A few months ago (August 2023), I did a talk at FWB FEST called “Here for the Wrong Reasons.” This is an adapted and edited version, published here at the close of the year to reflect on the ways we want to continue to orient Are.na moving forward, into the next year and beyond.
In preparation for this moment, I’ve been thinking about the idea of motivation and the reason one has for pursuing an activity or interest. Why are we attracted to the things we’re attracted to? What is it about a particular subject that draws us in?
I’ve been thinking about this (in part) because it’s highly relevant to Are.na, which consists almost entirely of individuals pursuing their own interests, refining those interests, and letting those interests lead to more interests through connections with others.
I’ve also been thinking about motivations because two years ago in celebration of our tenth birthday, I wrote a short essay called On Motivation, and ever since then, the idea has continued to stick with me.
When I was writing this essay, I was trying to get at what kept us going on Are.na, and often when I have deadlines for something that I'm having a hard time doing, my form of procrastination is to escape into nostalgia. I was thinking about all of the important reference points (like books, artworks, people, etc) that have changed who I am (or maybe helped me become who I am). Here’s how I put it in the essay:
This morning I was thinking about this book store I used to go to as a kid, Half Price Books in Houston, Texas. I lived on the other side of a shopping center called The Village, and Half Price Books was only a block away from our apartment.
After dinner sometimes, we would walk to Half Price Books to browse.
I was thinking about all the time spent browsing with no real aim, and how even as a 12 year old, there was some small intuitive sense of the things I was drawn to. I thought about specific books that I found there and how those books led me to other related subjects and those subjects led me to more books and so on, for the rest of my life until now.
Then I started thinking about all the other important “nodal points” (I don't know what else to call this) of people, places, books, albums, websites, etc. that all played a part in shaping who I am as a person and what I think is important. These points are a combination of seeking things out myself and getting recommendations from important people in my life. A mixture of both passive and active knowledge acquisition.
A random and chronological sampling of things that come to mind, just to give you a sense of what I mean:
Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars by Daniel Pinkwater, the surfer neighbor who told me about Dead Kennedys and skateboarding, the website hell.com, the friend of my ex-girlfriend who insisted that I read Borges, Cory Arcangel, the website del.icio.us where I met many of my most important friends, Damon's recommendation of David Bohm…
And on and on. This list would be long, but not never-ending. If I wanted to, I could probably sit down and write it out completely. I know this because encountering something that would belong on this list is like finding a piece of a very large puzzle, especially when considered in retrospect.
This got me thinking that, ultimately, it's the totality of those “nodal points” that indicate one's own unique perspective. It doesn't matter if you specifically sought out the nodal point or not, it’s the recognition that counts. When you encounter a piece of life-changing information (no matter how large the change part is), you are simultaneously discovering and creating ‘yourself,’ becoming incrementally more complete. Your perspective (where your gaze is directed) is made up of a meandering line through these points. Learning (or maybe some precursor to learning) is a lot about developing the intuition to recognize when something you find in the world is going to be a nodal point for you.
In turning this subject around in my mind, and thinking about all the people and things that have been influential, I have some idea about what keeps us going. It strikes me that what keeps us going on Are.na has a lot to do with being a space where information can turn into nodal points for people and where a person can continually develop the intuition to recognize nodal points for themselves.
Since writing this essay two years ago, I’ve thought a lot about this idea of nodal points. And just to be clear, what I’m calling a “nodal point” is just any “thing” in the world that has changed your trajectory. The easiest examples are the ones that I gave, but a nodal point could also be a person, it could be a friend, or a place, or just an idea. Anything that has a hand in shaping how you see the world.
I’m interested in this idea because I think on some level, the sum total of all of a person’s nodal points could be some kind of proxy for a personal identity. At the very least, it’s an indication of an individual perspective. Since writing this essay, I’ve thought a lot about this kind of personal intuition towards things: the radar that any person has that leads them to different points in their life.
In an ideal world, one’s own personal intuition or radar is the same thing as the force that motivates them.
I’ll give you an example of a nodal point that is both personal and meta. It’s this diagram by theoretical physicist Richard Feynman added to Are.na by Daniel [Pianetti] 9 years ago. This diagram hooked me for a few reasons. My mom, who is a scientist, is a huge fan of Richard Feynman. The diagram also resembles Are.na’s logo in a way. More importantly, it communicates an idea which had always been central to Are.na but we often have a hard time articulating.
It comes from a book called Feynman's Tips on Physics. In it, Feynman is describing the limits to memorizing physics formulas, and is trying to make the point that if you want to be a successful physicist and make new discoveries, it’s not important to memorize every single physics formula ever made. The important thing is to know how to triangulate things that you already know into things that you might have known but forgotten (or things you never knew in the first place).
The point here that he’s making is that information is composable. It’s constantly being combined and recombined into new things. Especially abstract information. Think about music, art, memes, science, technology, writing, language, etc. All of these things are composites of pre-existing pieces of information. All nodal points are made up of other people’s nodal points.
Because information is composable, it will keep growing and growing forever at an exponential rate. There will always be more and more things to think about, meaning there will always be more “things” in the world that could potentially be “nodal points” for you. The amount of selectivity someone has to have will always increase, because the amount of things that one could potentially be interested in will always increase. The amount of attention that one can apply towards these things, over the course of a lifespan, is more or less fixed.
What gives me anxiety is, what if there is a “nodal point” out there for me that I will never come across? What if “the one” is a piece of information that I will never get a chance to give my attention to?
A few months ago Laurel Schwulst and I published a conversation we had with Damon Zucconi, who is one of the original Are.na co-founders, an artist, and a software engineer.
In this conversation, I asked Damon if he felt this same kind of anxiety that I felt about all the possible “things” that he might never come across, and this is what he said:
Damon: So many of the things that have been important to me in my life have been so randomly encountered. In a strange sense, I don’t think they matter that much. I would have encountered something else, and it would have done a similar thing, perhaps.
I think there are “thing-shaped holes” in each person. Other things might have just as equally filled those holes. There’s an abundance, or nearly an infinite amount of things, which is great.
It’s this idea of your “luck surface” or “serendipity stat” or something. One of the things Are.na is good at is being a place where you will encounter things that might fill various holes you have and change trajectories.
We all have tendencies, or habitual ways of looking at the world that we lean on. Those are the holes. It’s useful to identify those tendencies and then set up ways to increase your luck surface for them.
What really struck me was the idea that nodal points could potentially be interchangeable. After hearing him say this, the importance of these things that I hold in such reverence, that hold such meaning for me, really came into question.
Before this conversation, I had this idea that if this is your body,
and this is everything that is out in the world,
then this collection of nodal points that changed your trajectory is “actually you.” Or at the very least, it’s the sum of those points that represent a unique perspective that is a reflection of you.
The nice part about this idea is thinking about the idea of “you” or your identity being out in the world. That the boundary between “you“ and the things that you love becomes blurry. The not nice thing is that it essentially is the same thing as saying “you are your interests” which feels superficial and reductive.
After this conversation with Damon I started thinking that it’s not the points that are the key part, it’s the line between you and the points. It’s the fact that you recognized the thing that is important, not the thing itself. It’s your radar.
“You” are “here.”
A thing in the world is not innately a “nodal point” just waiting for you to encounter it, your recognition and love and attention for the thing is what makes it a “nodal point.” The more I thought about it, the more I started preferring this idea. The thing I like about it most is that the lines are directional; they are more active than a static reference. When I tried to explain this idea to my friend and colleague Meg Miller, she said “it's a verb, not a noun,” which is a perfect distinction.
Your attraction towards certain nodal points could be thought of as analogous to “desire lines,” or a path made by walking. It is a concept that is usually used to illustrate the difference between a design (like a sidewalk or a park path created by a landscape designer) and what a person using it actually does. A desire line usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. But the key factor for me (at least in the context of this line of thinking) is agency. A person is making the decision to move in a specific direction across a terrain.
I like the idea of a person moving through “nodal points” propelled by an innate desire. I also like the idea of foregrounding agency from the perspective of the user or viewer or consumer. People often think about making work as if the person on the other side will have no choice but to enjoy it if the work is “good” enough, but it’s nice to think about the practice of viewing or consuming as an art form in itself. That understanding and honing your own perspective and how you see the world can be as active as making work is. I’m starting to see that understanding one’s own personal radar can take a lifetime.
Where I stand now is, if this is your body and these are all the nodal points in your life, “you” are “here.” Your radar *is* you. Not the things you focus on, but the orientation, the internal ruleset, your magnetism towards things, the natural intuition that you’ve had your whole life. The “desire lines” are you.
“You” are “here.”
All of this brings me to the title of this piece, “Here for the wrong reasons,” which I have to come clean about. Earlier this year, I was in a mode where I was feeling particularly annoyed at a certain type of person online. The easiest way to describe this type of person is someone whose interests are more strategic than personally intuitive. A person whose interests accumulate with an awareness of how they will reflect back onto them. A person who follows nodal points not from an innate desire, but from the expectation of some kind of reward, social or otherwise.
Or to put it in different terms, a person who is here for fame and not for love.
I started thinking about why this particular type of behavior bothered me. I can’t say that I’m not empathetic to this mode, or that I’m not ever prone to it. There isn‘t a clean way to get around the idea that personal expression is always at least in part performative. Expression is partly fun because it’s performative.
It’s also not like this type of behavior is a new thing. There has always been the type of person who is performative of their own interests or pursues their work because of the kind of attention it will get them. There’s always been the pressure to act upon the desires of one’s own ego. But this mode feels much more pervasive as time goes on. Environments are emotionally contagious, and if the environment you spend a lot of time in is hyper-competitive and performative, you’re going to feel pressure to act competitive and performative as well. The dominant model of social media codifies and enhances that pressure.
People have always lived in their own realities. A person’s intuition helps them decide what to pay attention to, how to perceive the world, and what to value. This was true long before the internet, long before television, long before radio or books. Even when one’s own decisions are largely centered around survival, there still exists an orientation. A fundamental set of rules that determine how reality is organized for a person.
Along the arrow of time, people multiplied and so did information. For the 66% of the world’s population that is online, social media has largely made permanent a world of individual realities. But it also underpinned that world with the perspective that the larger structure holding everything together is competition. In order for your reality to be the most real, it has to win.
I know this isn’t quite the same thing as one’s interests being strategic, but it is a mode we live in where you have to think of content or information as a resource. And doing so means that in some ways you’re producing or consuming in order to cultivate a position, rather than treating content as something out there to be curious about, to be fascinated by, or to love.
The distinction between the two modes I’m trying to define is that one side takes the position that being fascinated with something or someone in the world has a benefit that is self-evident. Being able to feel love towards something or someone is a gift in and of itself. The other side (the side that annoys me) orients fascination or association or effort towards a direction with the primary goal of having some kind of quantifiable reward. But if you’re really focusing on the moment, on something you love, on something in the world that feels like it’s made for you, you can’t be thinking about how it will benefit you, or how it will reflect back on you. These two modes are at odds with each other. True attention requires that you don’t view something in the world through the lens of “what can this thing do for me?”
Algorithms pervert one’s attention. An atmosphere that promotes being performative does as well. Part of what I’m trying to grapple with is how software or platforms or environments can get in the way of one’s own feeling of being connected — not to other people necessarily, but to your own intuitive radar.
A few years ago, in preparation for a different talk, I asked my co-founder Daniel Pianetti if he had any good friends that he initially met online. He told me that he has four friends he met on a “music” message board. No genre, no hyper-niche label focus, just music.
So ok, music. How did he meet these people then? Daniel said that the message board had an option to link a Soulseek profile next to your name. He would see someone on this message board, maybe become semi-interested in them, and then check-out their Soulseek profile if he really wanted to determine their compatibility.
Soulseek is a file sharing platform that came out around the same time as Napster and Kazaa, but it’s still around and still has a passionate userbase. One part about its design that’s worth highlighting is that if you search for a song or album and find a person who has that song or album, you could go through their entire shared music folder and see what else they have. Soulseek is an environment that’s oriented towards surfing nodal points.
There is this tendency to think about software, especially software that is more on the “tool” side as something that augments your ability as a human. What I keep coming back to is that I really don’t want that at all. I like feeling connected to things and unencumbered. I like feeling the humanness of things and my own human relationship to things. I want to be able to feel true attention, or at the very least, the possibility of it.
For Soulseek, the key is that it is just an environment that is made for the same kind of abstract actions that happen when you are surfing nodal points in the physical world: A person might turn you onto something — a band, a book, an artist, etc. — and later on, if that thing becomes a nodal point for you, it might lead you to another person and that person might lead you to another nodal point and on and on.
That shared love for the thing or the overlapping interests allows you to tune your radar for certain types of people. Similar to the idea of desire lines, agency is the key component. There’s the agency to move through abstract space guided by your own intuition. In the case of Soulseek, there’s nothing (other than your own intuition) that is influencing your path.
Software environments that take these types of approaches are attractive because they operate in a way that doesn’t make any assumptions about what an individual might want, at least in terms of content. There are no personalized suggestions or algorithmic rabbit holes to fall into. The content you are exposed to is only based on a network you’ve intentionally cultivated for yourself, guided by your own internal radar. The result is a kind of texture of a network that is both difficult to replicate and rewarding to traverse.
These types of environments are built with the understanding that there is no long-term benefit (for the person or for the network) to interfere with an individual’s intuitive radar.
When I first started working through these ideas, I was giving an elevator pitch to friends to see what they would say. One friend said, “Isn’t the conclusion just that you should do things for yourself, and not for other people? That’s never a bad message to hear but it’s also kind of a worn out message.”
I didn’t have a response to this until recently, after I’d written all of this down. But actually, what I’m trying to get at is the opposite of doing things for yourself. Doing something for yourself sounds the same as doing something because you think it will reflect positively on you. What I love seeing is people pointing their attention out into the world and doing things for the world, in service of ideas and not an expected outcome.
To me, the only way to do that effectively is to understand what connects you to the world, what draws you in, what your radar is. This could take a whole lifetime (and ideally it does). In order to understand what your radar is, you have to pay attention. Paying attention means not only recognizing where your gaze is focused, but understanding why it’s focused there.
Thank you to the organizers of FWB FEST for inviting me to try to articulate some of these ideas on stage in front of a live audience.
Thank you to some of the human nodal points in my life who helped me work through some of these ideas but more importantly continue to inspire me daily: Nicolette Chao, Lucia della Paolera, Margaret Lee, Meg Miller, Daniel Pianetti, Emily Segal, Damon Zucconi, John Michael Boling, Chris Sherron, Mindy Seu, Michael Guidetti, Jaime Whipple, Malte Muller, Laurel Schwulst, Yatu Espinosa, Neema Githere, and Khari Lucas.
Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of Are.na.