In the early days of the World Wide Web, technologists believed that networked personal computers would lead to an unprecedented spread of knowledge. They envisioned cyberspace as a new kind of public sphere that would ultimately connect every piece of the world’s information for the benefit of all.
In 2018, we’re living with some unintended consequences of that vision. We have access to more information than ever before, but we lack the tools to navigate it meaningfully. Our attention is spread so thin that we spend more time clicking notifications than actually thinking. The online cultural sphere is controlled by a handful of platforms that profit by monopolizing our time and emotions.
We believe that a better internet is possible: one where people have more control over their digital footprints and more motivation to explore the web on their own terms. Are.na is a new kind of platform we’ve built over the past several years with those beliefs in mind. On Are.na, you make collections of any type of content, called “channels.” You can also take those individual pieces of content and recontextualize them into other channels, which adds layers of meaning to the content. If this all sounds too abstract, just think of it as nerdy mood boarding with no ads, no “likes,” and no recommendation algorithms.
In short, Are.na is a tool for thinking together. Instead of outrage, anxiety, and FOMO, it encourages collaboration, long-term exploration, and new perspectives. Here’s why we think Are.na is relevant to anyone working online today—and how we built it.
A more humane productivity tool
We started out of frustration with both social media platforms and mainstream “productivity” apps. We wanted to work together online, but as artists and designers, we didn’t want our worth to be judged by the number of documents we created or tasks we checked off. Work tools . . . just felt like work.
Are.na is based on our belief that the most fulfilling projects make room for individual growth and learning. They cultivate the sense that each individual can help steer everyone else toward a collective goal, often in unexpected ways. We’re interested in empowering this other, more human kind of productivity.
We also wanted a space to share ideas without the emotional manipulation of sites like Facebook and Twitter. Social media is designed to provoke us, keep us “always on,” and trap us in an endless cycle of craving approval. We want Are.na to be a calm, open-ended space without distractions. It’s easy to start shared collections, piece things together as a group, and contextualize ideas in new ways. It doesn’t try to impose control, either: Everything added to Are.na maintains its own source information, and it can all be exported in a standard format at any time.
A business whose product isn’t its users
We believe it’s high time for a change in social networking. As Albert Wenger points out in his (forthcoming) book, World After Capital, anyone who spends their days on the web is constantly dealing with an impossible information surplus and an attention deficit. We’re exposed to more information in a day than we can ever absorb. It’s simply not sustainable.
It’s often said that “if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” In the context of the social web, this means the platforms that control our eyeballs have little incentive to change their ways. They’ve built massive businesses on the foundation of advertising, and they can only profit by finding new ways to capture and manipulate their users’ attention. The problems with social media platforms aren’t inherent to sociality; they are inherent to the incentive structure of their business.
As we build Are.na into a more mainstream product, we’re committing ourselves to a subscription model, which makes our success contingent on how well Are.na helps people think and learn. Right now, we make money from our “Premium” members. If you have a free account on Are.na, you can save as much content as you want, as long as it’s public and available for other people to use. If you want to save more than a nominal amount of content privately, you have to upgrade. This means that we’re motivated to make Are.na as helpful as possible to the people who use it consistently over an extended period of time.
Design that isn’t determinative
Because we’re optimizing for usefulness over addiction, we can make very different design decisions from most social products. We believe Are.na should be a space for reflection and learning, so we don’t let the interface overpower the content and ideas that people are saving. Are.na is the digital equivalent to a big, clean table where you can spread everything you’re thinking about.
We try to optimize for positive social interactions and minimize the anxiety-inducing ones. Instead of a “like” button, we have a function that we call “connect.” If you see something interesting that someone else has saved, you can connect it to one of your channels. In this paradigm, someone can rediscover something I saved months or years ago, add a new context to it, and add to the shared web of associative thinking.
Lastly, we try to optimize Are.na for flexibility. Our goal is to create an open-ended system that anyone can make their own, and structure thoughts as they see fit. We are no better equipped to tell a person how to think than anyone else; we simply believe in making time for your brain to wander.
These are just a few examples of what’s possible when we think more expansively about the web. As internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee wrote earlier this year, “Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: The myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.”
Einstein had a theory about productive thought called “combinatory play,” which arose from his practice of taking breaks on hard problems to play the violin. The act of stepping out of the deep perspective of a hard problem and stepping into an entirely different mode of thought often got him into the right frame of mind to reapproach a problem.
Our goals with Are.na are not to create yet another baroque system for organization. We are more interested in something like Einstein’s combinatory play. What does it feel like to play with information? What would it feel like to be skilled at juxtaposing, combining, re-examining information from other angles, like collage? How can we turn all the information we have access to into an opportunity, and not something that overwhelms us?