Robin Sloan
The Media Lab
June 2021

Dreams of discord

The Wild Apples of Caucasus, N. I. Vavilov and J. S. Lawson, 1930-1932
The Wild Apples of Caucasus, N. I. Vavilov and J. S. Lawson, 1930-1932

Below, you’ll find a request for ideas and reports! First, some context.

I wondered aloud the other day: could you operate a group Twitter account with a Discord channel? If you’ve never used it: Discord is a ubiqui­tous chat app, each “server” (not really a server) divided into myriad channels. Think: Slack except not for work, or IRC with many more features.

The group Twitter account would work like this:

This led me to the vision of a kind of meta-Twitter where ALL the accounts operate like this: not a network of individuals, but a network of collectives, large and small, finding ways to talk to each other. Silly idea, and I’m not sure I want to take it any further than the preceding few sentences, but it did get me thinking about Discord and its capabilities.

A while back, several newsletter-ers banded together to estab­lish a shared Discord for their paid subscribers. I’m a paid subscriber (and superfan) of one of them, so I joined. The actual chat turned out to be too snarky for me — which isn’t to say it was partic­u­larly snarky, just that my snark toler­ance is close to zero — but I loved the idea, and still do. I think it’s smart, fun, and genuinely new.

Discord is highly programmable. Using its API, you can engineer bots that operate in/on the chat: moder­ating messages, responding to special commands, managing access to different channels, posting messages of their own, even messages with custom “action buttons” attached… there are a lot of possibilities.

I’m a member of a few Discords focused on specific software and hardware projects, and they are: fine. They’re mostly some flavor of “customer support”, along with the occasional announcement, etc. EVEN SO: the familiar dynamics of social spaces emerge! Even these tiny Discords each have their own “loud” users, the ones who take up all the (digital) oxygen.

I wonder if you could use a bot to help balance that out — to gently shush the loud users and/or encourage the quiet ones? Of course, the first thing that occurs to me is some kind of daily quota (messages? characters?) but that’s probably too blunt.

How might you go even further, though? Maybe modulating the “amount of chat” is playing the wrong game. Could you recon­figure the uses for, and expec­ta­tions of, a “chat room” in a very deep way?

What is a chat room FOR?

Whenever I think about ~social infrastructure~ related to the Society of the Double Dagger, I think about tapping into the experience, erudi­tion, and sensi­tivity of the group of people who receive these emails. Like: I am able to ask questions of this group, and it’s an enormous asset; a privelege. It might be cool if the group could do the same!

Beyond that, I don’t know. Is a chat room, even a very good one, just another trickle of mild dopamine hits, another social slot machine lined up beside the rest? Or is it an oppor­tu­nity to make deeper connections, the kind that might be truly gener­a­tive? (You start chatting with an inter­esting person on the Dagger Discord, and six months later, you’re building a website together!)

Is it just… a hangout? Nothing more, nothing less?

You might detect above my general unease with like… all forms of social inter­ac­tion online. For me, this is at least seven layers deep, and explaining them all would require a whole other dispatch — a long one. Suffice it say, the motiva­tion behind both (1) my existing system of newslet­ters and (2) this new line of thinking is the same. It’s a sense of like, I am so disat­t­is­fied with all avail­able options that I guess I will make my own.

To that end: I am starting to feel like I might (might!) start a Discord sometime this year, so here’s where I pose my question, which is two-pronged.

Prong the first: what can you imagine a bot doing in a Discord to make it healthier and more inter­esting AND/OR weirder and more gener­a­tive? (Assume, for the sake of spitballing, that the bot is omniscient and omnipotent: it reads every­thing and it can operate on messages and users however it likes.)

Prong the second: what ~social infrastructure~ have you encountered, bot-related or otherwise, on Discord specifically that impressed you? (I’m not inter­ested in hearing about digital social spaces generally; that scope is too broad, and I’m thinking, at the moment, specif­i­cally about Discord.)

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

(There’s a response field in this space for subscribers to this newsletter. If you’re seeing this, you’re either not a subscriber — alas — or you reloaded this page in your browser, which broke the link to your email address. Just follow the link from your email to re-establish it.)

I’ll loop around and add some of your responses to this newsletter (respecting your quotation preferences, indicated above) as I receive them. Check back in a couple of days!

Casey writes:

Can I plug my Discord server-as-art-gallery? Scrumwave is a read-only Discord server (with the excep­tion of a guest­book channel… I should really make a gift shop channel, I suppose, to recreate the museum experience) that displays gener­a­tive art. Right now it’s more of an alter­na­tive to Twitter/Mastodon posting, a place to view the work in its own context instead of blended into your own timeline, but I’ve been pondering adding to it by making something more interactive. […]

Needless to say, I love this — exactly the sort of boundary-pushing, chat-deconstructing kind of thing I was hoping to discover.

Thomas reports in:

One of the most intriguing uses of Discord I’ve seen is the DFTBA Life’s Library book club, where users self-select a “shelf” based on their personalities, and while everyone has access to the same core “read-only” channels like announce­ments and Q&A, the main discus­sion of that month’s book only takes place on your partic­ular shelf. The same digital oxygen-sucking occurs here, of course, but it never feels suffocating. More like sitting in the corner of a dark bar listening to strangers talk intel­li­gently about a shared experience. It’s really a delightful little corner of the internet, and I would imagine the person and bot mods do a LOT of work to make it feel that way.

Bob reports in with a negative (but still very useful) example:

A Discord for students that I lurked about in (I was their teacher, spying, playing antropologist) had a bot that automat­i­cally answered the basic frequently asked stupid questions (about things like where to find the syllabus). This seemed like a good idea at first (no need to tell the newbies all the basics over and over), but it stimu­lated asking those low-commu­nity-value questions, obviously. Plus it removed a chance for the oldies to welcome the newbies with a friendly answer. My point, I think, is to reflect not just on what cool and useful things bots could do, but to think what practices it may stimu­late or cultivate.

Here’s an inter­esting thought from Vanessa:

Bots need to be better teachers! In education and parenting there are lines of thought about how to encourage and discourage various behaviors by the ways we interact and the words we choose to use with kids. Not by enforcing behavior (e.g., posting limits if you are too “loud”) but rather by facilitating spaces and encouraging states of mind in which community members make good choices. What if a bot could message individuals and groups, triggered by various types of action, and in the message use language that might prompt positive behavior in those receiving the message?! […]

Usually, it’s impor­tant to develop relation­ships first to make this sort of thing effective. But maybe the nature of opting in and wanting to be a part of a specific type of commu­nity (helpful to be explicit about what this means up front) can serve in the stead of that relationship. AND, the bot could be affir­ma­tively triggered by other users (?) who could use it to send more personalized messages.

It makes me think of Reddit Gold, a gift bestowed upon partic­u­larly great posts (and their authors) by other users on that platform. Imagine a whole host of “golds”: different gifts and thank-yous that could be given by one user to another. Fun to consider what form they might take…

Here’s Stephen Carradini, helpfully nudging me towards curation:

[…] I think that curation is a thing you may be more inter­ested in: instead of quieting the loud people who say too much or the wrong thing, curate and promote the work of people who say the right thing or the right amount. While this is to some extent “sets of rules applied to sets of people”, it is a much more celebra­tory idea. […]

I had an inter­esting back and forth with my friend Dan Bouk in which I clarified:

For me — and I acknowledge this is idiosyncratic, personal, maybe stupid — I can recog­nize a recur­ring impulse to just “share a thought”, or maybe a paragraph of what I’m reading, or an idle question… and Twitter is presently the only place to do that, which feels like a shame. Sometimes when the impulse strikes I will send it instead as a text message to one of a few friends, but that has its limits: “Sloan, ENOUGH with the inscrutable snapshots of book pages! Yes, I see where you’ve under­lined it!”

Maybe it’s the reflex that’s the problem, not the platform; maybe I need to just learn to read something great and appre­ciate it quietly and keep it to myself??

(You can tell I don’t actually believe this.)

Here’s a sweet report from Jacopo:

This is something quite small but that I appre­ciated a lot. In the now defunct Learning Gardens Slack, there was a bot that would regularly and publicly ask: “Hey, what are you working on and how is it going?” This Slack was a space for self-learning and playful exper­i­men­ta­tion (very much aligned with the vibes of: “I guess I’ll make my own”) and the bot allowed everyone to just share their projects and get some feedback without making-it-a-thing. In a way, the bot was a (digital) oxygen injector: it created the space for people to share without having them take up the oxygen for everyone else.

“A digital oxygen injector”; what a nice way of thinking about how a bot might operate.

Here’s Meg on bot moderation:

I wonder if some kind of sentiment analysis would be useful for a bot moder­ator (boterator?). If the concern is keeping Discord a healthy space, a big piece of that has surely got to be moder­ating tones and language. I’m sure a Python or R script for senti­ment analysis could be modified to treat the server as its corpus.

Even as I say that, though, I have to admit that I find the idea of bots moder­ating human inter­ac­tion and language to be vaguely dystopian.

Here are some solid, struc­tural thoughts from Kim:

I’ve been on a few discords that encourage you to send lots of messages, by users gaining levels via bot the more they engage with the discord. I don’t enjoy it because even in chat rooms I hate small talk. I talk with the purpose to commu­ni­cate not just to fill the air.

So, I wonder if you could make a bot that would encourage thoughtful discus­sion by say, gaining points when someone replies to your response.

I also think it would be inter­esting to have bot throw out prompts like this when chat gets slow.

I’ve seen on Discord implement Reddit-like upvotes/downvotes for question submissions, so maybe you could also imple­ment that in the bot and then assign roles that let you say, talk more often when you’ve proven yourself to be someone who gener­ates useful comments. (So really I guess I am suggesting Reddit-ifying a Discord.)

It’s inter­esting how many responses referred in some way to the speed of the chat, all saying some version of, “it always goes too fast!” People have very different “ideal chats”, obviously, related to the pattern of their lives, the number of other channels they’re managing, their reading speed, their comfort with chaos — all sorts of things. Maybe one precon­di­tion for a healthy online commu­nity is that most of its partic­i­pants “operate at the same speed”? (I’m not sure if that’s true; just a thought.)

Here’s Alek with a thought that I have to confess I find appealing, even if I know it would be tyrannical:

Make it a “Discorded Republic of Letters”—the bot should enforce only messages that meet a minimal epistolic standard. No rushed remarks written with your thumbs. Nice thoughtful form.

(Okay, I would make an excep­tion for dialogues, if they read as if taken straight from Plato. The bot could enforce that too, after feeding it all of [his works] and gpt3-ing them like crazy to estab­lish a point of reference.)

Here’s a useful note from Jon:

My issue with these platforms when they become social spaces, rather than work spaces, is that its easy to miss the truly good content (the same can be said for social media in general)—it’s why I like email newslet­ters so much, they sit there patiently and wait to be read.

So my bot sugges­tion is a period­ical (weekly?) collec­tion of the best posts/conversations, this could be based off the number of inter­ac­tions, or perhaps there’s a better metric out there?

I totally appre­ciate this is taking it full circle, but I know for me I’d get a whole lot more out the spaces like this.

The ability to “sit there patiently and wait to be read” is absolutely an under­rated feature, and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted where it exists: in newslet­ters, and, of course, in books.

Here, Carl slices the Gordian knot:

There’s something to be said for using random­ness when true fairness is impossible. We don’t know who should be chatting or how much, but we do know that more than N people producing M messages in one day is unread­able and shreds context because you can’t be a completist. So how to fairly share the M? Maybe just randomly allocate a daily quota with the goal of ensuring that no more than M messages are produced. Some days you have a lot to say and hit your quota, sometimes you have nothing in partic­ular to say but a lot of tokens jingling around in your virtual pocket, and some days are slow and no one hits quota, so the cap is lifted all together. (Of course, like all lotteries, you could also secretly rig it to favor… hmm…)

Here’s Billy with a fasci­nating report on a Discord bot/game called Mudae, which is new to me:

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this, but the Mudae bot impressed me (mostly in a bad way lol). It’s just a gacha game where people roll to get pictures of anime, video game, etc. waifus, but people get really into it.

You get a certain number of rolls every hour, and the instructor in the Youtube tutorial I was watching explained that he was sleeping in incre­ments of less than an hour to make sure he got all his rolls in.

Mudae started some huge fights in the Discord I was in, even breaking up a couple friendships. I think the people who fought over Mudae were high drama anyway — as you can imagine — and they were probably just looking for something to fight over.

But still… Mudae just gives you pictures of waifus. It’s like a somehow-even-less-inter­esting NFT. And yet people go wild over it.

Whether or not this really answers your second prong might depend on how you define social infrastructure. But if you’re just talking about the ways that bots on Discord can bring people together, Mudae would define the flow of conversation. People would come to the server every hour to make their rolls, and we’d all end up talking about all sorts of stuff as we took turns rolling.

(Kinda funny that you’re talking about the erudi­tion of your readers, and I’m talking about anime waifus, but such is life!)

I have to say that this was probably the most inter­esting response I received, in the sense that it points in the direc­tion of weirdness, “wait REALLY?”-ness.

How about a Mudae for public domain art?

Here’s my takeaway, for now:

Tap or click to unmute.

Sent to the Media Lab committee in June 2021