Courtesy of Are.na.
Many of us know what it feels like to binge on social media. Delectable, at first, as you feed on that ever-replenishing fountain of images and “likes.” But take in too much, and you start feeling overwhelmed, disgusted, and even guilty (“Did I just spend that much time traveling down an Instagram vortex?”).
According to Are.na, an online platform started by artists, however, social media shouldn’t have to feel like junk food. “We want to build a safe space that’s about learning and being interested,” Are.na’s co-founder Charles Broskoski tells me from his office in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “It’s not about keeping up with a never-ending, real-time feed.”
Are.na officially launched in 2015, the brainchild of Broskoski, who is an artist and developer, along with artists John Michael Boling, Dena Yago, and Damon Zucconi, and tech entrepreneur J. Stuart Moore. Since then, it has grown slowly but steadily, with a small investment in 2017 that’s boosted its development. Currently, Broskoski, Zucconi, Daniel Pianetti, Chris Sherron, and Chris Barley make up the team. (Full disclosure: Broskoski and Zucconi previously worked at Artsy.)
At its core, Are.na is a platform that allows its users to collect, curate, and share images or information that intrigue them. There are no ads or “likes” on the site—elements that Broskoski says encourage content (like selfies) that feed into people’s “insecurities and susceptibility to FOMO.” You won’t find never-ending streams of images, either, which can be distracting and “encourage passive consumption,” he continues.
In this way, Are.na bills itself as a healthy, creativity-boosting alternative to more traditional outlets like Facebook and Instagram. Are.na’s users have affectionately described it as “social media for people who dislike social media,” “social media that doesn’t damage your brain,” or, my personal favorite, “Pinterest for nerds.”
Currently, Are.na’s some 33,000 users are mostly creatives—artists, designers, architects, and art directors—who mine inspiration from the internet. Artists like Cory Arcangel and Margaret Lee are members, and use the site to gather fodder for future projects. Users also include the employees of advertising, strategy, and branding firms, like K-Hole and Consortia (whose founder, Chris Barley, recently invested in Are.na). Broskoski notes that companies like these organize research and build ideas for client pitches on Are.na.
The site’s basic building block is a “channel,” an optimized folder that hosts various types of media, including photos, articles, text, gifs, videos, and pdfs. Files and links can be dragged into a channel and annotated with notes (i.e. where you found it, why it’s interesting to you).
For Are.na’s members, channels act like a mood boards or, as one user described, “playlists, but for ideas.” They use them to track themes in art and culture, visualize nascent concepts, or evolve more developed projects. Users have authored channels like “Club Architecture,” “Companionship,” or “Chess Motifs in Art” and filled them with a wide array of compelling, and at times, delightfully weird content.
Courtesy of Are.na.
Courtesy of Are.na.
One crowd favorite, called “Wild Animals vs. Man-Made Materials” created by Laurel Schwulst, gathers images of fauna interacting with all manner of synthetic objects: a crow holding a serrated knife in its mouth; a woman dressed in a kimono embracing an eel; a link to an article titled “Sloths’ bizarre ‘toilet habit’ recorded in Amazon, Peru.”
If users desire, they can also make these collections public, so that others can see or contribute to them. This is where Are.na becomes a social network, and begins to connect users and spark collaboration.
Another feature allows members to add images posted by friends to their own channels. For instance, a photo of a crowd lounging in Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 Tate Turbine Hall installation, The Weather Project, is linked to numerous channels, like Andrew van Hyfte’s “Frontier of Human Connection,” Morgan Sutherland’s “Future,” and Hubert Mietkiewicz’s “How we assign value to the digital artifacts?.”
Broskoski notes that making connections between images encourages users to actively participate on the site, instead of just passive engagement. “That sort of conceptual move, is much, much harder than ‘liking,’ ‘saving,’ or commenting,” he says. “Because you have to see something in two different perspectives at the same time.”
In this way, Are.na is building a network of content, ideas, and the people that have them. (It’s also inspired friendships between users, and even a few romantic connections. Boling has cheekily described it as “the best dating site in the world.”)
While the site has primarily attracted creative types, Broskoski and his team hope it will become a platform where users from wide-ranging disciplines can share ideas. “Artists can learn a lot from scientists, and vice versa,” he says. “That kind of diversity is something that we really want: the ability for people to act in interdisciplinary ways.”
As social media fatigue grows, Broskoski believes that many people—not just artists—will begin looking for alternatives to traditional platforms. When that happens, Are.na will be there to offer a “slow, nuanced, and intentional tool to contextualize that information that people are consuming,” according to Broskoski.
After all, by removing ads and ego-stroking “likes,” Are.na frees up space for creativity. “It’s an open-ended tool that people can use for anything,” Broskoski says. “In any kind of creative way that they want.”