How Chatbots Took Over Discord

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We’ve spent some time looking at chatbots and how they’re changing the way interact and collaborate with one another online. Today we’re taking a look at Discord bots and how they’re changing the way users engage on the platform. First, though, let’s quickly recap what we mean when we talk about chatbots.

A quick overview

Though the word “bot” might conjure up images of hyper-intelligent robot assistants, a la HAL 9000, most of the bots we see online today are really just web apps where the UI layer has been replaced with a chat interface.

In terms of functionality, chatbots can range from single-purpose bots (“Pizzabot, order pizza”) to generalized AI assistants that must be able to process complex requests and queries. They may or may not make use of natural language processing (NLP) to turn your requests into commands. What matters is that the way you interact with these apps is through text.

THE DISCORD BOT ECOSYSTEM

If you play video games (or know people who do), you’ve probably heard of Discord. Originally developed as a low-latency VoIP service for gamers, Discord has evolved into a robust, modern chat client on par with Slack, Skype, Whatsapp, or Facebook Messenger, with more than 90 million users as of December 2017.

One interesting feature of Discord’s bot ecosystem is its open-source nature. Discord’s documentation provides some resources for developers interested in building bots (they just call them apps), but Discord has left the actual bot-building up to the community. There are a number of online sources that host and verify Discord bots, but no single, official home for them the way Slack maintains an app directory. This can make finding high-quality, well-maintained bots a problem, which is why discordbots.org, one of the most popular community bot directories, certifies the best community apps.

The bots themselves are generally pretty simple. One of the most popular Discord bot sites provides a step-by-step tutorial for making a bot using the Java Discord API (JDA) wrapper. Node.js (with the discord.js wrapper) also seems to be a popular option, in keeping with Discord’s generally lightweight philosophy. (Because it’s developed with gamers in mind, performance is a major consideration.)

You also shouldn’t expect to see a lot of natural language in Discord bots. Perhaps because the service is geared toward gamers, who are themselves more likely to be tech savvy than the average person, most apps require you to interact with them via short commands. For example, the popular bot pbot (as in “penguin bot”) has a feature that lets users check on their favorite cryptocurrency with the command ]crypto value <coin>.

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HOW DISCORD BOTS WORK

Like Slack’s bots and integrations, Discord bots are mainly about automating common tasks. Unlike Slack, however, Discord isn’t primarily (or even secondarily) a work chat client. What’s more, the most popular Discord servers can host tens of thousands of concurrent users, which creates a different set of administrative needs than your average work chat.

The size and open nature of many Discord channels makes moderation a challenge, and that’s where many bots come in. Because game developers or streamers can create verified Discord servers, they have an interest in creating and enforcing community norms 24 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, the most popular Discord bots tend to be geared toward automating common administrative tasks (filtering content, kicking/banning abusive users, etc.).

Beyond handling administrative tasks, many Discord bots are aimed at increasing Discord’s integration with games and game-adjacent services, like the streaming site Twitch. A quick look at the most popular bots finds a number devoted to launching or joining games directly from Discord, as well as posting stats or Twitch streams. Others are more for general purpose entertainment, like connecting to streaming sites or dropping in .gifs.

While the world of Discord bots has something of a wild west feel to it, don’t expect it to stay that way forever. Already, game-adjacent apps, like the clip-sharing service Medal.tv, have begun developing official bots to increase their presence on Discord.

Want to learn more about chatbots?

Learn how some developers are finding ways to make chatbots an important part of their  revenue models.

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Tyler writes about data for the content team at Upwork. Based in Berkeley, California, he's written and edited article- and book-length projects for a variety… more