Are.na is this new platform I've been hearing a lot about in newer niche communities I got involved in in the past year or so. Apparently, people describe are.na as Tumblr meets Wikipedia. The platform is basically made of blocks (units of content that can be images, text, links or files) and channels in which blocks are carefully curated by people either individually or collaboratively. After finally having spent a couple hours on are.na, what have I learned?
TL;DR I found a lot of weirdness, and so-ugly-its-cool images. It's a very particular crowd. One I can't say I relate to very much —yet. But I have a feeling that might change. Because I did relate to a lot of the content. And in a very new way compared to typical image-based platforms like Instagram or Pinterest.
Relatedness & Meaning
On are.na, I found that of the blocks I did relate to, the feeling of relatedness was much more meaningful, direct and deep than the mere eye-pleasing that typically happens in other online places. On Instagram, for example, meaningful relatedness is much more rare. It's typically about finding something beautiful and wanting to remember to buy it or try making it. Whereas on are.na, when I related to something, it was as though I had found my own words written on the block, it made me think, it sparked ideas, I learned new words.
I don't learn new words on IG. Instead, I discover new wants and needs. Material ones, that is. Almost exclusively. The thought-provoking posts on Instagram are few and far between. But on are.na, it's only that. So much so that I feel as though this crowd is light-years ahead in these conversations. Concepts like semiosphere, or metacritique are custom vocabulary for them.
Honesty & the Hyper-Personal
Another aspect I found was the honesty and vulnerability. Seeing other people's channel names, exposing that alone says so much about them. And even if you don't understand the label, or wonder why that particular block is connected to that channel, you just let it go, or better, you click through, take a look and try to decipher the meaning of the channel based on the blocks that made it through. I know there's a lot of that hidden in Instagram's Saved feature, but for some reason they didn't make that visible to other users. It's like they prefer we all gather our favourite things in silence and keep that (free and highly valuable) curation behind closed doors.
On are.na, seeing how personal the channels are to their creators really makes you want to join in and think of beautiful ways to name these collections for yourself and for the world to see. It makes it easy to want to play. And it also makes you want to pour more of yourself in (by uploading new content, that is) because for me, aesthetically, it's not quite my jam yet. But I know that my mere participation can change that. The system makes it clear that you can have an impact. It makes it easy to see. The Explore tab is this ultra transparent, chronological proof of what's currently happening on the system. Just an in-plain-sight, nothing-to-hide aggregated pulse of everyone's individual activity. That's an explore tab at the scale of a human mind.
Weirdness Standard to Uphold
On the flip side of honesty, I also noticed there seems to be a sort of aesthetic level, a higher standard of weirdness to uphold. Almost like the people on there want to appear a tad smarter than the crowds, like they want this content to remain a bit out of reach for the common mortal. Almost like they want to maintain a sense of "you wouldn't get it"... I'd be curious to see what their IG saves look like, what their Pinterest boards contain... Maybe are.na is meant to remain this slightly more intellectual place where only some of their beloved content goes. So... honest, but not integral? Like we're not getting everything of everyone but what we do get is, indeed, honest?
I noticed I tended to click on the most populated channels, the ones with most blocks inside. I wonder if that's a consequence of already being used to (addicted to) infinite scrolls.
Where Seeds Get Planted
On are.na the only incentive is each and every one of our wills, curiosities and discoveries. And when they're brought together, in this communal garden type of environment, what you get is the purest, wholesomest picture of what people are interested in. People's loves, for that matter. All these blocks were brought here with care, with love. Not for promotion, not for ego, not for greed.
On are.na, seeds are planted. The content takes root in the community and grows organically as it reaches other minds, other hearts, who were also looking for just that link, just that quote, just that illustration. And I see it being tremendously useful for both evergreen collections as well as more project-based research.
I also have to make a special mention for the non-algorithm powering the Explore page. You get two options; chronological, or random. First off, how amazing is it that you even get to pick! Instagram JUST added this in recently in response to all the complaining they were getting about their ad-infected feeds. But secondly, the actual options themselves promote real neutrality. Just a factual, accurate and equitable way to order content that encourages serendipity and curiosity.