Are.na with Charles Broskoski and Daniel Pianetti

image for episode about Are.na with Charles Broskoski and Daniel Pianetti
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Are.na with Charles Broskoski and Daniel Pianetti
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Are.na might be the most exciting social network for designers, artists, and curious, interdisciplinary self-educators, kind of like Pinterest or Tumblr but offering the functionality to spin a vast web of images and knowledge. The platform is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, so we invited two of Are.na’s co-founders to talk to us about the close-knit (and often paying) community that makes the site vibrant and how the platform’s systems of Blocks and Channels makes it an ideal tool for connecting ideas and creating trains of thought.

Charles Broskoski is a practicing artist and Are.na’s CEO and Daniel Pianetti is a designer and the COO of Are.na.

To find out more about Are.na, read this post “How is Are.na different from Tumblr?” and visit Charles’s channel, “** How do you describe Are.na at a party?

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. My name’s Ethan Zuckerman, I am your host here, and I’m really excited about today’s conversation with Daniel Pianetti and Charles Broskoski. They are two of the co-founders of Are.na, A R E dot N A. They’re the two main full-time employees. Daniel is the designer and he’s the COO of Are.na. He’s also a partner at No Plans, a web development studio. Charles is a software engineer, the CEO of Are.na. Prior to co-founding Are.na, Charles was a practicing artist in New York City. We’re going to talk today about this really platform. And one of the first things we actually have to talk about is what is Are.na. My partner asked me who I was interviewing this morning, and I explained that Are.na was Pinterest, but significantly less evil. It turns out that Charles has actually dedicated a whole channel of Are.na to the question of how you might describe it.

Some of the people have a social place where people can watch your mental notes. Instagram without the suck, Tumblr graduation, and Pinterest older sibling who moved to Melbourne a few years ago. How do you guys explain what you do every day? What is Are.na?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah, it really depends on the context, but in a very casual setting where I want to get the idea across quickly. I usually do lean on Pinterest and just say, it’s Pinterest, but a little bit nerdier. And then I would go on to describe what one does or what I do specifically, which is on Are.na you have two it’s, one is block, which is sort of like a file. It could be an image, a text, a link, any kind of file. Wait, I said a file, a PDF, YouTube, SoundCloud, anything like that, you can pretty much, anything can be represented in a block. Most things can be represented in a block and in a channel, which is a collection of blocks. And that’s almost the entire rule set and there’s various levels of privacy. And people use those two units to sort of organize information, sort of put their research into collections, use other people’s resources as in their own research and things get cross connected and messy and fun.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Daniel, as a designer in all of this, the cross connected and messy strikes me as a really interesting challenge. One of the things where Are.na’s extremely different from something like Pinterest, is that if I like someone else’s channel, I can essentially incorporate it into my own channel. How do you deal with those sorts of questions of control and ownership? And adds a much more collective model than most of us are used to seeing on the web yeah.

Daniel Pianetti:

Design wise, it’s always been a challenge. For example, we do find people who are new to the platform asking, okay, where are the sub folders? Can I create a sub folder? Because I have this directories mindset. We did through try to explore in the horizontality of it and try to focus design wise on the details and the single actions, and to make those as intuitive as they are. But yeah, I will say, especially, with onboarding new members, it’s always a challenge to get them into the right space and understand, but eventually, they get it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think for me, the analogy that perhaps comes closest is the late lamented Delicious, which was a social bookmarking site, much of what was wonderful about Delicious, it’s been implemented on Pinboard by [Mache Seglovsky 00:04:05], who we’ve also sort of had on the show here. This is a model that is enormously important for a small number of people, but doesn’t seem to have necessarily become a mainstream form of organizing information. Charles, any thoughts on why this paradigm is hard for people to get their heads around?

Charles Broskoski:

That’s a really good question. And yeah, just side note, I was a big user of Delicious and essentially, Delicious shutting down was one of the things that moved us to create Are.na. I’m also a big fan of Pinboard. I think the reason why this is hard is, I don’t know, it’s a good question. It takes a particular kind of mindset where you’re sort of looking at something that you’re seeing and kind of looking at it in a more active way. Like you are imagining where this piece of information fits into your own world and making that leap from just sort of passively consuming something to deciding if this piece of information is important. And if so, where it lives in your sort of universe of thought. It’s a little bit of a leap, I think, but I think it’s not something that is just like a particular kind of person. I think it’s a behavior that can be learned. And I think it’s also extremely valuable kind of behavior, especially, in an age where there’s so many personalized algorithms that are recommending you content all the time.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. So let’s lean into that for a moment. So, one of the ways to describe Are.na is things that it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have advertising. It doesn’t have an algorithm that drives a feed. It doesn’t have an attempt to personalize itself to your own needs. You guys are really admirably transparent about the financial model and sort of the revenues associated with it. As of this morning, this site has 7,480 premium users, who are paying either $5 a month or $45 a year. That contrast pretty sharply to we’ve invoked Pinterest a couple of times in this conversation, PayPal just dismissed rumors that they were about to purchase Pinterest for $45 billion. So, is this a sustainable business? And maybe more than that, why organize it this way? We’re at this moment where people are paying truly mind boggling sums of money for people organizing themselves in different ways online. And you seem to have something that’s genuinely you useful that people are extraordinarily passionate about. And yet, you’ve failed to cash your billion dollar checks.

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah, I think for us, so we’ve been running Are.na for, or Are.na has been around for more than 10 years now. And at the beginning, when we started talking about it, when it was more of a prototype, we knew that it was going to be in this space where people would be using it to sort of think through their own ideas. And when that is sort of the premise of the business or the platform, having a business model that doesn’t interfere with that is… You know what I mean, like advertising can’t come into play there because you’re thwarting your ability to provide that service. So, we wanted a very straightforward relationship and to have a sort of motivation for ourselves to just make the platform good enough that people are, are willing to pay for it. And for people also to know on the flip side, that is the relationship. And our role is only as maintainer and stewards, and people who are improving the platform. And that we’re all sort of shaping this fairly amorphous open ended platform together.

Daniel Pianetti:

I think that peace of mind is a big factor because it’s a peace of mind for us and for the members, knowing that we don’t depend on other people and that the operation can go on in a healthy way. And of course the first years there wasn’t peace of mind because you’re worried you’re not making enough money to even cover infrastructure cost. But I think about a year ago where we finally reached a point where we safely pay for all infrastructures, we start paying ourself, decently. That was a very good moment. And when we also realized we don’t need a third party intervention, monetary intervention.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, the project manages to sustain itself in terms of infrastructure, in terms of being able to pay both of you. Is there donated time that keeps it going? Is there sort of community love that keeps it going? Or is this actually just an example of it is possible to run a sustainable business, if you’re realistic about the scale that you want to run it at?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah. So, we have some other people who are working part-time as well. Parts of Are.na are open source. We don’t get that many poll requests, but I would say that community love definitely keeps it afloat, emotionally. We have a pretty active community and we also have an API that people are kind of using and building tools off of. So yeah, it is possible. And I think it’s probably even more possible now than it was when we started. To run something sustainably that one or two people can do by themselves.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, who are those users? I mean, you’ve got roughly 8,000 of them, it sounds like you’re paying quite close attention to them. Is there such a thing as the average Are.na user? And if so, who is she or he?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah, I think, maybe there’s probably like, some large slice of the pie are people who are working in creative industries, designers and creative directors and that kind of thing. I think, because that kind of information categorization, curation thing is something that comes natural to those people. So, it’s already something that they’re feeling like they want or need a tool for. But I would say the other portion is really hard to categorize. Yeah, I think it’s more of a kind of like psychographic than it is of a demographic. It’s people who are, I mean, we have this really cheesy term, but we say, connected knowledge collectors. And I think it’s people who are sort of interested in pursuing lots of different disciplines. People who are interested in directing their own learning or education.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Are.na has a free mode where you can have up to 200 blocks and channels, and then sort of after that you end up paying for it. So, it really does make a great sense as an educational tool. My student Alexis Hope ran, not the similar platform called Fold, which had some Are.na like features to, it was much more of a blogging and writing platform. And we saw the same dynamic. We saw classes sort of come and experiment with, and we’d hope to hold onto a few of them afterwards. Because there is an open, free version of this, you potentially face the problem that everyone else does, which is the problems of moderation. What do you do when someone creates a really disturbing collection or someone creates a collection of abusive imagery, or something along those lines. How does moderation work within the community trials?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah, so we have a set of community guidelines that we feel like is fairly reasonable, but thankfully even in our 10 year history, we haven’t had, I mean, knock on wood, we haven’t had really any instances where it’s been too bad. In a case where someone is uploading abusive imagery. We take an approach where we’re like a small library, and we don’t have the resources to sort of debate something that… You know what I mean, we would just take it down.

And the cases that are, I think maybe a little bit trickier are ones where, because Are.na is sort of a research platform, those cases where someone is researching something that might be a sensitive subject. And in those cases, we’ve had people reach out, flag a channel, and then we’ve reached out to the person and just sort of asked for an explanation. And then, usually, it comes to just marking the channel as not safe work and adding a disclaimer to the description that these are for research. And the person actually, I think they were linking to an essay that they were writing also. So yeah, I think we’re lucky that it hasn’t come up much, but I think it will come up more.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, the current approach is essentially, it’s a library, you’re the librarian. Most things can be settled with a quiet conversation with the patron, but at the end of the day, you’re not going to get involved with a long conversation about free speech rights if something’s sort of abusive or difficult for other uses the platform?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah. That’s most of it. Yeah. That’s the policy now. And I think our approach is like, we use this guarded metaphor a lot. And I think also in terms of security and protection, there’s a level at which you step up to these sort of precautionary measures. You know what I mean? The first time a deer jumps into your garden, you realize you have to put up a fence. You know what I mean? We’re not going to lock things down until we sort of know it’s appropriate. Yeah. I feel like I’m hesitating on it because it’s a really tricky conversation.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It is a really tricky conversation. And so, first of all, I don’t think you’re wrong. Right? I think one of the things that interests me about Are.na is that on the one hand, it feels like a community in the sense of there’s a lot of quirky people sort of exploring their own form of connection. But I actually, like library as a metaphor, right, where there’s certainly a community around a library, but honestly, most of the time you’re in a library, you’re pretty quiet and you’re doing your own thing.

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I’m obsessed with questions of community governance, but yours is not the first community that I would kind of shake by the name of the neck and say, let your community government, because I’m not sure that people are using it for such different reasons that sort of librarian metaphor may make different things. Dan, do you think of it as a community or do you think of it as a tool that a lot of different individuals use?

Daniel Pianetti:

I think the community side of it is the common purpose and trust towards the same goals, the community have with us librarians. And I would say trust is a big factor that we want to establish. I mean, we believe we do have the trust of our community for 10 years. And again, to use again the librarian metaphor, the librarian puts rules, but they also need the trust of their guest who entered. So, as long as there’s this mutual trust, there’s no risk of unbalanced things.

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah. And I would say that like into terms of our community, we and the other people who are sort of passionate about this side of Are.na are super reachable. When you write into help at Are.na, Daniel and I are the ones who are answering. My email is straight on my profile. We have a discord where people can message us directly. We’re just, we’re around. So, that also goes to just a level of trust and being approachable, and being around to talk about this stuff.

Daniel Pianetti:

And for the past year, we’ve been researching ways to include, in a bit more formal governance way, our representation of the community. We’re still working on it, but always with the Are.na approach, which means very tiny steps.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Is the community at all involved with feature edition or do you have people either in that discord, or sort of contacting you, asking you for new things? How do you handle that relationship with a community of people who are passionate about this, and who are directly supporting the tool? How do you handle where they want to see the tool go?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah. I mean, yeah. Some people are super vocal about the kinds of directions that they want to see Are.na go in. And I think the way that we handle that is like I said, just being available, but also making our plans, like our roadmap is also publicly available. We publish investor reports twice a year, that we talk about the sort of long term directions that we’re going in. So, I think the people who have been involved for a while have a really strong sense of where we think we should go. And also, I think those people have a hand in pushing that direction of where we want to go. We also have an open channel on Are.na that’s feedback and feature requests where people will just add the features that they want. And sometimes it’s something that already exists that the person doesn’t know about. And someone else from the community will come in and say, “Actually, you can do this like this.” Or things like that.

So, yeah. To get to your original question, people who are super passionate about Are.na and its direction, definitely play a large part in pushing the direction of where it goes.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I’m curious, we’ve talked a little bit about Pinboard, which is another small user supported company. I’m a member of MetaFilter, which is a larger, but still relatively small sort of subscription based, I guess it’s a one time fee for MetaFilter. Is there a secret community of these subscription based community supported web services? Y’all are a little bit like the Rebel Alliance, you’re sort of all rejecting the standard model of surveillance capitalism and the potential of billions of bucks for these very values driven sort of community led projects. Charles, is there a secret bar in Brooklyn where you all meet every third Thursday or something?

Charles Broskoski:

I wish there was. That seems like a good business idea. There’s enough people now, that there’s at least a small bar size worth of patrons.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, who else is in the space? What else should we be paying attention to, as far as, the indie web, if we’re going to throw a term on it?

Charles Broskoski:

I’m a fan of Front Porch Forum. I think those people are really cool. There’s other ones. I mean, I think the ones that are interesting, I was sort of impressed with Basecamp for a really long time until their recent moves as a corporation. But that’s interesting, that was kind of an anomaly of a business that grew out of just purely straight subscriptions, not a ton of… I think they had one investor, which was Jeff Bezos, which is… I mean, their whole history is super weird, but yeah, they’re not a ton. I think there’s not a ton to look up to. Front Porch Forum is one that I’m like, yes, they’re very cool.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Michael is a bar sort of guy. I think you might have to meet him around an outdoor fire pit somewhere in Vermont and drink apple cider. But he is also a friend of the show and someone we correspond with fairly regularly. There’s only one Front Porch Forum in Massachusetts, and it’s in Williamstown. I’m a proud member of it. Dan, what about you? Are there other sort of indie web friends who you look at, you pay attention to?

Daniel Pianetti:

One thing I see often is initiatives that start within individual and developers, or small group of friends. And those are definitely things that go toward the direction. But it’s hard to see something that really stays around for a long time. And they sometimes evolve into something or maybe this person gets hired by a company. And then that pro project becomes more like a hobby project, and then eventually dies.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, Dan, that raises this interesting question, which is, why do you think Are.na has managed to survive for 10 years? Surely, both of you have had great job offers other projects to work on. There’ every possibility that this could have been a cool moment in internet history that didn’t thrive. I think for instance, my single favorite social networking service of all time was a project incubated at the Atlantic called This, which allowed you to share a single link every day. And if you were subscribed to 50 really cool people, it was the best reading service ever, but it lasted nine months. And then it got shut down. How have y’all done this?

Daniel Pianetti:

I was thinking about this among those individual projects that eventually get folded. Well, for sure patience was a big element of our success. And yeah, we just kept going. And I think as long as we see interest from our community and people not losing interest in it. Technically speaking, we have a very low churn rate of paying members and that’s extremely encouraging for us. As long as we see the people stay on and they pay for eight, five years in a row, we know there’s something and keeps it going.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Charles, what about you? What do you think has allowed Are.na to survive for 10 years?

Charles Broskoski:

Yeah, definitely, I would agree with that. I think it’s the people on it who keep us going. Even at the very beginning when it was less than 200 people, there were a handful of those people who saw the potential, were super passionate about it. And being in dialogue with those people and those people bring on their friends, and then being in dialogue with those people. I think it’s always the people who keep us motivated. And then I think the other part of it is just sort of feeling passionate about tools for self-directed education on the internet, which feels like they sort of very lacking at this point. I think Pinboard is a really good example.

But a lot of these things that are about sort of thinking and thinking in public, they just fall either towards this very performative model, where people sort of feel this pressure of having a lot of eyes on them. Or they go to being way too private and just on this sort of tool level where you end up not having these dynamics of small communities. And I think being in the middle also feels like something to me that is actually important having this sort of public library style platform.

Ethan Zuckerman:

That thinking on public piece is something that I sort of miss from the golden age of blogging. I think we’ve gone through this transformation where a lot of bloggers myself included became columnists, right? So at that point, we have to think much more about who’s reading us. There’s a lot of people who were writing in public who are now writing privately instead, and it does feel like there’s a real loss there. That moment of sort of watching people, trying to figure things out, grapple with them, was a really useful moment. We do this show because we’re trying to figure out other ways the internet could work and sort of imagine the internet working very differently.

It feels like Are.na has at least two imaginations. One is this question of an indie web and a question of a web built by individuals and small teams rather than by huge corporations. It has this idea of being a web of ideas, of people thinking in public, instead of sharing these things. Charles, what should we learn from you? How does Are.na help us reimagine the internet and how do you reimagine the internet?

Charles Broskoski:

Well, I think from Are.na’s standpoint, we’re not like the most amazing engineers or web developers. So, I would say that we try and solve these problems more from an emotional or a conceptual approach, rather than just throwing technology at it. And that’s the thing that I think is sort of missing in these much larger projects. Thinking through these things, just in terms of dynamics and in terms of how an individual would feel. I think for us, we’re super lucky because, well, lucky in some regards that Are.na’s primitives are sort of very relatively few, so any little decision kind of has long lasting implications. But yeah, we get to think through those changes from a sort of individual, a personal level, and having that personal connection I think is important to building products that feel like they are more human, I guess.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Dan, how about you, when you sort of imagine any sort of transformation of the internet more broadly, when you sort of think about possible futures for this space and in which we all live and work, what are some lessons from Are.na that you’d like people will take?

Daniel Pianetti:

Like the idea of Are.na being a good example of slowness that works, or the right amount of speed. Going back to what we said before, some projects are too slow and they become too small and forgotten. But most of the projects now tend to, or they aim at being extremely performative and big and fast, but there is a way in the middle that creates meaningful products and companies. And that’s something, I think it’s a big contrast now with the web three. The principles and concept and ideas go towards a nice space, but the speed of it and the frenzy’s incredible. And that’s a big question. So, I do think Are.na is a good example of healthy slowness.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, I love healthy slowness as a place to maybe close this morning. And first of all, I wish you guys another 10 years of healthy slowness. And watching this sort of thinking in public evolve a really interesting and quite unique way of expressing people online. They are two of the co-founders of Are.na, Daniel Pianetti, Charles Broskoski, gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us today.