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In 2021 Digital Communities Will Deepen–and Even Blend

Some are calling it the year of “Splinternet,” because new online communities are appearing faster than Netflix releases. The idea behind these emerging communities is usually to create a cult-like sense of online fandom around a person, place or thing. Variations on that theme make these communities the most dynamic segment of the online world today.

To the naked eye Discord looks like what happens when you cross today’s Slack with yesteryear’s Compuserve communities. A Discord community is really a big cloud server that you can own a slice of to create your own community. Discord’s roots were in the gaming community, allowing players to chat while playing a game together. Today, Fortnite is the focus of the largest Discord server, with 571,000 members. Minecraft is a close second, with 569,000 members.

But, since those humble beginnings Discord has soared. It’s a super-flexible amalgam of VoIP, instant messaging and digital distribution. You can place a voice call, a video call, send a text, and share media and files. While gaming is still a big category, other Discord servers cover music, entertainment, technology and more. At last count, Discord had 6.7 million active servers and 100 million monthly active users. A good example of a new breed of Discord user is Vidcon, a major producer of video technology-related events. When it had to pivot from live events for its fandom community, it chose to build a Discord server platform where it could host live events with community celebrities.

When it was forced to canel in-person events, VIDCON created VIDCON NOW, with a popular AMA (Ask Me Anything) series on Discord.

Because Discord is free, schools and classrooms have become big users, organizing events around lessons, homework, or study groups, that include voice channels. Our seven-year-old grandson is part of a Discord community where the teacher allows students to play Minecraft as they learn. At this writing, Discord’s valuation continues to increase, presumably as investors hope it will become the central place where social interaction amongst like-minded communities flourish. (Anyone can start their own Discord server but you do feel like a lone wolf until you join the more established servers.)

Substack is the place to head if you believe your personal brand can sustain its own paid newsletter. Think of it like cutting out the middleman — be it the New York Times or network news. Like WordPress, but tailored to authors, Substack gives you all the tools to manage an email list, host your content and maintain direct content with your readers.

Heather Richardson Cox, a history professor at Boston College, became a celebrity during this year of political and pandemic tumult as she chronicled and made sense of the news with her email series, “Letters from an American,” housed on Substack. Rather than doomscrolling or being bombarded by news feeds, you can get your news fix directly from the rational and eloquent Richardson Cox. (She was recently featured in the NYT because she is the most popular Substacker.) Casey Newton, formerly a high profile tech journalist at The Verge, jumped ship to head over to substack where his Platformer column is gaining traction. To see which journalists are taking the solo plunge visit the Substack leaderboard.

Patreon’s community includes partisans of the arts–music, art, theater, and literature–as well as podcasting. It promises to let creators take back control of their art, allowing their fans to become active monthly members. Creators are encouraged to offer user benefits like exclusive content, community, and insight into their work. “In exchange,” Patreon’s site explains, “you get the freedom to do your best work, and the stability you need to build an independent creative career.”

Finally, welcome to the metaverse. You’re really going to want to wrap your arms around this one. VentureBeat defines it as a “universe of virtual worlds that are all connected together.” The metaverse mantra is to make it easier and easier for people to be a part of a range of worlds created in the uber-world. Think of it as a discrete and new virtual realm where gatherings, game play, daily interactions, colloborations, contests and other  events take place. Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite are some of the earliest building blocks of such a world. A good example of a metaverse event was Fortnite’s remarkable Travis Scott concert, which was attended by 12 million dancing avatars. Roblox, according to Protocol, hosted some 20 million “experiences” in their world last year. Many of these are games and tournaments. Others are online awards and spectacles. Niantic, known best for Pokemon GO, is hoping to bring this kind of community to its augmented reality worlds with its recent acquisition of Mayhem. Mayhem’s leader boards and social play will marry with Niantic’s immersive AR system.

To delve deeper into the metaverse check out GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse later this month.

I’ve just touched the tip of the community iceberg. It’s a guarantee: community sites will sprout. Some will be acquired, some will die a quick death, but the interesting thing is that they all are tackling some real evolving changes in the world where we live now. The rise of the gig economy, the need for deeper human connection, a growing desire among many types of people to seek out those they share common interests with, and a desire to escape the isolation of the pandemic–all these are helping drive the bus into this new magical mystery tour.

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