In 2015, Jason Citron, a computer programmer, battled for a breakthrough in the video game industry. The new multiplayer game he had developed with his development studio Hammer & Chisel did not arrive.

So Mr. Citron constructed an abrupt U-turn. He fired his company’s game developers, made the game’s chat feature his only product, and gave it a mysterious name – Discord.

“I think we had maybe six users at the time,” Citron said in an interview. “It wasn’t clear if it would work.”

Discord was initially only popular with other players. But more than six years later, driven in part by the pandemic, it has exploded in the mainstream. As adults working from home flocked to Zoom, their kids downloaded Discord to socialize with other young people through text, audio, and video calling in groups known as servers.

The platform has more than 150 million active users each month – up from 56 million in 2019 – with nearly 80 percent logging in from outside North America. It has grown from gamers to music lovers, students, and cryptocurrency enthusiasts.

In September, San Francisco-based Discord announced it had raised $ 500 million in funding and valued the company at $ 14.7 billion, according to PitchBook, a market data provider. It more than doubled its workforce to around 650 people in 2021.

Developing Discord into a mainstream tool was an unexpected turn in Mr. Citron’s career. Mr. Citron, 37, said he grew up playing video games on Long Island and nearly missed his graduation from Full Sail University in Florida because he spent so much time playing World of Warcraft and his first date with his future wife had in an amusement arcade.

“So many of my best memories came from these experiences, so my entire career has been about empowering other people to create those kinds of moments in their lives,” he said.

Prior to Discord, he ran a social gaming network, OpenFeint, which he sold to Japanese gaming company GREE in 2011 for $ 104 million. Mr. Citron has been considered innovative by others in the gaming community for trying to keep players’ attention through social interactions with their friends, a new strategy in the emerging mobile gaming market.

“At least he’s trying to bring something new to market,” said Serkan Toto, a gaming analyst in Japan, adding that Mr. Citron’s reputation is “like a geek in a good sense.”

Now Mr. Citron finds himself running a prominent communications platform, a shift he described as “surprising and wonderful and humiliating”.

Discord is divided into servers – essentially a series of chat rooms similar to the Slack workplace tool – that enable casual, free-flowing conversations about games, music, memes, and everyday life. Some servers are large and open to the public; others are by invitation only.

The service has no advertising. It makes money through a subscription service that gives users access to features like custom emojis for $ 5 or $ 10 per month. Discord also began experimenting in December with allowing some users to charge up to $ 100 per month to access their server, of which the company is cutting 10 percent.

Discord made more than $ 100 million last year, according to a person familiar with the company’s finances who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly about it.

The company’s biggest shift occurred at the start of the pandemic. In June 2020, Mr. Citron and his Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Stanislav Vishnevskiy, wrote a blog post acknowledge that Discord has gone beyond video games and is working to make it more accessible to all. Months earlier, the company had changed its motto from “Chat for Gamers” to “A new way to chat with your communities and friends” to appeal to its wider audience.

This transition is associated with increasing pain. Discord has been asking itself the same sensitive questions as other social media companies regarding regulating language, protecting against harassment, and keeping young people safe.

Discord allows people to chat under fake names and the job of making sure people follow community standards is largely left to the organizers of each Discord server. This gives the platform a “master of the flies” feeling, with groups of young people setting up online companies and setting their own rules.

In 2017, white nationalists gathered on far-right Discord servers to host the Rally “Unite the Right” In Charlottesville, Virginia, although Discord executives knew white nationalists were on the platform, they didn’t bang them until after the rally, so New York Times coverage.

In the period that followed, the company became more serious about content moderation. Mr. Citron said about 15 percent of the company’s employees work on trust and safety. The company began publishing semi-annual transparency reports in 2019 and excludes anyone under the age of 13 from Discord.

In his latest report, Discord said it received more than 400,000 reports of misconduct, about a third of which were harassment, and banned more than 470,000 accounts and 43,000 servers between January and June.

The company’s efforts haven’t stopped common problems. People interviewed for this article, including some as young as 11 or 12, said they knew about many underage Discord users. And an internet search for eating disorder communities on Discord, for example, found dozens of servers, some of which were explicitly encouraging people to develop eating disorders, a violation of Discord Community Guidelines.

The company said it would take “immediate action” if it encountered violations such as underage users or inappropriate content.

Many say they joined Discord for more wholesome reasons, like connecting with friends. The largest public servers devoted to discussions about Minecraft or Anime, for example, have hundreds of thousands of members. They can be messy, with colorful memes, profanity, and inside jokes.

Others are only intended for people who know each other in real life or share a specific interest. Some have strict rules that prohibit profanity, graphic content, or political discussion. Server owners can substitute moderators to enforce the rules.

Clement Leveau, 21, has a strong role at Discord: the owner of Kanye, a server that hosts discussions about the artist of the same name, music, pop culture and other topics with more than 58,000 members.

Mr. Leveau, a New York college student, has ultimate authority, with the power to appoint moderators and lock people who break community rules in a solitary channel known as prison. He said he was trying to “make people goofy, having a place to relax,” but he did not tolerate hate speech or bullying. Because of the isolation created by the pandemic, Mr Leveau said, the bonds people have made on Discord have become critical.

Former Discord employees, investors and game industry watchers say Mr. Citron has remained uncompromising in his vision for Discord as an independent company as it has grown.

Joost van Dreunen, a professor at New York University studying the video game business, said it is due to Mr. Citron’s tight control over the company, which has left some senior executives in recent years, to remain independent.

In terms of sales at Discord, the company said its rapid growth has “dramatically” changed some parts of its business in a short period of time, sometimes resulting in “the skills and amount of work we need with our executive team” changed “. as fast.”

Discord conducted deal talks with Microsoft this year an acquisition that could have exceeded $ 10 billion, according to people who were informed of the conversations who were not authorized to speak about them publicly. The deal didn’t go through. (Microsoft declined to comment.)

Mr. Citron repeatedly declined to comment on conversations with other companies, simply saying that Discord was getting “a lot of interest”. He wouldn’t say whether he is considering taking the company public, but he said that “there are few ways things like this can play out”.

Kevin Roose and Erin Griffith Reporting contributed.

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