On Motivation

Stephen Willats, Information Transfer Series No. 4

Nodal points

"Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal." – Kathleen Kelly, You've Got Mail

This morning I was thinking about this book store I used to go to as a kid, Half Price Books in Houston, TX. 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 a small intuitive sense of the things I was drawn to. I thought about specific books that I found there (naming them is too embarrassing) 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 a recommendation that felt like it was actually for me. A mixture of both passive and active knowledge acquisition.

A random 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. 

Bryce Wilner, Plotter’s Tour (Spiral), 2017

On Motivation

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back”– Rebecca Solnit

I’ve had this (semi-vague) idea that I want to write about what keeps us excited to work on Are.na, on the occasion of its 10th (yes 10th) birthday. While writing generally is a tricky process for me, this subject motivation is even trickier.

In general, I find both commemorative blog posts and writing about motivation to be corny. Rounded dates are admittedly arbitrary and trying to explain why one does the things they do can often come across as cliche and impersonal. A lot of my procrastination has really been turning the subject around in my mind, trying to find an honest angle from which to analyze how exactly we DO stay motivated. In other words, this is as much for me as it is 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 develop the intuition to recognize nodal points for themselves. 

Over the course of 10 years of using Are.na, I have fully adopted the view that any piece of information can be important to a person given the right context. And on Are.na, pieces of information can be arranged in infinite varieties of contexts – their respective meaning shifts as the proximate information shifts. In other words, the more connections a block has, the more opportunities it has to be a nodal point.

We try to be really careful about what we choose to work on because what we do (as a platform) and you do (as a person) is a balance worth tending to with the utmost care. It’s important that people—actual individuals—are doing the work for themselves to decide how exactly they want to group information together, because it’s this exercise that hones a person’s unique intuition. It’s personal intuition that gives a piece of information a unique shape to live in, and it's the many connected shapes that make Are.na such a specific and impressive place to spend time (thanks entirely to you).

What keeps us excited is the thought of this process happening (an individual sees something in the world, decides it’s important to them, and then decides how it should be contextualized), thousands of times a day, all over the world. What keeps us working on Are.na is that people are using it to become (slowly and with care) more and more “themselves.”

10 More Years

“The slow blade penetrates the shield”– Gurney Halleck, Dune

One question that is still hard to answer after 10 years of working on Are.na is “what is the long term vision?” This is difficult for a few reasons. 

One reason is that we have to calibrate our definition of long term with the person who is asking the question. Are.na is a lifelong project. Our ideal outcome as a company is not becoming the next Facebook (god forbid), it’s becoming the next Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a hot spring hotel in Japan, and one of the world’s oldest businesses (founded in 705 AD).

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan

The other reason is a little trickier to articulate. It often feels like Are.na itself has its own needs and desires—that Are.na has its own personal intuition. And that we (you and I) are figuring out what it wants to be together. We (the organization that works on Are.na) have a very defined sense of how things should be done and why building Are.na is important, but we try not to be overly dogmatic about what exactly it should evolve into. Instead we try to listen to how we all talk about Are.na, pay attention to how changes to the platform bring about new needs and ideas, and recognize the times when we (you and I) have strong urges to do something on Are.na, but can’t. These are the times when we know how to make Are.na more complete. 

In more concrete terms, for the (relatively) near future we are working on the things that we’ve been talking about with you for a while now: search, indexing, alternative views, developer tools, more events, and corporate structures that better reflect our values and commitment to the people that use Are.na. Personally, I’m excited about figuring out how we can all traverse the nodal points on Are.na in ways that can bring more dimension to our individual perspectives.

We are a small team and because of that, we move slower than you might have come to expect from an internet-oriented technology company. But we are also completely independent – beholden to no one but you. And anyways, I do think it's worth considering slowness as a strength.

A phrase that comes to mind regularly for me is “The slow blade penetrates the shield,” a phrase from the novel Dune, spoken to the novel’s protagonist during a combat training session (please bear with me). I think of it because I like the notion that in the struggle to create something—to bring to fruition a project, a work of art, a company, whatever— sometimes the best strategy is slowness. Despite any feelings of impatience we’ve had during the lifespan of Are.na, I do have a sense that slowness has actually worked in its favor. It’s the reason why Are.na’s community is so singular. We’ve had time and space to become (slowly and with care) more and more ourselves.

We’ve long had the sense that it’s possible to cultivate an experience on the Internet that is more calm, thoughtful, and introspective. And we’ve long had the view that this is possible not from a technology-oriented approach, but from an approach that is more soft, more personal, and more intuitive. 

In the blade/shield scenario, if we are the blade, what is the shield? I think it’s speed: The dominant model for online platforms (especially social platforms) is speed and scale at all costs. But to us, growing Are.na in the correct way is more important than growing it quickly.

And with that, I have to offer you my deepest thanks for being with us. Your patience, care, and support are sometimes too much to even believe. We feel incredibly lucky and honored to be doing this with you.  

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