Carolyn Figel/Eater

Platforms like Discord and DEMI Community offer food creators and brands a way to interact with their biggest fans — without being at the mercy of flighty algorithms

Diaspora Co., the five-year-old company with a mission of building a better spice trade, sold its first batch of kadipatta plants this year, sending small green shoots to homes across the country in May. Also known as curry leaf trees, kadipatta plants have leaves that lend crucial flavor to many South Asian dishes, but — native to the subcontinent — they can be tricky to grow in the United States. So, to help its customers and their plants thrive, Diaspora has set up a hotline of sorts.

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 with whom Diaspora partnered to grow the plants. The channel is for asking questions like: What should I do if I see tiny bugs in the soil? What about a patch of white mold? Where should I put my plant during a heatwave? There are pictures of the plants when they arrived at their new homes, as well as weeks later, repotted and hopefully flourishing.

Like Slack but without the association to office work, Discord is a communication platform in which each group is referred to as a server and each server can be partitioned into topic-specific channels. Livestream and voice chat features made it initially popular with the gaming community, but its user base has expanded and Discord now boasts more than 150 million active users monthly. Diaspora has essentially turned its Discord server into a town square: In other channels, members share recipes and cookbook reviews, discuss where to procure hard-to-find ingredients, and crowdsource how to use rose petals and fava beans. Since Diaspora began building out its Discord space in October, its server has gained more than 1,400 members. Many of those came to the platform through the kadipatta plants, while others gained early access through Club Masala, a loyalty program for anyone who’s bought Diaspora’s masala dabba, a handspun brass spice container, or spent over $200 in a year — essentially, the server is full of Diaspora’s most die-hard fans.

Discord is proving to be promising for Diaspora, which initially found its success through Instagram, where founder Sana Javeri Kadri’s long, honest captions pulled in a like-minded audience. “That had a lot of power for a long time, that we were able to create this really sweet, eager, third-culture, first-gen, second-gen community,” says Javeri Kadri. But by late 2020, it became clear that although Diaspora’s audience had grown (it currently has 113,000 Instagram followers), people weren’t seeing the brand’s posts as much due to changes in the algorithm. The change was frustrating to Javeri Kadri and countless other small businesses, who saw a major drop in sales without any recourse — and they still remain beholden to the apps’ whims.

Platforms like Instagram and TikTok are crucial for introducing people to new food brands and creators, but the apps’ limitations are becoming more obvious. Javeri Kadri started to feel as though Diaspora’s Instagram account was talking at people, instead of enabling people to talk to each other. “The yearning for something more, where we were able to engage with our community, felt really worthwhile,” she says. Funneling communities off TikTok and Instagram — and into spaces that facilitate a direct relationship between creator and consumer — 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 the “biggest branded Discord server of all time, with a total of 52,000 members” in just two weeks, according to a press release. It has more than 44,000 members as of this writing and remains relatively active for sharing fanart (more furries than burgers), pet pictures, and memes. Its existence points to a broadening of the role brands feel they should take in users’ lives.

“Yes, it is a place to talk about products,” Wendy’s social media manager, Kristin Tormey, told the marketing company Contagious in February. “But that wasn’t necessarily the thought going into the platform, it was more that we’ve seen our audience shift to Discord. Now we’re able to engage with this audience that we can talk to directly. Whether that is upcoming brand announcements and activations, or just life in general.”

While Diaspora brought its community to an existing platform, Ian Moore decided to build a new one. Inspired by a group chat devoted to barbecue, he started DEMI Community in 2020 with the goal of helping chefs gain revenue through building their own online spaces. “Instagram is very much built off the quantity of followers you have, rather than the depth of what those followers do,” Moore says.

By comparison, DEMI centers around the power of a more engaged if smaller fanbase. Through DEMI, a chef or food creator acts as a community host who guides discussions, offers prompts, and answers questions; access is via monthly paid subscription. Similarly, there’s The Plate, a Berlin-based platform that aims to give “back control to culinary creators” through a subscription-based model for exclusive content. And all of this fits into a larger cultural shift to spaces like Substack and Patreon.

What started in WhatsApp group chats — with some popular enough to hit the messaging platform’s previous limit of 256 members, according to Moore — now lives in DEMI’s own app, which it launched last year. For $10 a month, there’s chef Sicily Sierra’s Sandwich Ministry and pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz’s Never Ending Salon and pop-up chef Michelle Nazzal’s Beit Mishmish, and more. “Ultimately, creators deserve to move that audience off Instagram to actually have more direct contact with them,” Moore says. “They’re only borrowing audience [on Instagram]; that’s pretty dangerous, and I think it’s very unfair.”

These modes of community development aren’t without their own drawbacks, though. There’s always the risk with new online groups of starting with a bang but then burning out quickly, without the right prompts or active leaders. Though DEMI made a lot of sense for creators and their communities during the height of the pandemic, things have changed “one million percent,” Moore says. “If you’re a chef, what do you want to be doing? You want to be cooking.” He now sees DEMI as moving into a new stage in which “the community will be a feature within a platform,” not the be-all and end-all of the platform. The plan is to also facilitate storefronts so that chefs, bakers, and creators who are often answering questions about where to get this ingredient or that kitchen tool can get paid for the referrals they’re already making.

After the initial hurdle of getting Diaspora’s Discord server set up and structured, Javeri Kadri says members have made the space “active and so wholesome.” To keep the momentum going, she’s thinking about how Discord can actually add value to the lives of its members, thus replicating 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, for example, to bounce ideas off Diaspora fans: Would they find a biryani chapter or a chutney chapter more helpful?

While Reels and TikToks will continue being part of Diaspora’s model, Discord is helping Javeri Kadri move toward feeling less dependent on them. “In an ideal scenario, the Discord becomes a knowledge base for community information and resources,” she says. “That’s how a lot of [community] organizers use Discord; we’re drawing from that.”

Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.

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