Hosting a Museum Conference in Discord: A Proof of Concept

As various museum conferences make plans to operate virtually this year (and hopefully not next year!) I wanted to outline why I think a Discord Server would be a great tool to host conference presentations, manage breakout sessions, and even maintain the much sought after “in between session networking.”

Before outlining how this could work lets take a minute to think about the position many of us occupy in the cultural heritage sphere. Right now museums are laying off, furloughing, or cutting the pay of thousands of staff and contractors. It is clear many museums were in more dire financial straits than many lower level staff like me thought. There will be less cultural heritage organizations after this is over. Many folks will be forced out of the field, never to return. I don’t want to be a downer (I prefer the Gen Z word, doomer anyway), but that’s reality.

All the more necessary for those of us still employed to organize and push back where we can against the leaders of our institutions and lobby our governments. I’m glad that conferences like Museum Computer Network (MCN) have chosen themes around sustainability for 2020.

What is Discord?

Discord is a platform for text, voice, and video chat. There are Discord Servers that function mainly as chatrooms, ones for friends to keep up and maybe do voice or video chats, and large ones (several hundred users) dedicated to a craft or hobby. The service started for video game communities, but rapidly branched out as a communication platform as it moved beyond that sector.

Example of the Discord UI, channels are listed on the left, chat for the channel in the center, and user list on the right.

Why would Discord work for a museum conference?

1. Ease of use – Discord can be run from a desktop client, which although preferable for heavy use, can also be run out of a browser and on mobile, invite is restricted to links, that can be sent directly or to expire on time or number of uses

2. Ease of organization – generating channels for text or voice chat take no time at all, the idea is voice channels would be created like “Presentation Room 1” and the conference schedule will illustrate this, similar to how physical conferences are handled

Within each channel moderators can set channels to mute all participants except the presenters, who would then be able to screenshare from within the channels using Discords in app streaming function. It’ll be necessary to write guides on how to do all this for presenters, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle. Guides can be stickied to specific channels and even short session abstracts could be stickied in each “room” as well.

When a presentation is over, questions could either be asked in an associated text channel for the presentation, or there could be a digital “raise hands” through the text channel and then an unmuting of the user asking the question.

Breakout sessions would be handled much in the same way, everyone could start in a presentation room and then move to separate voice channels for their groups, folks could then reconvene back in the main channel for wrap up.

Social spaces for networking and general chit chat could be created, again much like digital tables at a conference hotel.

3. Cost – Discord is free, though there are features that would be cheap to unlock via the Nitro program (higher audio and stream quality mainly)

This week Museums and the Web (MW) is going on virtually and is running mostly in Microsoft Teams and Second Life (still confused by that one). I’ve had some great discourse with colleagues about what “virtual conferences” are supposed to model. Should they model the “physical experience” which is to say, you, a person, standing or sitting in a room with other people (this is the Second Life route) or should they model the reasons why people go to conferences such as presentation of information, discussion, and networking. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is quoted ad infinitum, but its apt to use here.

I think Discord (or even a conference run out of a series of Zoom calls) works far better than attempting to recreate a digital simulacra of a conference space. There are also serious questions about Second Life specifically I’d like to see MW address, namely users encountering inappropriate content for a museum conference as Second Life is often used as a platform for cybersex and has many well known avenues for trolling and harassment. Also 3D games that make you create a model “you” or some fictional version of “you” often leave out options to depict people with disabilities.

I saw someone on twitter say that “Second Life is great because everything is accessible at this conference” and I thought about how much erasure someone with a visible disability would feel at this, let alone people with body types that might not map onto a digital model.

At the end of the day I think Discord would be a fun option for a conference to explore and try. Even if the presentation part (running multiple streams in one server might not handle the load) I think Discord would work well for managing text channels in a conference for discussion and socializing, as well as centralizing attendees in one space so they can form their own conversations via, chat, voice, and video.

I’m happy to help any conference explore options!

Stay healthy colleagues, comrades, and compatriots!

Jeremy Munro