- At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore, I decided to stop doom scrolling through my Twitter feed.
- With the help of my friends, I founded moonmaker inc., a Discord server that catered specifically to Asian creatives looking to share their work and chat with like-minded people.
- On the occasion of World Mental Health Day on October 10, I’d like to share how Discord servers and other online forums can be a source of strength.
In 2017, fresh out of university, I took a stack of my creative work and put it in a box. Black-and-white film photos I’d taken during my walks around London, pencil sketches of Seoul’s streets, and the draft of a script I once wanted to turn into a short film all ended up organized by theme, filed into a clear folder, and squirreled away into a corner of my bookshelf. They were a secret no one had to know about, a facet of my past I associated with “college me” — a different person, who lived a different kind of life.
“I’m probably not going to touch any of it again,” I told my best friend over coffee. “When was the last time you had the time to sit around sketching, anyway? Wouldn’t you rather go out and, I don’t know, talk to people?”
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it, a slew of lockdown measures that ended “going out” and “talking to people” as I knew it.
Last April, Singapore imposed its harshest anti-COVID measures yet, a period of lockdown known as the “circuit breaker,” a COVID zero-era tactic meant to suppress a sharp increase in the number of infections. It was an extrovert’s nightmare — being cooped up in my bedroom and unable to leave the house except to get groceries or run essential errands, spending many an hour scrolling through a Twitter feed filled with nothing but grim case numbers and climbing death tolls.
My mental health, and the mental health of many around me, suffered. In Singapore, where I live, incidences of suicide hit a record high in 2020. And we saw this trend across the rest of Asia, too, with suicide rates spiking in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.
I started to fear, during the lockdown, that the overwhelming gloom and doom of being isolated and so far-removed from each other would eventually get the better of us all. It’s reasonable to think that people like me, who’ve now spent several years of our 20s coping with COVID-19, might start to accept the pain of lost opportunities during the pandemic, and our trepidation about what’s to come as our “new normal.” But I didn’t want to be part of a lost generation, and I refuse to accept that these pandemic years could make us feel like we’ve learned nothing, and gone nowhere.
It was then that I started seeing articles online with optimistic headlines about how online communities were helping to get people through tough times. Even during the pandemic, the possibilities seemed endless, with groups popping up for business owners, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and designers to connect online instead of meeting in person.
A community by Asian creatives, for Asian creatives
Rather than try to fit into an online forum that I didn’t completely feel comfortable with, it struck me that I could start one myself.
With Casey Chin, 23, an artist I’d met back in those halcyon COVID-free college days, I founded moonmaker inc., a group catering specifically to Asian writers and artists. I started it on Discord, a group-chatting platform that was initially built for gamers, that comes with voice and video-chatting functions.
The first members started rolling in within minutes of us launching, with the bulk of them being people from the Southeast and East Asian regions. Soon after, our numbers started growing, and we noticed more people from the US and the UK dropping into the server to say hi. It surprised me to find that some artists who joined us were just as obsessed with volleyball anime “Haikyuu!” and KPop mega-group BTS as I was. And there were writers who spoke the same languages I did, who craved, like me, to find someone who wanted to chat idly about Fitzgerald novels and Richard Siken’s poems.
Suddenly, I had a newfound responsibility as a community manager, spending weekends planning and setting up activities that ranged from three-hour creative pow-wows to hour-long streaming sessions where people could showcase their art.
Then came the inevitable question about why I hadn’t made any headway on creative projects of my own.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I never gave it that much thought.”
“You should get started on a project. Go back and look at your old stuff and draft a poem, or some micro fiction. Just do something,” one server member encouraged me.
“I already write for a living,” I replied.
“But it’s not the same, is it?”
And it wasn’t, as I later found. My conversations with other Asian creatives on the moonmaker inc. server made me go back to that box, and flip through old photos and abandoned drafts. I found myself writing snippets of short stories and doing up vision boards. I started planning, and writing, and sketching.
It took three years, a random stranger on my Discord server, and a global pandemic to motivate me to resuscitate my creative work. It was almost like slipping back into a comfortable, threadbare sweater I’d long forgotten was hanging in my closet.
But for once in a long time, I felt a little bit more like “me.”
Our Discord community taught me the value of moderated and safe online spaces
There are now 180 members on our server, a small population considering how some Discord communities have thousands or even millions of members. But the size of our community has allowed me and my co-moderators to keep tabs on the way things are discussed on our server. We have a zero-tolerance policy for anti-LGBTQ or racist messages, and the policy is made clear in a code of conduct that everyone has to agree to before being allowed to join the community.
I like to think that it is this zero-tolerance policy for hate speech that allows us to maintain this careful equilibrium we’ve kept within this safe space we built, even in the face of rampant anti-Asian hate, violence, and vitriol.
What was most heartening for me was how some community members have told me how moonmaker inc., and the activities we organize on Discord, helped them get through rough patches.
“As a socially anxious person, I hadn’t expected much from an online workshop. But moonmaker inc.’s activities felt like a supportive and positive space that helped me experience new creative disciplines, explore new genres and learn more about myself,” moonmaker inc. member Lyndon Ang, 25, told Insider.
All things considered, we, who created (or found) communities to lean on, are the lucky ones. Of course, online forums aren’t a panacea to prolonged isolation, nor do they promise to be the silver bullet to address all mental health issues. But at least with moonmaker inc., I had the privilege of not having to deal with obstacles to my creative life alone.
At our busiest, we were holding weekly events on the server, allowing people to drop in and share their thoughts about their ongoing projects and tidbits about their lives. Channels on our Discord server were also set up specifically for people to share their works-in-progress, seek advice, and drop links to resources. These structures let people feel as though there was always someone out there, listening, waiting, and willing to hear them out.
I hope people will continue to think of moonmaker inc. as a comforting cubby-hole we can always return to. But I also wish for the day that this Discord server will outlive its relevance, a time when we won’t have to rely on voice calls and sharing memes in our chats.
Maybe we’ll meet each other for the first time, face-to-face. Perhaps we’ll talk about our creative projects until our coffees get cold, or hop from art exhibition to art exhibition until closing time. I’ll show these strangers-turned-friends my photos, my sketches, and my now-completed short film script. And I’ll want to see their art, not in pixels on a desktop screen, but in person.
For now, we’ll sign into our server, and dream.