Explore Higher Friction Communities

People avoid friction because it’s work they’d prefer not to do. Luckily for us, the internet eliminates friction. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit succeed because they are the best at doing it. They make it easy to join, consume, and engage. Through eliminating friction, they reach their goals of user growth, content consumption, and engagement. Realize that these are their goals, not yours. Your goals likely require more friction, because the “popular” internet is not optimized for your goals.

Better spaces exist if your goals are learning something new, connecting with people, growing your career, or talking about interests. The spaces are higher friction communities on smaller platforms like Discord, Circle.so, Slack, Telegram, Signal, Upstream, Substack, Forem, and many other special-built community sites. They exist behind paywalls, invitations, subscriptions, events, and paid content. This is friction we don’t normally go through.

People expect low friction and constantly move towards it. An example of this is TikTok. It shows that even YouTube has too much friction. TikTok removed the friction of choice by showing you an endless feed of videos tailored to you. It proves endless frictionless entertainment is there if you want it. If you have different goals, higher friction communities are the way to go.

Higher friction creates smaller communities. These communities are better aligned with positive outcomes for their members. They trade smaller membership for a higher quality of interactions. By overcoming friction, members have skin in the game. They paid the required “price” to join the community and are better aligned with the incentives of the group. They want a higher return on investment for energy spent joining and staying a part of the community. Those who get through are more serious, engaged, and knowledgeable.

When compared to internet communities, many popular in-person communities have high friction. They require consistent attendance, thinking, engagement with people, and sacrifice of resources to the community. Examples include universities, volunteer organizations, meetups, social clubs, local politics, and team sports. In-person communities were key parts of people’s lives, but are fading in importance (especially with restricted in-person interaction). If internet communities are to be as important, they must mimic the increased amount of friction.

To increase the amount of friction, people and communities must move away from the lowest friction platforms. Big social media platforms will never want higher friction because it means fewer users, less attention, and fewer ads that can be shown. Higher friction communities must develop on different platforms, and people must go through the effort of finding and contributing to them.

Content on the internet offers an example to follow. The move from print to digital has long caused a decrease in friction. Many areas in content are now seeing a rebound in friction. Both companies (e.g. The New York Times) and platforms (e.g. Substack) are moving away from maximizing reach and monetizing with ads towards content behind paywalls. The creators of content are finding increased friction better aligns with their goals and the goals of their audience. Communities will find the same.

Internet creators will be key early adopters of higher friction communities. Many of the communities they appeal to exist on these low friction platforms. Creators face a growing choice between spending time creating content for maximum reach or using it to build communities. Although building for communities limits the number of people seeing content, it increases engagement and affinity with their audience. If creators build on higher friction communities, their audiences won’t be far behind. This has knock-on effects on related communities.

The communities you belong to on low friction platforms exist on higher friction ones, but they require more work. Your move towards higher friction communities will benefit them, as well as yourself. Higher friction communities are more focused and likely better align with your goals. The large, low friction platforms we spend our time on have the goal of keeping us there. If we (ourselves and our communities) want to prioritize other goals, we must explore and move away. When we do, we’ll find many new, unrealized benefits.


Thank you to the Compound Writing members who reviewed this post: Noah Maier, Yishi Zou, and Stew Fortier.

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The Speed of Community

The format of interactions in a community creates a community’s speed. Interactions are driven by the platforms communities exist on. Voice and messages are fast, events and peer-reviewed articles are slow. Speed is both a constraint and an incentive. It guides a community’s behavior, actions, and content.

Communities can exist at any speed but often have a natural one. Members of a Twitch channel send many short messages to each other while a stream is on. They aren’t writing thousand-word, well-researched messages. On the other hand, a community of scientists (like SSRN) may communicate through papers published monthly to yearly. Every scientist isn’t in a big group chat constantly updating every other scientist on their progress. These communities aren’t limited from using a different speed but settle on an accepted one.

Many communities exist at many speeds. Members of the same community can use blogs, newsletters, comments, social media, events, forums, video calls, and voice chat to communicate with each other. Each platform’s format incentivizes different behaviors. The community’s collective knowledge is created and understood differently at different speeds. Members move towards speeds that work for them, given enough other members are there.

Fast communities focus on a large number of small interactions, slow communities focus on a small number of large interactions. Communities can slow down or speed up by adding different formats into the mix. A Discord server can slow itself down by adding an announcements channel where moderators post only important information. An events-based community can speed itself up by using a platform like Hopin to host online events.

Communities aren’t always working at the right speeds. Members follow the format they are given, they don’t understand how the platform constrains their interactions. A community may be less informative or useful than it could be at a “better” speed.

Platforms for communities are continually improving and innovating, yet many communities are stuck on older platforms with worse speeds. Three barriers make switching speeds difficult: content, status, and quality.

Content is tied to one platform. If a community switches platforms, content must be migrated or it is lost. Migration can be difficult (impossible) for many reasons including the amount of content, noncompatible format changes, and inability to move private content. Many of the longest-running internet communities host their own content to avoid ever having to migrate platforms, but this also means they are unlikely to ever change speeds

It can also be difficult to transfer status between platforms; and therefore, between speeds. Status is usually tied to one platform in the form of attention or reputation. These are difficult to quantify but usually take the shape of followers, likes, subscribers, or a platform-specific metric. These metrics don’t usually line up between platforms. Even if they did, platforms are unlikely to allow transfer because status is a key part of what keeps users locked-in.

Finally, when changing speeds by moving platforms, there must be a balance between the platform’s quality and the members’ quality. Communities want high-quality members on whatever platform they are on. If these members exist on one platform and refuse to move to another (even if the other is “better” for the community), the move won’t be successful. The quality from the change in platform must make up for the attrition in member quality caused by the migration.

Even though these barriers exist, there are reasons for optimism that communities will move towards better speeds in the long run. Many new platforms are created for communities to exist on and barriers to migration are lowering.

Tools and platforms like Forem and Circle.so are being developed and improved to appeal to specific communities. Community platforms are extremely competitive, meaning innovation must happen rapidly to stand out. The increase in development and innovation creates options for communities and helps them find an ideal platform and speed.

Barriers to migration are also lowering. Members are realizing how important the ownership and transferability of their content is. Disconnecting content and platforms is a growing trend. Platform-agnostic content means platform-agnostic status. The username transcends the platform. Members are realizing platform lock-in is bad. Cross-promotion and platform diversification is becoming standard.

Users ultimately decide what speed works for them. The platforms you spend your time and energy on are the platforms you are promoting. If you believe a different speed is better for the community, move towards that speed. Be thoughtful about speeds you choose to engage with because it shapes the community’s behavior in the long run.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Your Future Makes You Unique

How you think about the future makes you unique. It is your knowledge and experiences projected forward. Your ideas about the future shape how you spend your time and energy. There are many futures for you to explore and pursue. You should try to pick the best ones.

Start by exploring many futures. You can’t live towards a future you do not know. The internet is the greatest catalogue of futures ever created. You should try to create an explanation of your future you can move towards. Let past futures guide you. What many people do today is the result of what a few people did in the past. Your present exist because of past people’s actions.

Realize your future is your advantage, but it requires focus to capitalize on. Your future is where you focus that others aren’t. Everyone can’t focus everywhere, we have different futures. You don’t need to care about every future. There are some areas in life you should be content with the present. You don’t need a future for everything. You can borrow other people’s futures. There are people everywhere who share their future with everyone, this helps that future become more likely. You can follow along, and focus on the futures most important to you.

Your future can be wrong. We don’t know what future is right until it happens. We deem futures “right” after the fact. It happens once a group accepts a future became the present. No one knows if a future is right until they act on it. Creating a future requires action. Work towards the wrong future is not lost. Knowledge gained can be useful in another future. We are constantly inventing new futures for ourselves and others. We take action with the expectation we are working towards a better future, and we never stop.

If your future is right and others follow, you can gain status, power, and money while the rest are joining you. The greatest people pull their future into the present. They start with a future and a way to pursue it. They then drag themselves and their group into their better future and are rewarded for it. To create progress towards a future, you must focus on it and act.

The present was created by people like you. They had a future in mind, worked towards it, and now you live in it. Everyone can do the same. This is not only true of the physical world, but of our knowledge, behaviors, norms, and values.

Explore many futures, find one you believe in. Do your best to pull that future into the present. Work on what future people will work on, behave like future people will behave, think as future people will think. The future is yours.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Communities Should Create Paid Content

Communities normally monetize in two ways: access and status.

Many communities exist “after” knowledge. They are an incentive for getting through the course, project, guide, or certification. They allow access to people who did the same. Once you gained the knowledge (and often paid for it), then you get access to the community. This is the way communities have made money for thousands of years, paying to access or stay in a community.

Communities also monetize by selling status. Status exists naturally in communities. In a community, it shows who is active, cares, and is knowledgeable. It tells us where to look. Status comes from signaling you have knowledge or are important.

Communities monetize status by allowing members to show they care about a community and to stand out from the crowd. Often, the platform the community lives on monetizes through status. Special benefits, roles, badges, and display features are all ways of charging to signal status. Selling status is appealing because it allows people to stand out without hurting other members’ experiences.

But there is a third way to monetize few communities take advantage of, knowledge.

Communities are built on knowledge. They build collective knowledge of top posts, guides, tools, norms, and best practices. This collective knowledge is loose. Often community members don’t add to it or formalizing it. It grows slowly. The content is temporary, hard to maintain, and often lost. Paid content incentivizes improvements to collective knowledge and allows communities to monetize in a better way.

Others Do It, Why Can’t Communities?

Lots of places sell knowledge, there is no reason communities can’t be one of them. Communities have a supply of, and demand for, knowledge. Many community members pay for similar knowledge elsewhere.

There is a stigma around paid content in communities. Because nearly all content is free, paid content is looked down upon or banned. Although no one is certain, this often prevents important work. Developing high-quality content may require paying people. Since there are few mechanisms for paid content in communities, it doesn’t get created.

There is a growing amount of tools and products to monetize knowledge. Paid newsletters, courses, and guides are growing in number and relevance. The internet allows people to sell specific pieces of knowledge to specific audiences.

People already sell within communities. Lots of people use communities to promote in a roundabout way. I’m sure you’ve seen a community post with a call-to-action like “if you liked this post, check out my blog.” On their blog, they have an email funnel that leads to a paid course, guide, or product. They created content that appeals to a community but monetize away from it.

Advertisements are another example of selling on the community without the benefits going back to the community. Often ads have nothing to do with the community itself. Replacing ads with content crafted for a community is an improvement.

Communities should take control of their monetization.

How They Do It

Paid content starts with buy-in from the platforms and moderation team. None of this happens if paid content is banned or the community doesn’t want it. Paid content also requires tools to promote it and ways to communicate it. It is more work to get someone to buy content than it is to get them to read it.

Creating paid content is more work than the average post. The content must be valuable to the community; to do that, it must be developed by some subset of the community. If it is truly community content, it may involve many community members. Paid content requires more effort and coordination, but money provides a good incentive to coordinate.

Areas members should focus on to provide the most value:

  1. Formalizing basic collective knowledge.
  2. Expanding collective knowledge.

Formalizing Collective Knowledge

When I enter a community, I look for the most important information first.

  • Top posts of all time.
  • Content from most active and highest status members.
  • Member wiki, introductory guide, recommended readings.

Paid content can improve on these formats. Paid introduction guides, paid content written by high-status members, a curated collection of top posts (with permission and revenue-sharing) are all options. If I am interested in a community, I want to dive down a rabbit hole. Often communities set up a wiki and forget it for years, links are dead, quality is poor. I may churn out before I understand and interact with the community.

Imagine a year in review or year ahead guide created by key members of a community. For it, you pay $5-20. Although basic, it can be valuable to new and existing members. They get high-quality knowledge and support the creation of content they like.

A brilliant example I saw (and bought) while writing this piece is the collected essays of LessWrong. They are charging $29 for a set of books containing the best writing from the community. It monetizes a free community by benefiting members of the community.

High-quality introductory content makes all members better members. It gives them the context they need to understand and participate in the community. It also encourages new members to stay longer. It is a valuable shortcut to knowledge communities don’t do well enough.

Expanding Collective Knowledge

Everyone wants to learn something new. New knowledge is knowledge at the boundaries of what the community covers. This is research into specific topics, experiments, or in-depth analysis.

The problem is innovative content is less rewarded than basic content in communities. The overall appeal of innovative content is lower than basic content. If a member is looking to maximize their status with the community as a whole, creating good content that appeals to all of them is better than creating excellent, innovative content that appeals to a minority.

Creating content that expands collective knowledge is a risk. By paying for it, communities can incentivize its creation. Without this content, a community can stagnate. The content within the community becomes a repetition of existing ideas. Old members lose interest.

Spend enough time in a community and you want to move beyond the basics. Members should push into uncharted territory. They should innovate and be rewarded. A boost in status often isn’t enough encouragement. Paid content can fill in.

Will It Happen?

As mentioned, paid content requires buy-in from both the platform or the moderations. As it stands, few platforms provide the tools and culture needed for paid content to thrive. Communities must communicate with their members on why paid content exists. It must be understood that paid content benefits the community. If members can be convinced, it can bring value to a community.

People complain that creating paid content within a community prevents free content. The balance is saying most of it exists already, and free content isn’t going away. Paid content is extra. It helps communities develop better, more specific content that will benefit the community into the future.

A future where communities create paid content is a future with better communities.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How To Keep Big Writers On Substack

Writing is hard, competitive, and readers do not want to pay for it. Sounds like an unappealing market right? Against all odds, Substack is one of the most hyped companies at the moment. Their competitive advantage, growing and monetizing newsletters simply, is also a weakness. Writers can just as easily leave with a list Substack helped them grow and monetize.

Substack’s incentives are aligned for smaller writers (can’t beat free) but become misaligned for larger ones. For writers, Substack is as good as the services they provide them lately. The beneficial features for a new writer with no following are not the same as the features for an experienced writer with a large following. Larger writers might need support with moderation, subscriber management, promotion, and protection.

Why would writers leave? Substack takes a 10% cut of subscriptions. This isn’t much for smaller writers but is significant optionality for larger ones. At large amounts, writers could find ways to claim more of that cut for themselves, while getting optionality. Examples of this are paying someone to develop, host, and manage their own site, finding a service to do it cheaper with customization, or monetizing through traditional routes (books and institutions). Margin is opportunity.

Money isn’t the only reason for writers leaving. Newsletters require new content to constantly be created. You can’t charge someone for nothing. If someone wants to focus on any other medium (book, video, podcast, writing for an institution), it is a loss to Substack.

Keeping big writers writing on Substack is a key business problem to figure out. Here’s how they do it:

  1. Providing an expanded definition of customer service.
  2. Building community and reader lock-in.
  3. Showing writers how bad leaving would be.

Expanded Definition of Customer Service

Incentives become misaligned for high revenue writers. Revenue from a writer increases but the value provided to that writer stays the same. Writers could perceive Substack as not providing value at high revenue levels. To realign incentives, Substack needs to provide an extended definition of customer service.

Substack should aim to remove toil from writers. Toil is any work not central to writing the newsletter. Examples of this include moderation, payments, refunds, and product improvements. These are all tasks writers do for themselves away from Substack or get handled for them in an organization.

Substack needs to find a balance between providing services to writers and allowing independence. An example of this is Substack’s legal “Defender” program. It provides the benefits of a larger organization (legal support if needed) while allowing writers to remain independent.

Research and promotion are two ambitious areas to remove toil that could create massive competitive advantages. Substack could provide access to key research subscriptions to its writers. They could also co-market with writers to boost sign-ups and subscriptions.

Substack must treat its writers as large enterprise contracts. Substack enables writer success. This requires more than customer support reps answering questions. It cuts into their margins but is necessary as competitors encroach.

Community

Writers may own the email list but they don’t own the full reader relationship. Substack will own more of the relationship. Product design is limited if in the end an email is sent. Moving readers from their email inbox to Substack’s site is an important goal.

“Substack Inbox” is in Beta. Its goal is readers reading on Substack’s site. This enables better community engagement and discovery. Inbox creates a closer relationship between readers and Substack. Substack wants readers to lock into the platform. They want to be the place readers check when they are looking for something to read.

Time-on-site creates value for Substack as a community. While on-site, people are more likely to see comments and more likely to comment. Communities require engagement to grow, and email is a low engagement platform. Substack provides access to many “communities” using one login. With engagement, community becomes a reason for readers to use Substack.

For writers, reader lock-in means less potential readership if they move away. Moving away may mean losing out on the community engagement and discovery Substack provides. If moving away from Substack means losing a large potential audience and community, that becomes an incentive to stay.

This could also be true in the other direction. Writers could want to move away from Substack for greater control over their community. Without careful moderation (who provides it?), communities can get out of control, especially because of the popularity of politics on the platform. Trolls go where the attention goes.

If Substack succeeds in getting readers to spend more time-on-site, there are incentives for writers to stay. If a writer moves, they’ll lose some part of their readership who spends time on Substack’s site and in their communities. Substack can say “don’t leave, your readers are all here.”

Showing Writers How Bad Leaving Would Be

Many of the most popular writers left traditional writing gigs to join Substack. This is great marketing for Substack. They must play this up. The message is simple: “traditional media is evil and managing your own site is too difficult, stay with us.”

I can foresee a day when a writer on Substack writes something bad about traditional media, so bad it is considered slanderous. The media company and the writer get in a legal fight. Substack comes to that writer’s defense. “Big institutions are evil, Substack is good.” Infinite good marketing for Substack.

To keep this up, they must keep the image of enabling independence. There will be big media stories about how Substack is hosting evil people (and it may be true). Big organizations can coordinate their attack and rally their writers to support. Substack needs their writers to decide to support them. If writers turn and Substack’s reaction is bad, this could be a major problem for the business.

Substack also wants to paint full independence as a hassle. Writers are writers, not business owners, not managers. Substack allows writers to focus on writing. Realistically, Ghost, Medium, and others are only slightly more difficult to figure out. They aren’t as trendy though. The “starting a Substack” trend will run out. Being ready to turn on the “we are simple and that makes us better” focus is important. This must remain true. Substack cannot become too complicated while the hype is still driving growth.


Substack has grown quickly, but they must be careful with their growth. Writing is never going to get easier. The amount of people who consistently write content people are willing to pay for is limited. They aren’t close to hitting a ceiling, but their growth could slow if the “trendy” label wears off.

If growth slows and top writers leave, it will ruin the business. Substack is easy to join, but also easy to leave. More competition is coming. Good writers have options. Showing Substack as the best of those options will become increasingly important.

Exit Feeds, Enter Community

Information floods the internet. You can’t control it, but it must be controlled for you to absorb it. It is primarily controlled through infinite feeds of content on social media. Because sites control the feed, they control a part of your bubble. Your bubble is the natural and selected sources of information that influence what we think and do.

Businesses with the most control over your bubble can show you the content they want to show you. The feed wants to show you content that keeps you on the platform and makes them money. They cloud what bubble you are in or add content from other bubbles “for engagement.”

If you leave the feed unchecked, your bubble becomes filled with content that maximizes engagement rather than the goals you want. If you are looking to learn or be informed, the feed doesn’t prioritize that for you. Letting the feed control your bubble is good if your goals are to be mildly entertained or outraged at all times.

On top of this, social media sites make it hard for you to understand why you are seeing content, especially with algorithmic feeds. People you follow like or share for many reasons. Clickbait, fake news, low-quality content all arise from the success of low context content. Low context content is often low effort content. It appeals to the broadest audience possible. This is a race to the bottom. What we end with are GIF recipes and political fighting.

High context content requires more effort to create and consume, so it appeals to a smaller audience. Appealing to a smaller audience means less engagement and less money for the feed. Because social media sites make money through ads, they will continue to show you low context, high engagement content forever.

You can take back control of your bubbles. The first step is being aware of the power of the feed and its incentives. The second step is changing where you get information to better align with the goals of learning and informing.

Communities To The Rescue

Communities offer a solution to the context-less, low-quality content of the broader internet. They improve information through context, relevancy, and moderation.

Context

Communities call the bubble by name, they don’t try to blur it. They allow you to understand what bubble you are in. Instead of guessing the context of every post, communities tell you. You gain a focused mindset within the context of community. They provide you a place to think about a certain topic, rather than thinking about all topics at once.

Although content shared is specific, less effort is needed to understand it. Content is better aligned with the context of the community. Each new piece of information in a community builds on past pieces. It gains from the history, trends, references, and recommendations of the community. This creates deeper knowledge that is difficult to get on social media.

Relevancy

The problem with many feeds is the sources in your bubble provide irrelevant information. They share everything interesting to them, rather than what is interesting to you. In communities, someone had to look for relevant content and go through the effort of sharing it for you to see it.

People in communities identify with the content they are seeing. The feeds contain other people’s content. Communities contain “our” content. Because you identify with a group, information shared with that group is likely relevant to you. Community members share interests with you. Communities provide a filter for information to pass through which increases the content’s authority.

Communities aren’t immune to low-quality content, but there is a person behind posts. Members are incentivized to share information the community finds interesting rather than maximizing engagement to sell ads. Someone decided the content should be shared because they think it is relevant to the group, which is better than an algorithm trying to get you to click ads.

Moderation

There is no one moderating your feeds to keep them on the topic except for yourself. This leads to plenty of off-topic discussions. No one realizes the damage these actions do to the feed’s content quality. It prevents people from engaging who normally would. It prevents information from being shared that might be interesting. It lowers the quality of content.

Communities develop social norms that social media sites don’t. People in communities take moderation seriously. Moderators help improve the community’s information quality. They remove off-topic content, spam, trolling, and more.

Getting banned from a community is a good incentive. Miscreants get shunned from the community. Unfollowing is a bad incentive because few people do it. When you have even a small following, losing a follower or two doesn’t show. Bad behavior continues, while in communities it can’t.


People who complain about social media provide the solution of deleting everything. This is unrealistic because people are information hungry, they’ll always be searching for more. Swapping feeds with communities is a more realistic solution.

Communities aren’t a perfect solution to the flood of information or for avoiding bubbles. Communities are a bubble. People can still be apart of “bad” bubbles. Poor quality content can still ruin communities. The total information you get will be lower. Your bubble might be smaller. I think many people will find these trade-offs appealing.

Swapping feeds for communities creates fewer incentives for engagement and more for learning and informing is good. It might better align with your goals when they take in information. Try it.


Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How Discord Won

It has been a big year for realizing the limits of technology for interacting with people. Gamers have known this for a long time. Lag, disconnections, and coordination issues were problems in gaming since the start. There is a platform that has gone a long way in solving those problems: Discord.

Discord allows people to talk and chat online. Servers are created by anybody to talk about anything, usually, it is a friend group or a shared interest. They contain chat channels (kind of like Slack) and voice channels that are always on and allow people to join and leave whenever they want.

The competition between internet communication platforms is fierce. Discord wasn’t early to voice channels or group chats. They weren’t unique for targeting their offering to gamers. Other platforms have the same features as them. Yet they are a multi-billion dollar business. How? To borrow an idea from Sarah Tavel, they built a 10x better product AND capture more value from it.

10x Better

Voice chat sucked for a long time. Skype, which was long the most popular option, was a mess. It forced you to call people. Servers went down often. The application crashed. Chats were all over the place. There is a good reason people do not use Skype and it is because it sucks.

There were other competitors like IRC, TeamSpeak, Mumble, Ventrilo. All had basically the same features, voice calls, and chat. Each suffered from a combination of problems like:

  • Complicated setup process. Any new member must also go through a setup process.
  • Paid hosting. No one wanted to pay when there were free options. Especially true as servers grow.
  • Unclear benefits. Convincing one person was not enough, you needed to convince your whole group of the benefits of switching.
  • Weird ideological reasons. Your platform was your tribal affiliation, switching means abandoning your tribe. Everyone looked down on people who didn’t use the same platform as them (even if it was jokingly).

Discord launched in May 2015, long after the competitors listed above. They are now more successful than those same competitors. They did so by making the experience 10x better:

  • Discord requires nearly no setup. Starting a server on Discord takes two clicks. Creating channels is two clicks. It works instantly and all the time.
  • Discord is free.
  • It is easy to switch to Discord. Inviting people is two clicks and a paste. Joining a server (once you have an account) is two clicks. It is so simple you don’t even think about it.
  • Non-core features like emoji support, reactions, bots, integrations, video calls, and screen-sharing all work as well as you could ask.
  • Big community servers for games, fanbases, organizations, hobbies, and more.

Improvements in each of these areas add up to a 10x better experience than other platforms. I complain about Discord way less than I complain about Skype. There are benefits for everyone on Discord, which makes it a 10x experience both for groups and individuals.

On top of being 10x better, the core features are free. This causes an obvious business problem, how do you make money? There isn’t an obvious place to put ads. Competitors often charge by the member, but that incentivizes against growth. Discord figured out a way to incentivize growth while capturing value from large and small groups.

Sell Status to Capture Value

It took Discord a long time to figure out monetization (and they still are figuring it out). Venture capital allowed them to experiment with ideas such as selling games and membership. Neither worked perfectly, but they pointed in the right direction. Forbes estimated they are “on track to top $120 million in sales this year (2020)… up from around $70 million last year.”

To understand Discord’s monetization, look at their history. The founders previously started game companies and were inspired by free-to-play games like League of Legends. Games like League of Legends sell status. It is free-to-play but you can buy “skins” to make your character look different. If you have a cool or expensive skin, it means you care more about the game. It raises your status. Discord does the same.

Discord allows users to raise their status through a subscription called Nitro. It provides quality improvements (file size and video quality), special profile upgrades (more emojis, animated profile photos, custom tags), and most importantly, the ability to “boost” a server.

Boosts raise a user’s status in both small and large servers. They allow you to either improve your friend’s online hangout and your communities’ experience by unlocking custom emotes, cosmetic features, and quality improvements. For users, it puts an icon next to their name saying they contribute and gives them a special booster role on the server. In short, it is a way for someone to pay to stand out.

Server Boost Perks

You can buy boosts separately from Nitro at $5 per month or $50 per year. Perks come in uneven tiers: Level 1 is 2 boosts, Level 2 is 15 boosts, Level 3 is 30 boosts. It is unlikely “friend group sized” servers get past two boosts, but large servers often pass thirty. Some examples:

NameBoostsMRR (@ $5 per boost)
Minecraft165$825
Kanye75$375
Fortnite165$825
r/LeagueOfLegends201$1005
Animal Crossing: New Horizons412$2060
r/Overwatch85$425
Rocket League116$580
Fall Guys215$1075
Anime Soul Discord323$1615
Kenny Beats50$250
Musicians (Turkish)730$3650
English94$470
Python44$220
CallMeCarson Discord Cult1153$5765

Here are 14 popular servers accounting for nearly $250,000 in revenue per year. There are tons more, all with varying amounts of boosts. People are willing to pay to stand out, even when there is no obvious benefit. This is universal.

Every community needs a place to communicate online. Discord has the best offering, and it is free. Other platforms either force you to pay by the member or have a flat rate paid by the community host. Discord doesn’t require either. Servers can grow as large as they want for free, moderators and admins don’t have to pay, and Discord still makes money.

As communities continue to grow on Discord, the money Discord makes from those communities goes up as well. Flat rates and tiers limit this. Communities want to grow, Discord provides them with an easy and effective way to do that. Users want status, Discord gives them a shortcut. This aligns incentives better than advertising or paid memberships do.


Discord won by building 10x better spaces for communities. By selling status, they have also managed to capture more value from those communities than other platforms.

Discord won the competition for the gaming chat platform of choice, and now it wants to be the platform for all internet communities. This means they will be competing with the “big dogs” like Slack, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Epic. Their free-to-play, pay-for-status monetization model is a competitive advantage.

Discord is a successful company. The question becomes how successful can they become? The key is the number of internet communities who choose Discord as their home. By creating a better product than competitors and being free for growth, Discord puts itself in an excellent position to continue to succeed moving forward.

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Build Above Ground

Everyone judges construction sites. We say “this is coming along quickly” or “this will never finish.” When judging construction, all we care about is what’s above ground. Only when we peer between the fence and look closely do we care about what’s below ground. Construction can seem endless because of all the time spent working below ground on the foundation. This is true of work in general.

People don’t care about your foundation, your accreditation, or how you are improving yourself unless it shows. These things are important, they are just below ground. They are the foundation of your work.

People care about what you build above ground: your accomplishments, your career, your results. It is not that these things matter more objectively, they are just what people see.

I often fall into the trap of caring too much about the foundation. I work too much below ground and don’t build enough above ground. I say to myself “if only I had the skills to do X, then I would be successful.” It’s a lie.

You can build a building with a weaker foundation. It is more likely to fail, but you can only get the knowledge of where it fails by building above ground. Your next building will benefit more from this than an improved foundation.

Building more foundation doesn’t mean that your building will never fail. Once you try, you could still fail. The only way to prevent failure is to never build above ground.

Instead of building a shaky building above ground that might fail, I continue to work on my foundation. Foundation is important, but if you never build, you never create something other people need and value. You build below ground for yourself, and above ground for other people.

Endless foundation building will get you nowhere. Build above ground.

The Readership Will Take Care of Itself

Nearly every day, I find myself thinking about ways to get people to read my writing. I tell myself to update the design, start a newsletter, tweet more, or optimize SEO. I say to myself, “If only I spent more time on those, then I would be successful.” Maybe I have to wait and get lucky.

It is easy to think about these things. I can read endlessly about workflows, tools, optimizations, and success stories. They distract me from thinking about the effort needed to write.

There is one solution to getting more people to read my writing: writing more.

The problems with my writing are solved by writing more. I pretend like I have published a large amount, but I am lying to myself. There are plenty of people who publish an article every day that is better than anything I have written.

I have a long list of excuses I have told myself:

  • My writing isn’t good. It will get better as long as a keep publishing.
  • People aren’t reading my writing. The more I write, the more likely someone will read it.
  • I don’t have a good niche to focus on. The focus will come over time.
  • I don’t want to waste my audience’s time. People who think it was a waste of time will forget instantly, and there is someone out there who doesn’t think it is a waste of time.

It is more fun to think about a new project than it is to grind one towards completion. Starting something new is the path of least resistance, it is cheating. I know that writing is a battle with my mind. If I don’t take the action to write and publish, I never will.

Trust the process. The readership will take care of itself.

The Opportunity for Internet Communities

Internet communities, spaces where people with similar identities and interests interact, are a massive opportunity. General internet spaces are becoming hostile. Societal shifts are forcing more people to rethink the communities they are apart of. Big companies in the space have stagnated. Trends are moving in the right direction. Here are some important ones:

Lack of Innovation

To start, communities exist on platforms. The platforms shape how communities interact with each other and develop. Many of the platforms were not build for the internet we have today.

Forums and Reddit are the most obvious ones, and both could be victims to disruption. They have been around forever, and have not changed. Neither is mobile-first. They work, I guess, but they aren’t super attractive. Discord, Slack, and others are creating alternative places for communities to exist online.

Voice and video have a massive role to play in internet communities but have taken a back seat to text until recently. Many people now spend all day on video conferencing for work and have a camera on them at all times. Voice apps are yet to take off but the popularity of podcasts and Airpods show promise.

TikTok showed a different way to create a community. When you focus on video and mobile-first, community looks different. Instead of you choosing your community, TikTok puts you into a community based on what you interact with. I expect to see more of this moving forward.

Political Tribalism

People looking for a way out of political tribalism. The fewer communities someone is a part of, the more likely they see a core community as a political group. Politics on the internet is a mind killer but is incentivized by public platforms. There are always other people who feel strongly with you. You don’t have to know much about the subject to gain status. You can “fight” people online. You can pretend you are doing something valuable. Politics is an easy community to be apart of, but people will grow tired of political tribalism. They will look for other options.

Dark Forest

Yancey Strickler has says the internet has become a dark forest.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

Debate and disagreement cannot be public. It is not acceptable to change your mind. It is not acceptable to have an opposing opinion. Controversial opinions and topics moved out of view.

Ideas don’t cease to exist when they are uncomfortable, they move to places where they are spoken about. They move into the dark forest, hidden communities. Many of these communities already exist on the internet and will only continue to grow. As the size of these dark forest communities grows, so will their impact.

Internet Education

Community leads to education. To become a better member (or even a member at all) people must learn things. Ideas, jargon, people, and companies are all examples of information someone might need to learn. Communities often recommend ways of developing the knowledge needed to join. I expect these to expand.

Internet education is cool, but only when high-status members of a community create and deliver it. Many creators added private communities to their offerings. Students learn and interact with the content better within communities than on their own.

Internet communities will be part of the future of education. In-person communities are the only thing Universities do well. If University is over Zoom, are those communities still valuable? The increasing amount of people deferring think not. A large number of people will be looking at other options, and internet communities may provide a path forward.

Work from Anywhere

Office small talk that might have fulfilled the social and community aspects of people’s days disappeared. People are social animals, they need interaction and will look for it elsewhere. Internet communities are an obvious place to start. Many companies are realizing they need to create their own internet community to work virtually. It is not clear what good company internet communities look like.

Less commuting also means more time to spend pursuing things other than work. Does this mean more time playing video games and watching Netflix or more time as a member of a community?

Passion Economy

Internet communities enable sharing of content and products. If you create something good within a community it will be seen by many of its members. Li Jin of a16z says:

New digital platforms enable people to earn a livelihood in a way that highlights their individuality. These platforms give providers greater ability to build customer relationships, increased support in growing their businesses, and better tools for differentiating themselves from the competition. In the process, they’re fueling a new model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.

Lots of people are making a living creating for internet communities. Many more will continue to do this. Being able to understand and appeal to your community is critical to success in this area. As internet communities become more coordinated and understandable, their economic power grows. Lots of people will be competing for a piece in lots of communities.


The future of internet communities is bright, and there is still plenty of opportunities to pursue. It is something I will be looking into more. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, message me on Twitter or send me an email.