Social app Discord, a favorite among gamers, has inadvertently sparked internal strife after announcing last week that it would force millions of members to choose new usernames. Now the question is whether the change will escalate into an all-out war that could include players threatening each other to gain control of popular names.
The issue may seem trivial compared to real-life concerns like mass shootings and murderous hurricanes. But this is a big deal for people who rely on the medium-sized social network to recruit fellow players, exchange virtual weapons and organize strategy in multiplayer games. A Reddit thread on the change It got more than 4,000 comments, most of them angry or at least unhappy.
What’s the deal with Discord usernames?
Discord users have long been free to choose any name they want, even already used ones. That’s part of the company’s goal of allowing users to represent themselves freely, according to a detailed blog post on May 3 by Discord co-founder and chief technology officer Stanislav Vishnevskiy. The approach is different from social platforms like Twitterwhich often requires users to choose unique names.
Discord assigns each username an invisible four-digit identifier to distinguish them from duplicates. But as Discord grew, the San Francisco-based company decided to expand the messaging system — initially limited to conversations within shared groups it calls “servers” — to the entire platform. To help people find their friends on servers, Discord makes four-digit codes appear as part of usernames. If your username is “SgtRock,” you might suddenly find yourself with the handle “SgtRock#1842.”
That, too, seemed to work for a while. But according to Vishnevskiy’s post, more than 40% of Discord users don’t remember their four-digit codes — variously known as “tags” or “discords” in Discord-speak — or know- what they were before. Almost half of all friend requests on Discord fail to reach the right person, the executive wrote.
So what changes?
Two changes took place simultaneously. In the coming weeks, Vishnevskiy wrote, Discord will begin notifying users via an in-app message when they are cleared to choose a new username. Server owners get priority, followed by users based on the age of their accounts. Paid subscribers to a Discord service that allows them to customize their discriminators (among other benefits) will also get “early access,” though Vishnevskiy’s post or Discord user documentation offer details.
At the same time, Discord also allows users to choose a non-exclusive “display name” of their choice. This will be displayed prominently on user profiles, but unlike the username, it will not be used for messaging.
All of this will “slowly roll out over several months,” according to Discord announcements.
Why is this important?
Some gamers take their usernames very seriously, seeing them as unique and personal extensions of their identity, not to mention pillars of their online reputation. Many also did not appreciate the changes imposed on them. In the Reddit thread, complaints ranged from “don’t fix what isn’t broken” to accusations that the changes were mostly designed to attract new and often younger users who may be delayed by the complexity of the existing system.
That may not be far from the truth, experts suggest. Social platforms tend to be heavily used by a small group and very lightly used by a larger group, said Drew Margolin, a communications professor at Cornell University. In a commercial sense, he said, “there is this tension between what appeals to a larger market and what the primary users are.”
Margolin suggests that network effects – that is, the fact that users and their friends are already on Discord, making it difficult to leave – are likely to go beyond the current anger, whose impact is difficult to assess. But there’s still the potential for serious blowback, as some gamers are known to go to extreme lengths to get coveted usernames.
What are the possible outcomes?
Players have warned that the move could create a black market in wanted names or even spark dangerous threats to force their surrender. Such threats can range from online harassment campaigns to “swatting” – very dangerous practice to make false crime reports to the police in order to provoke an armed law enforcement response in an adversary’s home.
Swatting can lead to injuries and deaths – sometimes to people who are not connected to any online fight that provoked the action. In 2017, an innocent man was shot dead by Wichita police responding to a hoax call reporting a kidnapping and shooting. The call was made by a California man named Tyler Barriss, who authorities say was recruited by another gamer to make the call. But the address Barriss used was an old one, leading police to someone who wasn’t involved in the video game or the altercation.
Barriss pleaded guilty to making several false emergency calls across the US and in 2019 was sentenced to 20 years in prison.