by zach
and juhi

I load up the Arena site. I'm not sure what I'm here for — probably was just bored, so I reached for a site to scroll. Oh look, I have notifications! This random person connected one of my blocks to a channel of theirs...and followed me! What block was it? Ah, yes: "Western Melancholy“ / How to Imagine Different Futures in the ”Real World". What a great bit of writing, they really nailed it. Wait, what did they even say in there...I don't remember. Hmm, looks like something about tech? But it's too dense to dig into now. Ugh I wish I had taken notes or something. Oh well, guess I'll scroll through the main page for a bit and see if I find anything cool. Wow, all these images are so hip, I wonder where they're from. Whatever let's just save them to my channel called ~radical aesthetics of late-stage capitalism~. I'm sure they'll come in handy later. *later never comes*

Arena's interface

Arena markets itself as a tool for collaborative research, but is it really? The basic mechanism is to save resources (usually links) into collections. Each resource is a "block" and lives in one or many "channels". Channels are usually used to represent a single topic, and resources can float between them, reflecting how ideas aren't bound to single categories. Your own Arena page is essentially a list of collections of blocks, each representing something you found online that you wanted to save for later. But there is no later: you aren't encouraged or aided in any way to create something from these collections, whether that's writing, art, etc.

Research is all about finding new, creative ways of relating ideas to each other. But the only way Arena allows us to relate ideas to each other is just by dumping 'similar' things into the same channel. We don't get to hear about what the user was thinking when they decided to put a random ecology diagram next to a paper on neural networks. There's also no way to discern different types of relationships between blocks — a jpeg is treated the same as a few lines of plaintext or a Wikipedia article. There is no context for the connections that people are making besides the (often obscurantist) title of the Arena channel. Where is the meaning-making happening?


When we explore ideas on paper, we have a range of tools at our disposal to make connections between words, images, and fragments. We can draw lines between nodes. We can put some nodes closer together and others further away. We can use principles of gestalt to convey nuance in the relationships between nodes, and to help us organize our mind-map into pieces and wholes. If we feel like we need more rules, we can use existing note-taking methods (e.g. zettelkasten) to refer between nodes. None of this nuance is captured on Arena.

Rather than an active researcher, the Arena user is reduced to a passive collector of overwhelming amounts of information. The entire interface is built around collecting without reflecting. Browsing a channel is like reading through the footnotes without an article body, sources without analysis.

Arena is a platform, not a tool

The web today is dominated by platforms which make money by manipulating our attention and harvesting our personal information to sell ads. We believe it takes a different value proposition to build a better online social space.


Despite their own marketing copy about the awfulness of dominant social media platforms like FB and Twitter, Arena doesn't try particularly hard to escape their paradigms. At its core, Arena is designed to be more platform than tool, and that choice is not a neutral one.

A *tool* for collaborative research might seek to help collaborators move from collecting resources to producing an original work. A *platform*, on the other hand, seeks to maximize user engagement. It optimizes for an endless flow of new content, rather than slow digestion of what has already accumulated. A tool would focus on helping you *create*. A platform focuses on helping you *share* and *connect*. A tool might support collaboration, but it would not distract you with social-media-style notifications about people engaging with your content. Arena's followers, connection notifications, etc. are all design patterns lifted directly from the world of addictive platforms, not tools for thought.

Ultimately, the user posts others' works to Arena rather than using Arena to *make something of their own*. You not a creator, thinker, or builder on Arena, but a hopeless collector – a hoarder doomed to endlessly accumulate and never repurpose. This is partially due to an insurmountable boundary between the platform and the content. No matter what you upload, or how often, Arena (at its rigid, white, minimalist skeleton) is still Arena. It is not a flexible tool for research, but a platform for aggregating and distributing content. And that inevitably affects what kinds of resources it collects and how we engage with them.


Arena at its core is a place for people to curate content into the infinite feed — and that curation is lazy by design. In uprooting resources from their context and discouraging responses to collected content, Arena takes the risk out of research. Putting your opinions out into the world, having controversial takes, believing that certain ideas have more value is inherently risky — and exciting and beautiful as a result. But all of that goes out the door when "research" is reduced to putting a block in a channel with a name like "HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE" or "what a wonderful thing love is" or "texture of disability and being out of time, in time: superposition" (all real channels, in case you were wondering).

This is not to say that curation or criticism has no value, rather that Arena precludes thoughtful criticism by design. The collector is under no obligation to present an original thought or a response to a resource. In fact, they are rewarded for not doing so. Original thoughts are risky and time-intensive, and atomic text blocks can't really convey nuance or stitch together an argument. On the other hand, posting an article with a catchy headline about "ecological AI" or some uninspired screenshot photography can never go wrong. Arena's passive collector is insulated from critique. *There is no arena*— or at least no contest within it.

Sure, one might argue, you could write notes in arena blocks. But they will appear as disconnected atoms in any feed or channel, devoid of context or any connection besides being lumped under the same category. Complicated new ideas can't be conveyed in blocks. Or you could comment on other people's blocks to try to force a debate. But those comments are tucked away in block-specific views and don't appear at all in feeds or channels. The interface barely encourages these attempts at deeper engagement. And why should it? The little dopamine hits in your notifications menu come from collecting things that others *like*, not provoking controversy or asking difficult questions. Driven by these mechanics, collecting resources on Arena has more in common with social media posting than research. It is more performance than investigation.

Arena thus functions as a digital white cube where you silently vouch for an 'idea' and its supposed value through the act of pinning a block to a channel. By nature of the platform, we enter a marketplace of 'ideas' where the currency is clout and the interface encourages superficial conformity over critical thinking — and we do so joyously and without introspection.

For all its talk of radical thinking and mindfulness, Arena itself has cultivated a monoculture of a white cube-y, pseudo-academic, superficial hipster-y aesthetic— as one can find splashed all over their Instagram feed [1]). Browsing the Arena "Explore" page feels like scrolling through a Pinterest mood-board but for Tumblr-core intellectuals instead of white millennial moms. That similarity should be no surprise given the two platforms' shared engagement mechanics. But contrary to Arena, Pinterest would never market itself as a progressive platform for "building ideas mindfully".
[1] Arena's IG feed


The mechanism of collection mirrors other forms of commodity culture we participate in on a daily basis — like fast fashion, where the superficial image takes precedence over innovation, quality, or design. And just as we collect square-toed strappy heels or chain necklaces for our closet, we collect hip logos, alt fonts, and articles about "imagining futures" for our Arena boards. Resources become aesthetic objects for consumption rather than collections of ideas to be sat with, picked over, digested. A block derives value from being seen, shared, connected. No interrogation of the block is required for it to occupy space and accrue value on the platform. The user connects the block to their channel to collect/own it in a manner reminiscent of the most played-out forms of conspicuous consumption. Hopefully someone who finds it interesting will hit them with a follow, or the Arena Instagram page will feature their channel.

What is Arena for?

(Quotes from Arena about page)
We created because we wanted a way to build on each other's ideas in real time. There are other platforms for sharing and "liking." We're interested in making connections that expand our ways of thinking about the world. When you make collections on, you're adding to a publicly accessible library where many forms of knowledge can thrive.

Arena fails to interrogate the deeper mechanics of social-media-as-platform and prioritizes engagement over "build[ing] on each other's ideas". Building knowledge takes effort, dialogue, and time, not an endlessly scrolling pinboard of atomized blocks. takes a uniquely cooperative approach to building and sharing knowledge.

Arena encourages the collection of resources as fetish objects, and performance over knowledge building and sharing.

Unlike social media, is free of ads, likes, and recommended content.

Connections are basically likes, and followers are followers. The Explore page repeatedly shows the same few blocks re-connected to others' channels, and functions almost exactly like a recommended content feed (alongside the official Arena Instagram)

Unlike Slack, isn't distracting.

Arena has notifications, and they have nothing to do with research. Furthermore the infinite feed of blocks of content out of context is necessarily distracting, as it doesn't facilitate focus or deep engagement with individual resources.

Unlike most productivity tools, doesn't force you into a structure or measure your worth by checking boxes.

Simply measure your worth by followers and connections instead!

Instead, helps you develop ideas organically through associative thinking.

Arena fails to support associative thinking — its connections are no more than categories and lack semantic meaning. It does nothing to encourage original thinking over endless accumulation.

Simple collections link together into expansive networks, creating a shared archive of many kinds of knowledge. It's all free for you to use for your own purposes.

This shared archive is destined to sit unused for all eternity— a catalog of sources and a way to accumulate intellectual clout, but not an organization of knowledge.

Arena fails because it wants to reign supreme. Arena does not want to be a tool in the researcher's belt— it wants to be a social platform for grad students. Arena fails to understand that *platforms* are the problem, and thus fails to meet its stated goals.