James Belchamber

Using Discord to bring the STEMM community together

In January ALDES partnered with justLiberals, a blog and community, to further one of ALDES three aims: "To create a good fellowship amongst the STEMM community within the Party, and develop a better understanding between said communities and politicians". We started inviting ALDES members to their "Discord" - essentially, a group of chat rooms - and we've been using their platform to bring together Liberals that care about Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine.

Six months later I am excited to report on both our successes and the lessons we learned along the way.

Why Discord?

Upon taking up the membership secretary position this year I was particularly interested in building out the ALDES community. The association had a Facebook group, but it's fairly sparsely used - likely because the kind of people that join ALDES are probably also some of the first to start abandoning the platform. Our Facebook group competes for attention with the rest of a Facebook user's "feed", which is dominated by low-quality but high-friction "conversations" between users.

To "compete" on Facebook, the ALDES community would have to create a relatively controversial space - posts that have few, thoughtful comments are simply buried under "flame wars" on other submissions. The community would also have no space for the kind of "chit-chat" that binds community members - put simply, we needed another space.

There's another problem: due to the unique way the party responded to GDPR it's very hard to spin up and test new ideas that aren't offered by one of our approved suppliers. This is the reason many off-Facebook platforms - including ALDES' own members forum - landed up being shut down.

Regardless: starting a new community is hard. Approximately 1-10% of an average internet community actually participates, with the rest "lurking". Lurking is welcome - we love people being able to find a space to just exist happily without having to contribute - but it did mean that we'd need to find our "seed" community to start building out a place for everyone to enjoy.

The solution we chose was to pursue a partnership with justLiberals, a community that already existed and which Rob and I, Vice-Chair and Membership Secretary respectively, were already an active part of. We set up a STEMM "channel" for STEMM-related conversation and simply sent out an invite in the monthly newsletter.

Sowing Discord

We learned a few lessons over the last six months. justLiberals did not "authenticate" ALDES members (we couldn't, for data protection reasons) but anyone that self-identified as an ALDES member was added to a little "enclave" which had the STEMM channel in it - as well as instructions on how to "opt-in" to the rest of the community (which would reveal all the other channels).

This was a terrible idea! A big draw for ALDES was developing within an existing community - nice people to chat to, to talk about food and drink, and tech and games - even sport and exercise, alongside the STEMM chat. We thought we were offering a feature, by letting people opt into these channels - in reality, everyone that joined just found the place a bit quiet; we removed this fairly quickly.

Another thing we learned is that the community is an excellent resource. Last year the newsletter was put together rather painstakingly by Josh, our Chair (ever the hard worker) - I am much lazier, and quickly found that creating a "repository" channel led to people dropping in all sorts of STEMM-related content we could inform our membership with. We also use the Discord as a space to review contributions and discuss things.

Growing Discord

With a willingness to test new ideas (and change course when we realise we've made a mistake) the Discord has slowly grown to be a pleasant space to be - members have been able to discuss STEMM-related subjects as well as getting involved with more general chat where they wish to.

One problem we've yet to "crack" is that some people feel a little overwhelmed - the server has around 250 messages per day at this point, and this will only be set to grow. Veterans of internet chat know the answer to this - namely, that you don't have to read every channel and every message! - but people more used to Facebook might feel the need to read everything (a fear of missing out probably contributes to this). We have some ideas, but for now I'd just like people to treat it like tables at a wedding reception - you don't have to catch up with every conversation log, just jump in and out whenever you're interested.

With that in mind, we consider this a success - and we're doubling down. ALDES Executive meetings will now be held on the Discord and open for anyone to attend - be sure to join up to find out when they are. We'll also be looking to run events from the Discord - from lo-fi panel discussions, to fireside chats, to whole-community discussions; watch this space.

Join Discord!

With that in mind, I'd welcome you to join - there is an invite in your newsletter and we'll be excited to see you!