How Do You Describe Are.na At A Party?
Are.na co-founder Charles Broskoski and editorial director Meg Miller make a case for using the tool to hack creativity and conversation.
By Meghna Rao
Are.na's Arena is a partner column with Are.na, a platform for connecting ideas and building knowledge. For more Are.na editorial content, visit are.na/blog.
Half the point of Are.na is that it’s hard to write an intro for it. The twelve-year-old site, put in my own clunky words, lets people organize things they like and connect it to other people’s things. But each person has their own definition, as is evidenced by the channel “how do you describe are.na at a party?” Answers: “a piece of paper that keeps unfolding if you try,” “idea thrift shop,” “Pinterest for snobs,” or “the only internet service that if went away i would not eat for two weeks.”
The site was founded by artists. For years, co-founder Charles Broskoski worked a part-time job, steadily picking away at the site. Today, the site does not serve ads, makes money off subscriptions, and hopes to survive for 1000s of years.
Below, an interview with Charles and Meg Miller, head of Are.na’s blog.
Meghna Rao: Let’s say I’m online. When do you expect me to come to Are.na?
Cab: I’d say there are two types of people. A lot of people come to are.na out of frustration with other platforms. They realize that, on other platforms, there’s a distance between the things they want to pay attention to and the things that they aren’t paying attention to. And they have this more self-led, self-directed approach towards being curious about things online. They go down rabbit holes, discover things they might think are interesting. There are those people.
There are also those who are like, I have a million tabs open. What’s the best way to save some of what’s important? They realize after that that there’s a different way to interact online.
The second is rooted in practicality. It’s a tool to organize stuff, or maybe a better, more poetic way to say that. The first is those who are disillusioned with how social interaction happens online.
MR: I definitely came to it from a practical, organization point-of-view. That’s how it was pitched to me.
Cab: And did it match up to those expectations?
MR: Well, I’m a really unorganized person, but I’ve always gotten bored of the other ways I’ve been told I can fix that. But what happened with Are.na was I started organizing but then I also started discovering other stuff. When I was younger, I used to use StumbleUpon a lot, which was purely for wandering, being a flaneur on the internet. It’s interesting that as an adult, I came to Are.na to get something done. I was pretty practical and then I found something fun, something playful.
Meg Miller: Yeah, that sounds pretty accurate. I think the other thing about Are.na is that people don’t get it right away. We’re not pushy about how to use it. They come back months or years later, when it clicks for them. I tell people who are getting started to just make a channel for all the links they’re trying to save, and then you can branch out once you get in the habit of doing that.
MR: How do you think about Are.na interacting with the rest of the internet? How does it fit into the rhythm of your day?
Cab: I probably check it more than any other place. More than Instagram or Twitter or anything. And it doesn’t give me the primal, weird anxiety-inducing feeling you get that makes other sites so addictive. Are.na, for me, is when I want to spend time with stuff. It takes work, and I have to be intentional. Yesterday, the first thing on my feed was a PDF called the Ambiguity of Play. And I skimmed the whole PDF, which is so different than scrolling an Instagram feed. It requires more attention. More conscious attention.
MR: Do you see Are.na as a break?
Cab: It’s more like if I were to visit the bookstore in the middle of the day, you know? Are.na doesn’t want to be the main place, but it wants to be the starting point for many, many other places.
Meg: I think with Are.na, you have to build your own habits. Some people will use it as they log on. You can set your feed to the people you follow or to explore, so you can see everything that’s being added. But you have to figure out the habit for yourself. And that’s not how it is with other social media platforms, because there, those habits are set out for you. They also train you to use it or behave a certain way, but here you have to figure it out.
MR: How do you use it?
Meg: I don’t get on Are.na at the same time every day, or even first thing in the morning. It’s not always work-related. Sometimes, I’m saving bits of text or images or articles. But I also use it for writing. I use it to gather research. Sometimes, I have a Google Doc outline and an are.na channel and I use them both simultaneously.
I have this Berlin playgrounds channel, and when I’m on a walk in the morning, I take a picture and put it on there.
MR: Can you tell me about a channel or block you’ve seen on Are.na that’s opened something new up for you?
Cab: I saw a PDF written by this computer scientist. The subject was: if we’re living in a simulation, how would one go about jailbreaking it? It was saying, OK, we know that prayer doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t matter if you say that you’re in the simulation. And then it talks about putting a goldfish bowl on top of a roboting vehicle, and when the goldfish moves in a certain direction, the vehicle moves in that direction. This was a way for a goldfish to be more embodied outside of its own body. And it was a metaphor for how a person in a simulation would get down to base reality.
I furiously read through it. I sent it to so many people. I cite it a lot, I love how it sticks to the bit. And I’m not sure where else I would find that. It makes me thankful that Are.na is around.
Meg: This is for a piece of my writing, but also just my interest. I found it in one of Matt Piper’s channels, who has a lot of channels about archiving. It originated with the writer and poet Kamau Brathwaite. It said: “My archives, your archives, our archives. But by archives, I’m not thinking of musty or air-conditioned rooms, almost inaccessible. Tombstones of stalwart abbott. I’m speaking of archives of sound, of memory. Archives of the oral. Archives of spirit. The library as mbira, the thumb piano on which you play the troubles and the travels of your soul.… Archives of ownership, of reclamation, of record, of discovery, of yourself in a strange land by the still or turmoil waters where you lay down and weep, where you lay down and dream, where you become free.”