We currently live in a highly visual world dominated by ads, videos, and photography, supported by social media outlets like Pinterest that can be used to share them. For developers and founders of the website Are.na, the founding of their site was based upon a genuine desire for an online organizational system fueled by the merit of true creative research, as opposed to visual satisfaction or the amount of likes you receive on a post.
Founded just a few years ago and adopted early on by artists, designers, tinkerers, scientists and more, the information sharing website has taken off in part through digital collaborations with research-focused organizations, including the Guggenheim and the Chicago Architectural Biennial. To learn more about how Are.na works and their visions for the future of the platform, we sat down and spoke with two of the co-founders of the site, Charles Broskoski and Chris Barley.
What is Are.na, who is it for and how does it work?
Are.na is a platform for creative and collaborative research. It's an open-ended way of connecting thoughts, links, images, documents, videos, and files together for the sake of building ideas. Our aim is to build Are.na into a platform that can be used by anybody and everybody, but right now a lot of the people that use it tend to be in creative fields or in academia. Lots of artists, designers, musicians, students, that kind of thing.
Half of our team has backgrounds in art, so it makes sense that our early users exist in relatively the same universe, but we think that the type of "research" (I use the term research fairly loosely) we did as artists could benefit any type of person. It's mostly just a tool that allows one to be curious.
The way it works is fairly simple (though often it seems that it's so simple that it is actually hard to explain): people build collections of links, images, text, files, and videos into containers called "channels". These channels can be both public or private. Any particular piece of content can exist in multiple channels at the same time. For instance, if I save a link about robots building solar panels to a channel called "Climate change", someone else can come along and connect my link to their channel called "Automation".
There is a social component to it, you can follow both people and channels, and there is a feed of recent activity. But we think of the social part as more of a utility than just trying to build a social network because the world needs another one. We often talk about trying to make Are.na exist somewhere between working in a library or studio with other people and being at the right sized dinner party with interesting friends and acquaintances. You should always walk away feeling stimulated and like you discovered something that you never thought you'd find.
How do users benefit using this platform as opposed to something like Pinterest? What's different about it?
Apart from the functional differences, I think the main reasons we differ from something like Pinterest is our motivation for building our platform.
We've noticed that a lot of designers in particular prefer Are.na initially because they know inspiration isn't always visual, it's often conceptual. And that means being able to pair quotes with images, or an academic research paper along with a music video. I think people realize that Pinterest is becoming more and more a tool for shopping, which is fine, but not the mindset that you want to be in when you are trying to learn or come up with new ideas.
It's easy at this point in history to know both everything and nothing at all with information available at the touch of a button. From your experience, how can you conduct research most effectively? How do you avoid going down distracting rabbit holes that result from the accessibility to an eon's worth of information on the internet (or use it to your advantage)?
Effective is an interesting word in this context. I think of this line in the first season of True Detective where Matthew McConaughey talks about his notebook and how he writes everything down because "you never know what little piece of information is going to break the case".
In some ways, I think that allowing yourself to go down the rabbit holes is important. Part of what we want to do is help people practice being curious just for the sake of it, to seek out new information just because they are drawn to it, not just because it will help them be better at their jobs or directly applies to some work that they are doing.
There's a story about Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist who, just for fun, started working out the physics of a wobbling plate after he was idly watching someone throw it in the air. He wasn't trying to solve any big problems, he was just allowing himself to go down an interesting rabbit hole. It turns out that his work led him towards insights that ultimately led him to receiving the Nobel prize. I'm not saying everyone can do this just by messing around, but because of the habits that have become ingrained on internet users, we tend to de-prioritize play and exploration when browsing online (which if you think about it, is actually the place where we should do that the most).
Why is it important for people to have a visual, interactive research tool like Are.na to conduct and connect different elements of research?
To us, the most important thing is to have tools to lay all the things you are looking at out on a table, so to speak. When I discover some area of knowledge that interests me, I usually just fill up a channel with all the relevant links, documents, images, and quotes I can find and then revisit it later. Usually, I'll find that something relates to some prior research that I've done, but I need to be able to look at my material from a bird's eye view, to be able to move things around and associate different pieces of information together.
As you hinted to us in a previous conversation, Are.na was founded partly on the philosophy of researching for researching's sake. To you, what's the importance of getting outside of directly proportionally branches of research and sometimes just conducting research because you find pleasure in it?
There's this quote by Steve Jobs that goes "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.".
This is at the heart of what we want to do with Are.na, which is give people the tools to think about what they are interested in, in an interdisciplinary way. A lot of the approaches for collecting content on the internet are more or less in the vein of making a queue for yourself: i.e. here's an article I found, I'm going to save it and read it later during my commute. We try take the approach that is more along the lines of being able to play with information.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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