A Very Dan Olson Discord Dissertation
On September 12, 2019, the host of YouTube channel Folding Ideas, Dan Olson, launched a Discord server that was to be deleted a brief time after its launch. An open invite was posted to Twitter at 1:38 p.m. EST and a tweet announcing the closure of the server was posted at 9:46 p.m. EST. The channel lasted, I think, about 8 hours.
The launch of the Discord was peculiar given the context of its creator and his audience. Dan Olson has actively resisted Discord as a platform and otherwise rarely engages with his audience in any way you’d call community-oriented — his interactions with followers on Twitter are generally relegated to responses to threads he’s already writing, and his Twitch streams are about the closest he gets to casually interfacing with fans. So not only is the temporary nature of the Discord a cue that something is up, but Olson’s precedent of very deliberately coordinating any kind of public event implies that the purpose of this Discord wasn’t to create or develop a community at all.
We’ll talk later about intent and how that ambiguity of intent carves what comes out of the Discord, but what needs to be made clear from the get-go is that this was never going to be purely a platform for community. It was a system — really a collection of systems — that through its structure sought to incentivize some of the behaviors you saw on the channel.
Let’s dive into the mechanics of this particular Discord: how it was set up, and how those mechanics encouraged or discouraged folks from engaging with its systems.
When the channel launched, it had two text channels: “#this-discord-will-be-deleted (#this-channel)” and “#post-here-get-banned”. The first was the default channel where most of the conversation took place. It functioned like a standard channel but disallowed media — likely to prevent the most egregious kinds of griefing that a public chat channel might receive.
The channel was busy but generally cordial and constructive. Olson’s audience, to avoid but alas fall prey to broad generalizations, enjoy measured analysis of popular media often framed in the context of and with criticism toward larger power structures like statehood,capitalism, and industry. That is to say, the channel was simply a bastion of sweet ol’ internet-savvy lefties.
Olson’s core audience comprising of so many leftists and cultural critics is actually really important to keep in mind as we talk about the other systems within the Discord.
For example, the second text channel, “#post-here-get-banned” did exactly what it said on the tin: If you posted there, you would get banned, either by Olson or by his friend and fellow internet presence AsClearAsCrystal.
The first bans occurred at the latest about 5 minutes after the mass invite was sent on Twitter. The community’s response, of course, was to spam the main text channel with the letter F any time someone was banned. This theme would continue throughout the Discord’s existence and served as the first moment of communion in the otherwise frantic channel.
It was clear that, despite the suspicious setup, the ban channel did exactly what it said — no strings attached. Without any other indication of purpose, the chat began to treat the channel as a sacrificial chamber of sorts — a chamber that ought to be sated with regularity.
Folks would write ironic, silly, or sometimes touching messages on their way out — only for that message to be deleted in an instant once they had been banned. I have only a few screenshots, and one of them was a close call.
I found this development entertaining but odd. Nothing had been hinted that there would be any reward for sacrificing a given number of people to the ban, and it seemed more likely that the longer you stuck around the channel, the more you might learn about it. My first hour in the channel had me questioning why folks were so eager to sate the ban channel when there was still yet more to discover and when doing so would permanently opt you out of this already fleeting experience.
Most channels that feature a post-here-get-banned channel are more permanent community Discords — these channels serve more as jokes than anything else, they don’t serve a function within the narrative of the Discord or toward the rest of the community. So in this case, within the context of the ticking clock, it didn’t make sense to me to assign it a purpose that actively prevented people from participating in the Discord.
Yet, folks were having loads of fun wishing their friends goodbye and volunteering to be the next sacrifice and demanding that the ban channel be sated. I also took great joy in the experience but still latched onto the Discord, hoping to ride it out and see what might be at the other end.
Put a pin in that.
The Discord also launched with a peculiar voice chat — a channel that anyone could join but in which no one could speak, because every user who joined was muted. I joined the channel and remained in it for the rest of my time — not by any external motivation but by sentiment and by the tantalizing possibility that someone eventually might be able to say something — and that that something might possibly be important or elucidating.
Beside that channel was a spot called “The Void.” The Void allowed you to speak, but only one person could occupy the group at a time, so no one would ever be there to hear it. It was a first-come first-served operation — you had to wait till whoever occupied it had left before you could join, and at that point it was anyone’s to take. The occupant, therefore, was in a unique position — not necessarily a position of power, but a position of status. And in online spheres like this, where material gains are few and far between, often power and status are conflated. Exclusivity is power in that they are both relative.
Later in the day a channel was added called, simply, #hell, which had perhaps my favorite set of rules. Its introduction marked the first instance in which users could post media, but you could only post once every 6 hours, meaning you really only had one opportunity to post in the channel and that was it. The thing is, the 6-hour timer was never telegraphed beforehand, so without having heard about the rule from someone else, you’d assume it was an unlimited chat and post without much consideration — therefore losing your ability to post further. Many of the early posts were just a few words long or questions about the function of the channel by poster who were unaware that their first message would be their last.
Eventually, folks got wise to the rule behind #hell, so folks would post albums worth of media in a single message — to make sure all their favorite memes could be shared with the chat. By the end of my time, the channel was a lovely album of wholesome memes, shitposts, and polite self-promotions.
One particularly admirable use of the #hell channel was to memorialize those who sacrificed themselves to the ban channel. One user, Grizzly, managed to remain unbanned for a whole 11 minutes, during which his message accrued reactions from the majority of the active chat. One user was kind of enough to memorialize Grizzly with my screenshot, posted in the #hell channel.
Don’t be alarmed: The surprised emoji reacting to “Trans Rights” actually reflects surprise at how long Grizzly was lasting in the ban channel.
The final channel of note was #amy, in which no one could post except for Olson himself — and in which only photos of Olson’s cat Amy were posted. If there was any instance of Olson As Benevolent Ruler in this Discord this was the channel. Waves of clamoring for pictures of Amy would wash up on the shores of the main chat, and when the demands of many were sated (although I’d argue it was at Olson’s whim and not at the behest of the chat, per Olson’s MO) the main chat roared with excitement and general cat-fawning.
Further along the life cycle of the Discord, folks started to notice that the occasional user would have their username displayed in green text, rather than in the default white. It wasn’t clear how or why the names turned green — all the users who bore such colored text had no clue what they did to receive the color change.
The channel speculated for only a brief time but during that time, Olson himself jumped into the chat to mention that the trigger for the green text was very concrete and repeatable. There was a method by which a user could activate the green text, supposedly.
If I had to guess, the activation method relied on a keyword that a bot or Olson would scrape or search for, but it turns out my speculation didn’t matter because the chat didn’t particularly care to seek it out at all.
Looking at this Discord as a collection of mechanical systems, I reckoned the failure to engage with Olson’s “game” was that there simply wasn’t enough for the chat to work with — the hint that a solution existed wasn’t enough to convince the chat they’d get even remotely close to finding it. It was, in a sense, an ARG with too few bread crumbs.
I for one was unwilling to engage because to do so would have likely been a fruitless half-hour scrape of the channels for a word or trigger that would have granted me a moniker that no one saw value in.
Of course, whether this system was intended to be played like a game or solved like a puzzle in the first place is up for debate. The point of this is, despite the intent to create value, it was disregarded by the community through sheer force of will.
I’ve talked extensively about the various cues I picked up to indicate that might be the case, but there’s another cue that re-framed the Discord almost immediately as it was presented.
Let me set the scene.
To me, this collection of systems felt like a carnival — a new, bizarre ride to ride in every channel. An attraction to showcase all the weird ways to subvert a Discord server. Voice chats with no voice. Channels you can’t post in. A voice chat in which you cannot be heard. These are not only attractions but explicit systems that use Discord’s format to craft a user experience that defies how Discord as a platform ought to be interacted with.
In both the Discord channel and in various contemporary Twitter threads, Olson mentioned his next video essay would discuss World of Warcraft Classic, a server that restores the popular MMO World of Warcraft to its original forms.
At 5:06 p.m., Olson posted in the main text channel about his at-the-time-upcoming essay:
“A big thing that I’ve honed in on in all of that is a lengthy discussion of un-structured play and how WoW’s relative lack of things to actually do opens the door for more freeform ways to engage, that the more sanctioned methods of play you have the more un-structured activities feel like “wasting time” (even if it’s all a waste of time, by definition)”
Olson’s post in the chat was the signal to me that this Discord ought to be perceived as the Discord equivalent of an empty WoW server — a space with mechanics to explore but no formal structure, a space with very simple sets of rules but no extrinsic motivation to engage with them.
A space for unstructured play.
And in that sense it was quite successful. The chat had adopted a use for the post-here-get-banned channel — it was now a sacrificial chamber. Hell was a meme reserve. The Void was a mystical place not to be seen but to be grateful for. All of the opportunities for roleplay were fabricated by the chat because any system that looked like it might drive player behavior was too vague or underdeveloped to actually compel the chat to engage with them at face value.
It was a server in active defiance of its systems, not just in the sense that the chat rallied to ban Olson in the ultimate subversion of the Discord’s hierarchy, but in that systems that incentivized exclusion and status were disregarded or re-appropriated.
Eventually, long after the Discord was shut down for good, Olson did publish his WoW video to YouTube, and I was surprised to see there was no mention of his Discord experiment at all. And while the video itself provided to me even greater insight into the Discord’s trajectory, it was clear that Olson most likely hadn’t built the server to serve the video.
Perhaps the most succinct point made in the WoW video regarding the Discord is in regard to WoW Classic’s lack of things to do and how players cope with the dearth of activity.
“If nothing is meaningful, then you are there to self-direct.”
Discord is not a game like WoW Classic is. There are no goals, no quests, and no real sense of upward progression in any way except perhaps socially. But this Discord was a collection of systems in the way WoW Classic is. But when those systems cannot be used to complete prescribed goals — as WoW Classic maintains until the level cap — they are left to the players, or the chat, to be assigned meaning.
But meaning was found, rest assured, and I can attest to it.
For a good chunk of the night, The Void was occupied by a user named something along the lines of “FrancisFish,” who popped in and out of the main channel through the afternoon. As the afternoon progressed I found myself more and more ingrained in the chat, welcoming new folks, engaging with unaddressed messages, and keeping the momentum of the channel strong. That evening, I received a private message from Francis, who intended to name me as his successor to The Void.
This, of course, was big news to me.
That afternoon saw a couple of folks checking on Francis to see how he was doing in the Void. Most of his responses were along the lines of “Just fine,” or, “Quite lovely” — nothing hinted at any kind of secret being hidden in the Void, and that, of course, made it all the more tantalizing.
Francis announced in the chat that he was about to step out of the Void, and that he expected me to take his place once he hopped out. I actually missed my window the first time when another user beat me to the punch, but they were kind enough to leave the Void upon the chat’s insistence, who had at that point deemed Francis’ authority to be valid. And so, I entered the Void.
It was, well, quiet. There were no secrets to be had, really — it was just a voice chat after all — but it was quiet. You could speak, and the channel would register your voice, but it was, as expected, broadcast to no one. But it was the Void. I had been welcomed into it, first by Francis and then by the entirety of the active Discord. So, I did what I felt I ought to do in a situation like that and spoke into the Void. I introduced myself, told my story, and spoke about my impressions of the channel. I spoke about my aspirations, my anxieties, and my expectations, and no one heard of word of it. I was speaking on a public server into, conversely, a very private space. The anonymity the internet provided was a mask worn for no reason at all. It was surreal to put it vaguely — a newly blossomed and soon-to-be-annihilated community granted me a unique position that let me speak to no one. To feel special but no more or less powerful for it is, well, surreal.
I spoke for about a half-hour before stepping out of the voice chat. I requested the Void be shared with a quick rotation and with the hopes that those who wanted to see the Void would get to see it. It wasn’t up to me, of course, because my time in the Void had made it clear to me that my time in the chat needed come to an end. I needed to post in the ban channel.
I’ve spoken before about how my intent was to latch onto the channel for as long as possible, to see what Olson might slip in at the end. I had considered it, in a sense, to be like the walk through Willy Wonka’s factory — that is, one I needed to endure until the end.
And there is an element of parasociality to that motivation, certainly. Dan Olson is a creator I admire — he has been formative in my outlook and passions, to say the least. But by the end of the night it was clear to me that this Discord — and the joy I derived from it — was not Olson’s at all. In fact, it was in spite of Olson, if anything. The green text insignias went ignored. The ban channel was re-appropriated. And the main chat was adamant about finding a way to ban Olson altogether.
That realization made it clear to me that the correct end to that day’s arc would not be to see the end of the channel, but rather go hand-in-hand with the community and into the ban channel.
It happened that my proclamation of departure in the main channel came right around the time of the 68th recorded ban. So, the chat rallied for me to be the 69th. Nice.
My final message in the ban channel was a verse from the song that, essentially, made me a writer. The song is Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, featured in the opening of Fallout 2. Yes, it was the Fallout franchise that turned me into a creative, of all things. And so it was only appropriate that I would treat the channel as a game — so coldly and analytically. I might’ve been one of the few folks truly fixated on these systems because as far as anyone else could tell, it was just a server. I saw it as a puzzle posed by Olson that I could solve and look impressive for having solved in the eyes of, well, probably Olson.
It took a few hours in the chat for that cold calculation to melt away. I made a few friends. I laughed a surprising amount. I have a fully loaded meme stash thanks to the #hell channel. It brought me the same butterflies as the Hbomberguy Donkey Kong 64 livestream — a feeling that I’m participating in something temporary — fleeting — but altogether lovely, with the kinds of people I’d actually want to be with.
It’s how all leftist spaces would be, if I could help it.
Oh, here’s the verse, by the by:
“Give me a kiss to build a dream on,
And my imagination will thrive upon that kiss.
Sweetheart, I ask no more than this,
A kiss to build a dream on.”
And a quick epilogue:
There is a morbid irony in that the following day saw Olson announcing the imminent dissolution of Drip, the crowdfunding platform on which OIson’s channel, Folding Ideas, was operating. Drip was an invite-only platform for content creation owned by Kickstarter that properly shut down, according to Olson, in October 2019. He has since moved to Patreon, but the announcement of its migration felt to me like a fitting end to the arc of fleeting internet spaces.