Supposedly we live in an age of social media, thus it makes sense to consider them also for creative practices as well as for teaching, learning and research in the arts. Are.na in this context stands out as a social media platform entirely based around the notion of connecting ideas via a visual interface.
It’s almost a bit difficult to explain what Are.na actually does, so much so that on the site, there are even channels for crowdsourced descriptions of “How to describe Are.na at a Party” and a channel for “All the different ways in which people use it”.
Then again, it’s actually quite simple: there are only “blocks” and “channels”. A user will initially create “blocks” (in other platforms this would be called a “post”); a block can effectively be almost anything – an image, a video, a URL, a text – just drag and drop it onto the page. Each block by default needs to be assigned to one or more user-set “channel(s)”, i.e. a kind of themed/named thread. And that’s it…
As blocks accumulate and channels thus develop, they become idiosyncratic, personal visualised lines of thought, a bit like a sketchbook or visual diary. Probably for that Are.na is most popular with artists, designers and architects who tend to use it for (visual) research (e.g. Michael Bell-Smith, Cory Arcangel, Emily Segal, and Margaret Lee).
Besides these two principle features, Are.na is very minimalist: serenely white design, fairly little explanations, no Like buttons, reaction emojis, also – very notably – no ads, and no tracking algorithms. Instead – at least for the basic plan – a possibly surprising limitation: each user may only post a total of 500 blocks.
While this may initially feel counter-intuitive and dissuasive for new users, it may well be the key defining feature of Are.na, as it enforces the “social” notion of the platform. Rather than continuously uploading more and more materials oneself, this setup encourages users to browser others’ contents and create “connections” by linking their blocks into one’s own channels. In addition to a line of personal ideas, this thus creates an inter-personal network of ideas.
Universities like MIT, Yale, RISD, Parsons, Pratt, and Columbia already use Are.na in teaching and research; examples of such uses can be found on Are.na’s Education page. Other partner organisations include Guggenheim Museum, the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the New York Museum of Arts and Design, and the Vilém Flusser archives.
Instead of a lengthy explanatory introduction page, Are.na features a blog, written and curated by Meg Miller, with essays built around Are.na’s research and publishing tools, as well as noteworthy or “featured” user channels.
Charles Broskoski, Daniel Pianetti, Chris Sherron et.al. (USA)
Free (for 500 blocks)
Katherine Schwab. This Is What A Designer-Led Social Network Looks Like. 2018.
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