Ep. 16: Building a Discord Community with Alex Trost

How does one start a Discord community, and why would you? Hear what Alex Trost has learned from managing the Frontend Horse Discord.

Released: May 16, 2022 • Length: 30:51

Also available on Google Podcasts and Amazon Music

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Episode Guests

Alex Trost educates and foster community around front end development. He runs the Frontend Horse community, Twitch channel, and newsletter, and also leads the Developer Experience team at Prismic.



Welcome back to Word Wrap with Claire...


and Steph! You can find the transcript for today's show on WordWrap.dev.

Welcome back everyone to another fine episode of Word Wrap. Today, we are pleased to be joined by Alex Trost, who is a developer experience engineer at Prismic, which is a content management system. And also is an educator via Twitch streams and writing of really cool overview articles on his platform, frontend.horse, which also has a very active Discord community.

And we've brought Alex on today to talk about building community. Alex, anything that you'd like to add for yourself before we move on?


No, I think you, you, you nailed it. Thank you so much for that introduction.


Yeah. So I became familiar with Alex via his Twitch show, which has a few different flavors at this point. Originally I...


It's a Baskin Robbins for sure.


Yes. Yes. The general idea originally of the show was that you were bringing on just folks that were doing some very cool stuff in front end land. Whether that had to do with, I know GSAP was, I think one that I came on, I came to watch Cassie talk about that. I think it was the first show I came into the community for? But just, you know, the way that you have created that community, what was the motivation behind starting up all that? Did you, did you go into Frontend Horse with the idea you'd be building community or did it kind of fall out of what you were doing with that site?


Yeah, it definitely fell out. It was, I mean, it was always in the back of my mind. I was like, oh, wouldn't it be cool. Right. I think like you kind of extrapolate everything to like, wouldn't it be cool if like this, this gave me friends or something, but but no, So, so yeah, like the, the evolution of Frontend Horse is kinda been I want to write a newsletter about cool CodePens that I see and want to like explain how they work. Or rather, I want to ask the people who make them, how they work, and it's a little selfish and it's tough to get people to respond.

If you ask them personally, hi, can you teach me how this cool CodePen works? But if you ask them, Hey, I'm going to write this for my newsletter. Can you explain how this cool CodePen works? They are much more likely to, and then we all kind of learn. So that was the initial reason behind the whole thing.

And it turned into articles that kind of just like get into a deeper dive of those cool CodePens. And then you know, people coming on stream to show us those cool CodePens and like actually getting to build those out live or like have them like walk through the code step-by-step and hear it right from the horse's mouth, if you will, if you will.

Yeah, that, that, you know, just kind of like, felt like a natural thing. Like. Let's try this out. It's the pandemic we're all kind of experimenting with weird forms of media at this point. Let's do it. And yeah, it wasn't until we were streaming regularly and people such as yourself kept coming back over and over and chatting in, in what we call it, the chat you know, the, the place where you chat And I just kind of had this feeling of like, man, it's kinda a bummer that I don't get to chat with them anywhere after. Like, like we could do like a group Twitter, DM, but that's kind of a nightmare, right.

So yeah, it was like, all right, it's it feels like people are coming back. It feels like there's something here. The community kind of needs a home. So it, it did not start out with this intention of. I w I want to build a community or a group of people. To, to, to, to come here, but it was just kind of like a, Hey, we all have this shared sort of thing.

We're all kind of enjoying learning about this. You know, like I said there's GSAP and SVG animation and just all kinds of fun stuff. ThreeJS. We're covering all this stuff and people kind of kept coming back to, to watch that. And so, yeah, it just kinda was like, all right, there seems to be a community forming here.

Can we give it a home? And can we start to be more intentional about it rather than it just kind of being luck that people are showing up, but actually like facilitating and yeah, just, just being intentional about how we handle that.


Yeah. I that's, that's really interesting that you put that way. Cause as you were talking, I was kind of wondering like, well, if there's a Genesis point for this community building of some sort, like there's gotta be some sort of yeah. Maybe you've got some ideas originally of like what you want to talk about and stuff. And then does it just kind of start, I have no better words for this other than like feeding upon itself of like, you know, kind of they kind of, yeah, it kind of snowballs into its own thing where, you know, like the community starts to maybe come to you and be like, Hey, I want to talk about this or, Hey, I want to do that. Do you find it to be like that? Or do you find the intentionality of it being like, I want to talk about this this week. How does that, how does the content like. In my mind, I feel like if I were to create a community or if I were you know, want to foster a community, I'd have to have some sort of like list or something. And I'd be one I'd want to like talk about.

Even with this podcast, for example, we talk about things that we want to talk about, but we're like, You know, and, and for the most part, those topics kind of, you know, stay in their lane, but they also kind of start going elsewhere, places that we didn't know. So how does that, what does that look like for you?


Yeah, so it's interesting that like, while it is technically called, like the Frontend Horse community or the Frontend Horse Discord, I, it's not like tied completely to the stream or to the newsletter. Like, like. I I'm, I'm being very intentional about it. Not being like for lack of a better term, like a fan club of the stream or anything like that, where it's like, Hey, everyone here just loves watching this stream. And we're all here to talk about how great the stream is.

It's it's, it's more of like honestly, I, I kind of want it to become more so that the community is the center. And the stream is kind of an offshoot of that rather than, you know, the stream, you know, like if, if you think of like a TV show, I can't even think of a TV show, Stranger Things. Right? Like it would never be that Stranger Things is an offshoot of some Discord that, you know, like, oh, we, we all love this show, but in this case, I think it's more like there's just a lot of friendly, creative, curious people that are coming into this Discord and the streams might be useful or entertaining to them.

But also I want to put Steph's stream. Ben Myers stream has has, has a great Twitch stream called Some Antics. And I don't want it to just be like the Frontend Horse show, but it's, but it's, it's more about like, Hey like, let's all support each other. Let's try to build up multiple things and just have a friendly place here.

So, so I know that that's not your question exactly, but it kind of helps me get to it in the sense that the stream is sometimes informed or dictated by like what, what people went to see. Like there have been several times where something like drops a link, like, Hey, check out this really cool thing. And I'm like, oh, I've got to book this person. This is incredible. I've never seen this person's work. I want to reach out and have them here. Or someone shows up in the Discord and I'm like, oh wow, it's you I've, I've seen your work before. I would love to have you. But for the most part, like, like the, the, the best community building aspects that have kind of come from the community have been like, for instance, when Steph said, Hey, is anyone interested in doing a book club?

Or when someone else Mike Aparicio and I think I'm, I think I'm getting it. I hope I'm getting it. Mike, I apologize if I'm saying that wrong, but says, Hey, should we do a Secret Santa? And like, yeah, sure. So like, it's just like people proposing these ideas of like, how can the community, you know, like what should we do with this community?

How should we build it out? And me kind of taking the back seat was a learning moment for sure. And actually like had to read a book on community to kind of realize that where like, I need, I need to not, not build it. Like, like don't build this space for the community, but build it with the community.

Right? Like, like that that's an important like, ah, yes, I've been kind of sitting here going, what do they want? Oh, they probably want this. I'm going to build this. And that's just so backwards from how things should actually work, right?


Yeah, I was gonna say, you know, you already described kind of the evolution of your particular community, or like why in particular, the Discord exists. As my experience of being in being in that community, which by the way, folks, we will definitely be putting the link to that in our show notes. And you should join. It's a, it's a very unique corner of the internet, where I would say that you've done a terrific job of being this moderator, that encourages folks to share their ideas. And, you know, definitely allows a variety of opinions, but at the same time ensures that it's a safe space. And like it's you've done a great job in making that balance happen, but in a way that everyone is you know, shows up and is free to share a really whatever's on their mind. You know, basically as long as they're respectful. And I think that's unique and it kind of bums me out to say that that's unique you know, in some ways. But I don't know, you know, what is your, what you kind of just described though, how you kind of had to learn how to do some community building, but I know you also have a past as an educator. You know, what would you say is important to think about for someone who's starting to consider forming a community. What were some lessons, other lessons you learned in, in that forming process?


Yeah. I, I think one thing that you touched on there. I have been a teacher for longer than I've been a developer or especially like a community builder, but I guess classrooms are kind of mini communities.

So it's like, that's, that was something that I definitely had to learn and like facilitate a classroom environment with a bunch of eight and nine-year-olds and that can be kind of tricky to do. But and I don't mean this in any disparaging way to adults, but there's not a lot of difference between facilitating community between kids and adults.

When you get down to the core of it, like we still want to, you know, feel special and, and have attention and feel like our opinions are valued. Yeah. You know, feel that things are fair and that the person in charge of the people in charge are going to act fairly. Like there's still a lot of crossover. Snack time isn't as big in the Discord as it was in school. But beyond that there's yeah, there's, there's a lot of similarities. So definitely that's a useful skill set.

But yeah, it, it, I feel like a lot of it comes down to like, finding the, the small things and making sure that, that they don't kind of spiral or fester into something bigger. And I think my moderator, Ben, Ben Myers has been fantastic about kind of like sometimes seeing things that I haven't seen of being like, Hey, like what do you think about that?

And like, oh yeah, I definitely see how that can kind of start to snowball or get out of hand, let's just nip that in the bud and make sure that it's done in a positive way. Like if, if you come down on people hard when they are... you know, so like one thing that we try to avoid is people joining the server and saying, Hey guys, how's it going? Just because that's not very inclusive language. It, you know, like, and, and to, to a lot of people that might seem really small. And and, and, and petty, right? Like, oh, it's just a word, but those, those small things start to get into everything that you do. And it sends a message whether around this community is actually inclusive. Whether people feel like they are welcome here when they join the server. And just doing small things like using more inclusive language or trying to think of other examples, but those tiny acts can really set the vibe for lack of a better word or set the tone for how everyone kind of addresses everyone.

The other thing that I'm kind of big on, and I don't know if we're doing a great job of this, but I definitely want it to be a bigger focus is kind of the growth mindset. And things like hero worship or whatever, where we're basically like, if someone says like, oh, today I learned that you can use a ternary operator in JavaScript and then someone else comes in and goes, oh my gosh, you just learned that? Or like, oh, you didn't know that? It just doesn't feel great. And people are much less likely to engage with the community around their learning. Or like post a thing that they've built because it might not be perfect. And so like you, you start to have a chilling effect on lots of behaviors that at least I want to encourage, I don't want this to feel like a forum or a Discord where there's just experts because there, there are experts in the Discord.

Like we have a lot of the guests from the stream, but I want it to be incredibly beginner friendly. Because a lot of us are, are beginners at a lot of things, right? Like, like Steph, I know I consider you a CSS expert, but I would imagine if you go and learn ThreeJS, you'd be asking some beginner questions. Is that accurate?


Oh yeah, absolutely.


Yeah. So like stuff like that, like it, I don't want it to feel like, you know, Steph can't can't show that she doesn't know a thing. How, how, how dare she, right.


Yeah, no, that makes sense. You know, it's, it's funny at what we're talking about Discord, we're talking about community building, we're talking about all that stuff.

And I was kind of realizing that the only community I've really subscribed to is Twitter, which isn't really the most inclusive community. It's a great people finding community and finding other people, but, you know, Discord is, I think one of those things that I've always been reluctant to, to join.

Cause I feel like, oh, I'm not, I'm not even exactly sure where that, where that hesitation is. I know I'm going to join it after this, like recording now, but I do wonder like how... and it's great to like, hear about the inclusiveness and like, you know, I'm guilty of even saying, oh, you didn't know that. And I'm like, oh, I shouldn't do that, you know.

But is the community building different between like a Twitch stream and the Discord server that might go along with it? I don't know if I want to use the word context switching, but is it like a different mindset to moderate a Discord server versus doing a Twitch stream? Cause for example, maybe someone doesn't want to do a Twitch stream, but they want to do a Discord server. So like what does that, what are the differences between.


Yeah, that's a good question. So one thing that so the, the book that I read, just so that people have that context is called "Get Together", and I believe it's by like Stripe Press. I don't remember the authors, but I'm sure we can drop that in the show notes, but it's called "Get Together". And one of the things that it pointed out that I was kind of already doing by accident was having a recurring event. And that's one thing that communities kind of need in order to kind of keep coming back together around something.

And so, I don't know if I have a, a good insight on the differences of how I approach the Discord versus the Twitch. I think I try to kind of approach them and have the same sort of demeanor. I'm not sure if it's Steph maybe can see from the outside a difference in, in how I I approached them.

But the Twitch stream and also like community events, like, like just last night, we had a game night where we played Code Names or Code Words. I always mixed that up. In, in the server had about like, you know, eight people come through and play with us. So it was a really fun time and that's just like our kind of an excuse to bring the community back together to have that shared experience. And that's apparently like very important to community building, like in, in the book they give the example of Toastmasters, how they have like their monthly or bi-monthly meetings to bring people back together, but they might still like talk in the Facebook group or whatever, but it's it's those meetings that are really important.

Without those, it's hard to keep a community together and growing and say like, Hey, you've got to come to this community event. Right? Like it's way easier to bring new people to an event than it is to like bring them into a Facebook group where there's not, you know, like there's all this context that they might be missing. And it doesn't feel as like friendly, just coming in the door. But after being at the event, you have that shared thing you've, you've met people and you can comment on, wow. That was, that was so interesting. That, that thing that you taught us, thank you again for that. I have some additional up questions and boom that person's now in, in the community, right?

So they, they kind of feed each other where the community comes out to the events and the events are nice places to introduce new people to that community.


Yeah, I hate to say it, but it, the, the buzzword of the day is engagement. Engagement, I feel like is very important to a community and, you know, like engaging them and doing certain things like, like a recurrent event.

So that sounds, that sounds really welcoming. And I mean, I'm being sold on and as we talk about it, so


That's why I'm here. Actually. I messaged Steph. I said, Steph, got to get Claire on the Discord. How do I do it? We're going to do a podcast. I'm like, let's do it.


Admittedly. I've just, I have been really hesitant to join any Discord, just cause I feel like I'm, I'm, I'm very, I'm a very passive user and that's not something that I want to keep happening. It's just something that just keeps happening. And like, I have like 10 Discords on my Discord right now. And like, I don't even know what half of them really are. Like I there's the TypeScript one. There's the Eleventy one.

And sometimes it's overwhelming. So I wonder if there was an engaged community that I was really into if if that would change. So. I I'm just sprinkling personal anecdotes throughout this, throughout this podcast here.

Cause this is a super important to me too. Like you know, especially with the pandemic, losing all of that, face-to-face kind of, you know, in-person stuff, I think it really took a toll on me. And then going fully remote in terms of work like that, you know, just you lose all those community building channels basically. So like you said earlier, like finding new mediums and stuff to really, you know, come together is super important. So I just haven't personally, I just, haven't made that jump to the mediums that are hot and cool right now. So.


I, I do just want to say your experience of having a lot of Discords or being in a lot of Discords very common. I recommend when you enter a Discord, try it out, you know, poke around a little bit, see what's going on, but don't be afraid to mute a Discord. Especially if they're like pinging you every day.

Like I have a lot Discords are just muted and I pop in it, it it's, it's still like on my sidebar, but I'm not getting pinged by everything that someone wants to say. Cause some Discords are more lax about using like @everyone and just doing an, an all. In, in all person ping and then you get the fun notifications. Where like in the Frontend Horse Discord, we never use that @everyone ping just because personally I find it a bit much.

So I would rather people not see a notification. An event that's coming up or something and just kind of show it more, but not annoy people so that they like have a bad association. That that's just my thing, but yeah. Join them and mute them if, if you have to, I've got like 30, maybe. So it's fine.


That's good advice.


Just collect them like Pokemon or something. It's fine.


For folks who have completely not downloaded Discord. So my, I was hesitant for a very long time and. I only got it because Alex, you do this too, a couple other groups do this, where they have a Discord specifically because they are using it as a medium to talk to stream or podcast guests. And so you kind of have to join if you're going to be a guest with them.

And I had a misconception that Discord is going to be like, there's a big, immensely, heavy resource hog on my machine. That's partly why I didn't download it. And I haven't found that to be true. It's definitely more about, yeah, trying to keep up with communities. And I was hesitant because you know, Twitter already was kind of more than I could keep up with usually.

But I think that's also what makes the Frontend Horse group, you know, unique is compared to the other ones I'm in, which is only about, I think, four other ones. I pretty much don't look at those because the rules are too ambiguous about what is, you know, what is the vibe, as you said earlier, but I mean, that's a critical component.

Like, can I join this feel comfortable? Do I know where to post a question? Am I allowed to tell you something cool that I've made. And like in your community, that's been really explicitly defined. Not in like a, you know, hard-nose way just in a, Hey, you know, let's put stuff in the appropriate spot because that makes it easier for folks to join a conversation about topics they're interested in and to feel more comfortable joining in.

You also have like the community gardening channel, which I know is, you know, folks name it different things, but the idea of the community actually telling you like, Hey, maybe we should add a certain channel. And you're very democratic about that. You know, was that something you thought of early or is it something you sort of learned from other, being in other groups and, and just kind of formed an opinion about? Or what kind of guidance do you have about that aspect where you can either have a massive general channel or you can start segmenting into channels and that can get overwhelming. All these sorts of things.


Yeah. That's a balancing act for sure that I still haven't, you know, I still wonder, should this be a channel. And, and W what I've been doing to kind of balance that out is having a little section at the bottom called like archived channels. So if something doesn't get a whole lot of love over the past couple months, I guess there's no specific time, but basically if something's kind of a ghost town, I move it into the archive channel thing. It can always come back, but just I'd rather have fewer active channels than a ton of channels and half of them are just ghost towns.

I think part of it is that and, and I nothing against ghost towns, ghost towns, I mean, ghosts have to live somewhere, don't mean to disparage them. But yeah I don't want people to come into the Discord and say, oh, okay. So like, no one's here. Right? Like if they just happened to click the three channels that are dead, they're kind of go, okay, this is just another empty Discord because there's lots of them. But, so, so, so that's the one thing that's like kind of making sure that when you're adding a channel, you kind of keep an eye on it to see if it actually grows or, you know, w what, what happens there.

And you, you did touch on like creating a space for things. So I think specifically with like the, the we've got a help and feedback channel where I know personally, if that channel doesn't exist, I'm going to feel like I'm a bit of a burden if I'm asking for help in general. And I, and I just might not. I'm not saying people should feel that. But I just know, you know, like trying to empathize with people of how asking for help is you know, kind of scary in a few ways sometimes, cause someone might respond in the way that I said earlier, I was like, oh, this is an easy fix. Or like, oh, like you don't know this or you know, like whatever. So you're already like outside of your comfort zone.

And then if people are having a conversation about, you know, fun stuff and you come in with like, Hey, someone fixed my thing, or like, I don't understand this. You might feel kind of bad, but if you leave that space and if you leave that space for other things to happen, that you like, that you want to encourage within the community, it happens more. Right.

And then getting to the community gardening channel. I think Ben recommended that based on the React podcasts Discord, and the React podcast Discord got it from the Party Corgi Discord. I do not know where they got it from. They might've been the origin. They might've been patient zero. We're still looking into it.

But yeah, so for, for community gardening, it's really a. It's it's, you know, a, a fun term that just kind of says like, Hey this is kind of a meta channel. No, I'm gonna hear from Zuckerburg about that. I'm sorry. This is a, this is a channel that refers to the whole Discord.

And this is where we can decide how we want to grow this thing or how we want to shape it. If we want to plan any events. All that kind of stuff. It's just basically that channel that say it again, is, is, you know, meta and, and about the Discord. It's not about JavaScript or CSS. It's about, Hey, I think that this, this Discord should have this kind of a channel or impose perhaps this rule or something and people discuss it. And yeah, we, we kind of see the pulse of the community there.


We need to create a different word for a Meta. Now that's taken and totally ruined. Yeah. No, I think that's really cool. I kind of going back to a point that you made earlier having channels that are very specific to exactly what they're, they're meant to be.

I think it's for me, I, I look at it as like, oh, this is specifically for this, so I shouldn't feel an X or Y or Z about not doing, not posting in that channel because this is directly related to this, unless I do not understand the language, that is my first language. So which I hope I do understand it, but so I, I that's, that's just, that's really great.

So I didn't have a question. I just wanted to say that


I feel like we'd be remiss if we ended the podcast and didn't address the horse in the room as it were. So we kind of need to know about that for those that aren't familiar yet with your community, what is the deal with the horse?


You just horsing around?


We are always horsing around. We're always hopping into the saddle. So it is the one thing that people need to know first off the frontend community. I think all communities, I think, but it's not for everyone. First off, it's not for jerks, no jerks allowed. That's a big sign on the door. So if you're a jerk, just keep walking.

But also it's for people who enjoy puns also. So if you are very averse to puns, if you are a person that just groans rolls your eyes and then it doesn't give a little chuckle. Cause I think everyone groans and rolls their eyes, but it's whether it's what you feel deep inside, if you enjoy horse puns or just people who you know, like just terrible humor like that. Yeah, it's, it's, it's a great place for you.

There's also some web development stuff there but, but basically The whole horse thing. I I've ridden like two or three horses in my life. I am not a horse girl. It's just not who I am, but .horse is a domain and that's funny. And so that's what I based the entire thing on.

I wanted to write a newsletter: Alex Trost's weekday front end newsletter isn't that catchy? So let's go with .horse. The branding's built in, the jokes are built in. So yeah, we've just been having fun ever since I kind of realized, yeah, .horse is a ridiculous domain. Let's go all in.


So you mentioned that there's like are, well, Steph more, more so mentioned it's a democratic process. So when you vote, is it a yay or neigh option or.


You you're going to get along just great. Claire. You're in. You think you are a Senator now in the democratic process? Yeah. Just been elected


That one's been burning in me for awhile. I'm really glad I got that out.


Then you found your place. Yeah, for sure.


Amazing. Well let's saddle up and ride into the sunset with this one. We are, it was great having you on Alex and I hope everybody's inspired and encouraged to whether or not, you know, are find the Frontend Horse sounding great.

Maybe you're encouraged to seek out more community or, you know, find opportunities where... I think the most impactful thing you talked about Alex was like wanting to take something that's going well and giving it a better home basically to provide folks that space. So, you know, there's lots of different shapes that can take. So very cool to hear from you and the different ideas behind communities you've built up.

And definitely go follow Alex, joined the Discord. We'll have the links. And any last thoughts from you, Alex?


No. So, so just one thing that I don't think I touched on was knowing when the time is right to kind of form that Discord. Because if, if you do it a little too early, it might be tough to keep the momentum going.

So just kind of you know, there's no set metric or anything, but I did wait for a while. Like a Discord... I had reserved the Discord for months and months before I started inviting anyone. Just because the time really didn't feel right. But eventually it felt like the, the community was there and kind of needed a home.

So that, that might be that the thing to do first is like figure out what the community is going to be built around. Start to build that, see if you're getting traction and yeah. Then, then kind of introduce that Discord or that forum or that Twitter group, like. It doesn't have to be a Discord, it coming up a lot of different shapes and sizes, but kind of getting the sense of is, is it there? Is it, is it ready for it? Yeah, I think that's, that's just as important.


Definitely. Yeah. Well, everyone that is listening to this podcast should go horse around and join the Discord. And that's all I got to say. I just want to say horsing around.


So fun.


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