On Tuesday, the gaming chat platform Discord quietly updated its guidelines to restrict adult content, issuing a ban on users accessing NSFW servers (essentially, chatrooms with multiple channels) on iOS devices. The update went on to state that entire servers, as opposed to individual channels, are required to be designated NSFW if the community “is organized around NSFW content or whose content is predominantly 18+,” a spokesperson for Discord told Rolling Stone. It will still be possible for Discord users to access NSFW servers on its desktop version, and on Android.
“We are committed to ensuring a safer experience for everyone on Discord. We always work hard to create robust controls to help ensure minors are not exposed to content that is inappropriate for them,” the spokesperson said of the decision.
The update, though small and largely unheralded save for a few cursory posts on tech blogs, was notable for a few reasons. For starters, as many adult content creators noted, Discord’s change in policy regarding NSFW content is part of a larger trend of major social media platforms cracking down on NSFW content, most notably Tumblr, which served as a bastion of erotica for years before the website unceremoniously banned it.
As was the case with Tumblr, Discord’s policy shift was intended “to comply with Apple’s policies,” as the spokesperson told Rolling Stone, referring to notoriously stringent restrictions on nudity and adult content (it’s also worth noting that Discord is currently in talks with the similarly NSFW-shy Microsoft over a sale that could be worth more than $10 billion). Though the Discord spokesperson said the policy would be rolled out over the next few days, at least one popular server devoted to erotic furry art, the Discord server for the subreddit r/yiff, has been blocked on the iOS platform, according to a screengrab provided to Rolling Stone. (“Yiff” is a term used to describe sexual content in the fandom; many within the subculture do not sexualize it.)
In addition to furries, other stigmatized groups use Discord as a platform for NSFW content. “This is a huge blow to many marginalized communities, particularly queer, trans, sex worker, and kink/adult play spaces that rely on Discord for community and communication,” says writer Ana Valens, who has reported on Discord’s previous efforts to curb NSFW content. NSFW artist A. Szabla agrees, saying, “With bans on NSFW I often see a lot of queer art, and queer folks who are trying to view or create this work in order to better connect with their own genders and identities, getting hit the hardest and losing business and income because of these overreaching decisions by tech companies.”
Though it initially started out in 2015 as a messaging app geared towards gamers, in recent years, Discord has grown tremendously and garnered much more of a mainstream user base: as of the end of 2020, it has 13.5 million servers and nearly 140 million users. But its “geeky or niche” roots are still apparent, says Valens: “I’d say gaming spaces and fandom spaces are still the most popular on Discord by far.” NSFW content in particular is an “enormous part of the platform’s culture,” says Valens, with many Patreon artists and fandom communities hosting NSFW channels in their servers.
Watsup is an artist who runs a 2,400-member Discord server that hosts many furry members, and membership rewards programs for Patreon. His server has not been taken down, but he does worry that it may happen as the new policy rolls out. “[Dischord] is definitely an important part of how I make a living,” he says. It has become a major traffic driver for artists and NSFW creators — “someone shares an image on one of those sites and it might not stay for very long, but it reaches a lot of eyeballs” — but perhaps more importantly, during the pandemic such servers have blossomed into socialization hubs for members of marginalized communities. “I think these are the type of people that will be hit the hardest. Just normal people that like to look at art or porn and hang out in those sorts of servers,” he says.
Part of the reason why Discord may be cracking down on NSFW content stems from the fact that it has historically had a well-documented issue with hosting child sexual abuse and nonconsensual adult material. In recent years, as the platform has gained popularity, it has scrambled to institute changes to protect minors and revamp its image, to varying degrees of success: as Rolling Stone previously reported, one particular server hosting nonconsensual deepfake porn of TikTok stars garnered more than 100 members before Discord deleted it. But while Wat acknowledges that Discord absolutely does have a problem with child sexual abuse material (as did Tumblr before it purged adult content altogether), citing the preponderance of such material as a reason to ban NSFW content as Tumblr famously did is “a bit of a red herring,” they say. “Every platform that the iOS still hosts has pedophilic content lurking on it,” they say.
As the platform has grown, Discord also has a demonstrable issue curbing violent and extremist material. The platform notoriously served as a hub for the planning of the Unite the Right rally in 2017, as well as the source of the grisly postmortem photo of 17-year-old murder victim Bianca Devins, which went viral in the summer of 2019. More recently, Discord acknowledged its issues with violent extremist content when it published a transparency report earlier this month. According to the report, Discord had to remove more than 1,500 servers related to violent extremist content, such as QAnon content, in the second half of 2020, which represented a 93 percent increase from the first half of the year. (Their spokesperson did not directly respond to a question about why NSFW content was a priority for them at this time.)