rein to paywall individual functions of a server also sounds ripe for abuse. The average experience of finding new communities on Discord just seems like it'll be flat-out worse if your first impression of a server is now defined by greyed-out channels you can't see without paying a $10 admission.
Discord doesn't plan to police what server owners charge for stuff, and is instead hoping that they use the new tools wisely. "Remember: Not every opportunity to generate revenue needs to become a get-rich-quick scheme," Yang warns.
The blog highlighted one server in particular, Valorant streamer Woohoojin's Club Banana server, as a successful Discord community funded by subscriptions. Woohoojin, who makes over $16,000 every month from Discord subscriptions, hands out free subscriptions to regular viewers and only asks viewers to give him money if "they have lots of it."
It's nice that you don't have to make your server a microtransaction hellscape, but not unlike how the experience of watching Twitch changed with the addition of various subscription and donation features, the relationship between moderator and user becomes more delicate when users "convert" to customers.