Hello World

Our New Web Client, Sander, is Live

by Charles Broskoski
[Five chairs standing before an empty stage.]

There’s a performance piece by Kristin Lucas called “Refresh,” staged (if you could call it that) in 2007 at a courthouse in California. In this piece, Lucas legally changes her name from “Kristin Sue Lucas” to “Kristin Sue Lucas.” 

In a statement to the judge who was deciding whether to grant this “change,” Lucas claimed that she wished to “be born again as myself, or at the very least, the most current version of myself.” Lucas explained that changing her name to the same name would be like refreshing a webpage.

I mention this because Are.na's new web client, which we’ve been calling Sander, is going live today for everyone.

When I tell people about Sander, I’ve found myself thinking about Lucas’s piece and others like it. It's weird to talk about Sander because, although we’ve (literally) rewritten the entirety of the front-end of Are.na, there isn’t anything super flashy or obvious we can point to as a change. We are simply now the most current version of ourselves.

Are.na’s new web client, Sander. [A screenshot of a page of search results, most of then nature and plant-themed. In the search bar is a half-typed word “fiel—” and the filter for “blocks.”]

Sander replaces our previous client which was code-named Ervell (you can do your own deductions about the naming scheme). Ervell first went online sometime around 2016, and replaced a version of Are.na that had no code name.

The early versions of Are.na were jam-packed with features. Wild features. Channels had chat windows attached to them. There was a sidebar with your channels in it that you could also use to search. There was a feature where, when you opened a profile, you could also see that person’s channels juxtaposed next to yours. It had filtering, it had realtime notifications of who was on a channel with you, and it had resizable panels.

Ervell was our attempt to distill the main thing we all do on Are.na – the channeling of images, text, ideas, resources, links, etc. into bodies of research – into a more distilled and focused activity. Even if there were less bells and whistles, even if some workflows had more friction, it felt important to give the experience some clarity. To take a position on what should actually be done in this environment that we share.

But for all it has done for us, we knew deep down that Ervell wasn’t built with the right foundation. The clue was that, if you used Are.na for a while (and if you’re sensitive like us), you’d notice that there is a kind of psychological cost that accrues while navigating through connections across channels. It felt heavy. After a while, the small amount of latency starts to wear on you. Sort of similar to how it might feel playing a video game where the character runs slightly slower than you’d like it to. Over time, we got more and more feedback that let us know we weren’t the only ones who felt this way.

We did some experiments and finally concluded that for Are.na to feel like how we knew it could feel, we would have to rebuild the front-end from the ground up. 

When people say “rebuild from the ground up” (especially in the context of software) it’s usually a bad sign. “Rebuilding from the ground up” typically entails a redesign, introducing new paradigms. A reimagining of what is already there, a sign of lacking a firm sense of self. Sander is not this. We took all the experience we’ve accumulated since 2016 and built Are.na like how we wish we would have done it the first time.

I bring up the Kristin Lucas piece because during this whole process it has felt a little extreme to spend nearly all of our resources (especially relative to the size of our company) to effectively rebuild something in a way where there’s a fair chance that a person might not notice unless you mentioned it. 

But using Sander today, and comparing it with what we had before, I know that we made the right decision. Are.na feels more like itself than it ever has; it was a refresh worth its undertaking.

There are some specific areas of effort in Sander that I’d love to point out to you.

The first area is speed and performance. Sander is by far the fastest Are.na client we’ve ever had. Comparing Sander to the previous client, you can see the stark difference. And we’re also not done making improvements here. Are.na’s version of quiet luxury is speed. And since Are.na is much more about the journey than the destination, navigating through connections should feel like gliding. 

Are.na’s new web client, Sander. [Two screenshots, stacked on top of each other. One is of an Are.na channel in dark mode, the other the same channel in light mode.]

We also placed a lot of importance on improving accessibility in Sander. Part of that is an adjustment of colors to have higher contrast, as well as adding themes with a softer palette. In addition, we’ve tried to make most common actions keyboard navigable (with shortcuts displayed in context). Next on our list is more theme customization to further help those with color-blindness (including optional visual indicators for privacy).

An area that sounds selfish but has broader implications is our own ergonomics. Developing improvements (or fixing bugs) on the old client had become a bit of a slog due to how non-performant the developer experience was. Concurrent to speeding up performance for the end-user, we’ve also sped up things for ourselves as developers. The implication here is that a high-quality work surface will help us deliver a high-quality end product (and Sander is both).

Are.na’s new web client, Sander. [A screenshot of the channel for our Gift Shop seed packets, by Companion Platform. A drop down below the search bar shows the search filter options.]

Lastly, functionality-wise, we have a couple of items on our list that we will quickly follow up this release with in order to bring it on par with the previous client: comment mentions on blocks and filtering / sorting on table views.

As always, if you’re looking for details on what is coming next and what we’re working on, you can visit our Roadmap (and Changelog).


Before I close, it’s important to reflect on what got us to this point and to nod to what’s upcoming. 

Our previous client, Ervell, carried us a long way. When Ervell went live in 2016 we didn’t have a functioning business model. We had less than 10 thousand accounts registered. 

Today we have over half a million accounts registered and this year we will bring in more than $1M in revenue. For a non-VC funded social-ish network, this is basically uncharted territory. Ervell helped us to this point.

When we changed our pricing just over a year ago, we reached out to people who use Are.na to ask for feedback on what was a fair price increase and what improvements they were looking for. The response we received was heartening. We essentially learned that a lot of people on Are.na had the same priorities we did: they didn’t want crazy extra features, they just wanted a fast client that worked really well (and they were willing to help us get there faster by offering a little extra support).

What I’m trying to say is that the current moment that we find ourselves in is a direct result of the feedback and support that you’ve given us. 

Are.na’s new web client, Sander. [A screenshot of a page of search results. In the search bar, meado is written, and the search filter is set to “block.”]

In 2023, after we changed our pricing, our revenue nearly doubled. Our average subscription went up, yes, but more importantly people stuck around and new people continued to upgrade to Premium, all of which resulted in more resources that we could use to improve Are.na.

If we hadn’t had this increase of resources we wouldn’t have been able to rehire Damon Zucconi, who suggested the rebuild and led the development of Sander. We wouldn’t have been able to bring in Yuli Serfaty, who helped us refactor our design system for Sander, or Moa Mansour who helped get the help docs re-organized. 

Recently, we’ve been working with Jon-Kyle Mohr to figure out the foundations of a new editorial design and direction (more on that soon). And lastly, I’m so proud to say that Meg Miller, who’s been with us since 2017, is now full-time as Editorial Director for Are.na.

All of which puts us in a really strong and exciting position as a company, starting out 2024. Having this massive rebuild (mostly) behind us, we’re feeling calm and hopeful about the next stage of Are.na. None of this would have been possible without you. And I mean that literally.

Happy year of the dragon.

Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of Are.na.