Diaspora Co., the five-year-old company on a mission to build a better spice trade, sold its first batch of kadipatta plants this year and began shipping small green sprouts to homes across the country in May. Also known as curry leaf trees, kadipatta plants have leaves that add that crucial flavor to many South Asian dishes, but — native to the subcontinent — can be difficult to grow in the United States. In order to help its customers and their plants to be successful, Diaspora has set up a kind of hotline.
With their purchase, buyers gained access to Diaspora’s Discord server, where a channel called Kadipatta Care Community connects plant parents with each other as well as with Zee Husain, who co-founded Cultural Roots Nursery and has partnered with Diaspora to grow the plants. The channel is for questions like: What should I do if I see tiny bugs in the ground? What about a patch of white mold? Where should I put my plant during a heat wave? There are pictures of the plants when they arrived in their new home and weeks later, repotted and hopefully thriving.
Like Slack but without the office work association, Discord is a communication platform where each group is called a server and each server can be broken down into topic-specific channels. Live stream and voice chat features initially made it popular with the gaming community, but its user base has expanded and Discord now has more than 150 million monthly active users. Diaspora has essentially turned its Discord server into a marketplace: In other channels, members share recipes and cookbook reviews, discuss where to source hard-to-find ingredients, and crowd-source how to use rose petals and broad beans. Since Diaspora started growing its Discord section in October, its server has gained more than 1,400 members. Many of them came to the platform through the Kadipatta plants, while others came through Club Masala, a loyalty program for all diasporas who bought Masala Dabba, a handspun brass condiment container, or spent more than $200 in a year – in Essentially the server – early access is full of die-hard diaspora fans.
Discord is showing promise for the diaspora, who first found their success through Instagram, where founder Sana Javeri Kadri’s long, candid captions drew a like-minded audience. “It had a lot of power for a long time, that we were able to create this really sweet, fervent third culture, first and second generation community,” says Javeri Kadri. But by late 2020, it became clear that while Diaspora’s audience had grown (it currently has 113,000 Instagram followers), people weren’t seeing the brand’s posts as often due to changes in the algorithm. The change has been frustrating for Javeri Kadri and countless other small businesses, who have seen a big drop in sales without recourse – and they still remain beholden to the whims of the apps.
Platforms like Instagram and TikTok are crucial for introducing people to new food brands and creators, but the limitations of apps are becoming increasingly apparent. Javeri Kadri began to feel that Diaspora’s Instagram account was speaking to people instead of allowing people to talk to each other. “The longing for something more where we could engage with our community was really rewarding,” she says. Diverting communities away from TikTok and Instagram — and into spaces that allow for a direct relationship between creators and consumers — could be a way out of the algorithm-dependent cycle.
Diaspora certainly isn’t the first food brand to join Discord. When Wendy’s joined the platform last year, it grew in just two weeks to become the “largest branded Discord server ever, totaling 52,000 members,” according to a press release. As of this writing, it has more than 44,000 members and remains relatively active in sharing fanart (more furries than burgers), animal images, and memes. Its existence indicates an expanding role that brands should play in users’ lives.
“Yes, it’s a place to talk about products,” Wendy’s social media manager Kristin Tormey told marketing firm Contagious in February. “But that wasn’t necessarily the thought that went into the platform, it was more that we’ve seen our audience shift to Discord. Now we’re able to connect with that audience that we can speak to directly. Whether it’s upcoming brand announcements and activations, or just life in general.”
While Diaspora brought his community onto an existing platform, Ian Moore decided to build a new one. Inspired by a group chat about grilling, he founded the DEMI Community in 2020 with the aim of helping chefs generate income by building their own online spaces. “Instagram is very heavily based on the number of followers you have, rather than the depth of what those followers are doing,” says Moore.
In comparison, DEMI focuses on the power of a more engaged, albeit smaller, fan base. Through DEMI, a chef or food creator acts as a community host, leading discussions, providing suggestions and answering questions; Access is via a monthly paid subscription. Similarly, there’s The Plate, a Berlin-based platform that aims to “give control back to culinary creators” through a subscription-based model for exclusive content. And all of this fits into a larger cultural shift toward spaces like Substack and Patreon.
What began in WhatsApp group chats — some of which Moore says were so popular they reached the messaging platform’s previous limit of 256 members — now lives in DEMI’s own app, which launched last year. For $10 a month, there’s Sicily Sierra’s chef’s Sandwich Ministry and pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz and Beit Mishmish’s pop-up chef Michelle Nazzal’s Never Ending Salon, plus more. “Ultimately, creators deserve to take that audience off Instagram to actually have more direct contact with them,” says Moore. “You’re just borrowing an audience [on Instagram]; that is quite dangerous and I find it very unfair.”
However, these types of community development are not without their own drawbacks. There’s always a danger with new online groups that they start off with a bang but quickly burn out without the right prompts or active leaders. Though DEMI made a lot of sense for creators and their communities during the peak of the pandemic, things have changed “by a million percent,” says Moore. “If you are a chef, what would you like to do? You want to cook.” He now sees DEMI entering a new phase where “the community will be a feature within a platform, not the be-all and end-all of the platform. There are plans to enable storefronts as well, so chefs, bakers, and creators who frequently answer questions about where to get that ingredient or kitchen tool can get paid for the recommendations they’re already making.
After the initial hurdle of setting up and structuring the diaspora’s Discord server, Javeri Kadri says the members have made the space “active and so healthy”. To keep the momentum going, she’s thinking about how Discord can actually enrich the lives of its members by emulating the sense of community and dialogue she once found on Instagram. As she and recipe editor Asha Loupy work on Diaspora’s first cookbook, she thinks Discord could be the space to share ideas from Diaspora fans, for example: Would they find a biryani chapter or a chutney chapter more helpful?
While Reels and TikToks will continue to be part of the diaspora model, Discord is helping Javeri Kadri feel less dependent on them. “Ideally, Discord becomes a knowledge base for community information and resources,” she says. “So many [community] Organizers use Discord; we draw from that.”
Caroline Figel is a freelance artist based in Brooklyn.