Systemic Barriers and Chat Apps

Mani Kamali

7 minutes

So, I go to the Ohio State University, and I'm a Computer Science student with a social justice bend, which is, honestly, a somewhat terrible experience, because, as you might expect, a computer science classroom at the Ohio State University is not exactly at the forefront of social justice. So, I suppose, this is a short description of how systemic obstacles to disadvantaged groups compound naturally over time, and by extension why "equality of opportunity" is a scam.

I suppose I'll do this in a semi-proof format, and give my thesis up front: the use of Discord as the primary chat and support platform in tOSU's Computer Science department is actively harmful to diversity, especially to people who were assigned female at birth. I will "prove" this by establishing a few things. That being said, compared to my normal work this will be somewhat relaxed on sources, sorry not sorry.

  1. That there are two distinct currents in chat platform design: IRC/Slack/Discord/etc style channels, and Instagram/Signal/Twitter/etc style group chats.
  2. That historically the first current, the channel chat style, but especially Discord, has been male dominated.
  3. That the existing gender split in computer science contributed to the use of Discord over GroupMe in the computer science department.
  4. That not being able to use Discord is an academic and professional disadvantage in this context.

The Two Distinct Currents in Chat Platform Design

So, frankly, this one I feel is somewhat self-evident when viewed side by side. So, uh, here.

A screenshot of the imessage macos application. A screenshot of the Slack desktop app.

I'm sure there's plenty of history here, starting with IRC going through to a ton of different platforms and ending at Slack and Discord. I just want to highlight the mobile-first, group chat, casual nature of iMessage, compared to Slack's professional, desktop-optimized, focused nature. I would also put out there that if you use an iPhone, it is almost impossible to not use iMessage, while it is very possible to avoid using Slack and Discord.

Male-domination in Discord

So, to establish that Discord is male-dominated I'll bring up a variety of different but compounding factors. First, as established earlier, Discord is in a sense a descendent of IRC, well, all internet chats are probably descendants of IRC in some way, but Discord more than most. Now, I don't know much about the IRC gender split, but I imagine it wasn't amazing, given the significantly higher proportion of men vs women online in the mid-late 90s. I also want to note that Slack, which has a very similar format but was released two years before Discord, marketed itself primarily towards silicon valley style startups and corporations, that are also often male-dominated. So, this is definitely a factor, but I think we should also remember who Discord was originally for.

A screenshot of the Discord landing page in 2015, notably marketing itself for gamers.

Das right baby we here for the GAMERS, LOVE THE GAMERS BABY LOVE THE GAMERS. I think it's also useful to do a further examination of what gamers they focused on.

A screenshot of the Discord landing page's games section in 2015, focused on e-sport titles, MMOs, and Minecraft.

I apologize for the horrible contrast. I guess Discord didn't think visually impaired people were real in 2015. But, some highlights, three out of the six games are e-sport titles, two are MMOs, and one is Minecraft (the best selling game of all time). Barring Minecraft, the other games have relatively depressing gender diversity.

A graph showing the percent of female gamers by genre. Relevant for this article: MMOs have a 36% female player base, MOBAs (League of Legends and Dota) have a 10% female player base, and shooters (CSGO) have a roughly 5% female player base, going up or down depending on the sub-genre.
Data from this quantic foundry article.

So, Discord's marketing is targeting the game genres with the lowest percentages of female players. This isn't surprising if we remember what Discord's main feature actually is, because it's not texting. It's low-latency voice chat. I mean, let's also take a look at who they see as their competition back in 2015.

A table on the Discord landing page that shows how Discord “stacks up to the competition”. The competition in this table, from left to right, are: Ventrilo, teamspeak, and Skype.

Why is this important? Because these competitive, high action, fast paced games by far benefit the most from Discord's voice chat abilities.

So, we've established that Discord borrows a lot from IRC, was marketed toward fast-paced competitive gamers for most of its existence, and those games have lower female participation. Thus, we can conclude Discord marketed itself toward men, leading to, I would say for its first four years of existence, a heavily male-dominated environment. So, finally, with the hard work done, we can move on to the third part of this "proof".

tOSU Computer Sci Department Gender Split

This one is honestly real easy, it's no secret tOSU's Computer Science department has a large gender split. I'll prove it, anyway, for funsies. Okay, so there's an annual report dashboard the College of Engineering puts out every year with the data we need, you can check it out here if you're so inclined, but here's a screenshot.

A screenshot of the College of Engnineering annual report dashboard.

So, yeah, there were 1604 "males" admitted to the major and 316 "females" (in quotes because there is no option for nonbinary people, who were forced to choose one of these options). This comes out to roughly 16.4% "females" and 83.6% "males". Not amazing. Actually, quite terrible, even compared to the OSU engineering average of 33% women. Just an interesting note, if you take the games Discord has listed and you average their female percentages: Dota (MOBA, 10%), League (MOBA, 10%), World of Warcraft (MMO, 36%), Final Fantasy XIV (MMO, 36%), Counter Strike: Global Offensive (Tactical Shooter, 4%), Minecraft (Sandbox, 18%), you get 19%, not far off from our 16.4%. Although, not very close either.

The Gender Split's Influence on Chat Platform

Okay, so, there's a gender split. So, let me put a theoretical out there for you. If ~16% of your class is female, and you are trying to decide what chat platform to use, do you think it's really perceptible if they're not on it? Or, if they are and they don't say anything? I argue no, if you're not paying attention and asking around, if you put everyone on Discord, and, let's say, only 25% of the females join and are active, when there's only ~8 of them per 50 person class size, it is not that noticable that they're not there, at least if you don't care to check. Just to highlight this, every non-STEM department I've had classes in has used GroupMe. Which, frankly, is not an amazing platform, but is simple and accessible to a wide group of people, even including people with no internet or data. I know this might sound insane for many people outside of STEM, but I've had instructor endorsed Discord servers — we have many instructors in these servers helping students.

And, in these same classes, I have overheard many female-presenting people after class expressing how they "don't get" or "don't understand" Discord. Is Discord that hard to get used to? No, but it's just one more thing that the men, especially cis men, get for free that the females don't. So, I put out there that the male-dominated nature of the department has contributed to Discord usage for classes and the major.

The Chat Platform's Influence on Opportunity

Frankly, I don't think this one is very hard to prove either. A large part of college is supposed to be making friends and building both a social and professional network for after you graduate, it is significantly harder to do this, especially during the pandemic, when you don't feel comfortable using the chat platform everyone is on, and there are no resources to support you. Hell, while I do hope that the instructors put together resources for new Discord users, it's still an extra step that many of the male students will not have to take. Just in case you're not convinced about the utility of the platform, I got my last internship through essentially a job posting on Discord.


Well...frankly, this post is way longer than I expected to write. An exciting start to the first week of my release schedule, I suppose. If you like this sort of thing please subscribe to my newly started mailing list below 😭. Next post will be next week about Dungeons and Daddies (the podcast) and exile, if I don't change my mind. Thank you for reading, have a good day!