Handling blocks with care

by Laurel Schwulst

Sometimes Are.na likes to compare itself to a library. Libraries are places where people share knowledge and resources. Usually they’re quiet so people can focus and read. And libraries have specific rules and codes of conduct — about borrowing books, noise level, etc. — which all stem from a central mission and values about preserving and providing access to knowledge.

Perhaps the biggest similarity between Are.na and a library is that they are both communities where people do their learning in public — but still, no metaphor is perfect. For instance, some people imagine Are.na as a living room, museum, garden, park, portal, or outer space. What type of place is Are.na to you, anyway? Or is Are.na more like a song? It could be both, or all.

So Are.na is different things for different people. There’s no wrong way to use it, but there are some helpful tips. For those new here (or those who want a refresher), read below.

What’s a Block?

For the record, a “block” on Are.na is the primordial unit. Typically, blocks can be an image, a text, a link, a PDF, etc. Things that you want to save somewhere. Almost anything can be represented as a block. If we’re continuing with the library metaphor, you can think of a block like a book — a discrete piece of knowledge.

What’s a Channel?

Blocks start to make sense when you gather them into a “channel.” A channel is simply a collection of blocks. Titling your channel something specific can help make further sense of it. The way that blocks relate to each other give channels their usefulness and meaning, like a specific curation of books in a library.

Channels can be Blocks??

Yes, it’s crazy, but you can put a channel into another channel, and then they act as blocks. Are.na can be very recursive and meta, and that’s why it’s so fun and special.

Caring for Blocks

Attributing Your Blocks

It’s easy to add a new block — that is, it’s easy to upload a text, image, video, link, or PDF.

But what requires a little more effort is “attributing your blocks” — which means adding important metadata, such as a title, description, and alt-text (if it’s an image).

By default, when you upload a block, the title autofills from the file name. For example —

For this image of galaxies in outer space (specifically, the very first beautiful image from the James Webb Telescope), the title by default is “main_image_deep_field_smacs0723-5mb.jpg,” the original name of the image before it was uploaded to Are.na.

However, it only takes a moment to add your own intentional title and description.

But what exactly goes in the title and description areas? We recommend using this “metadata” area to share where your block comes from and/or any useful context to understand its world. But this should be decided on a contextual basis —

“How are titles and descriptions different?” you might be wondering. Of course, you know that a title is more prominent than the description, and it’s literally bigger. But also —

Within a channel grid view, titles exist below the image thumbnail of a block, as seen above.

That said, deciding what information goes in the title versus description might be dependent on your channel’s purpose.

As Nico Chilla advises in “Thank you for attributing your blocks” —

Ideas for attributing your blocks:

  • For a work of art/design — Include the work’s title, author, and link to where you found it. Also cool if you add context in the description.

  • For a quote — Include the quote’s author name and the source text title/link. I also find it really valuable if there’s some indication — be it quotation marks or a block quote or just the name of the author as the title, that makes it clear that it’s a quote before you click to expand it.

  • For a meme — I think a link to where you found it is completely satisfactory and has underrated value.

To add to Nico’s list, I also like to provide context about how I happened upon a specific material. Sometimes that means citing the direct author of the thing, but more often that means giving a “hat tip” (h/t) to the person or people who enabled my discovery. This is the seed of a multidimensional citation practice.

If your block is an image, there’s an additional field available to you — alt-text. It’s valuable to write alt-text (a written description of an image posted online) so that the image will be accessible to people who are blind, low vision, or have certain cognitive disabilities. For more on that, read our guide to using alt-text on Are.na.

But what if you can’t edit a block’s metadata because you weren’t the original person to upload it? (Even though Are.na is communal by nature, blocks are only individually editable by the person who added it.) Kind members of Are.na have been known to comment on blocks to supply additional context, in case anyone is curious.

Caring for Channels

Adding context for your channels

Like blocks, channels also have areas you can supply additional information.

To add this additional information to your channel, click “More” then “Edit Channel” and start typing in the “Description” box. You can add context that would be useful for someone coming across your channel for the first time, or you could add instructions for how other people should add blocks (if it's an open channel). You can also link out — to a project, a piece, or paper that your channel relates to, for example — using markdown language: [link description] (link).

Connecting things is elemental to Are.na. One of the joys of adding something is seeing where other Are.na users connect it. Why? One thing that differentiates Are.na from other forms of social media is that it hopefully encourages active rather than passive knowledge consumption. Along the right hand side of a block, you will find a list of channels that block is connected to, or its “learning trail” — how it has traveled through Are.na, becoming a reference for others. For example, the above text block about libraries by Becca Abbe has been connected 190 times, in collections ranging from “Short Utopias” to “true journey is return” to “i think it is my dream to be a librarian.”

That said, one way of caring for an existing block on Are.na is by connecting it to one of your own channels that uniquely lives in your own universe of thought. Ideally, it helps the person who originally uploaded the block — and anyone else interested in it — to understand its significance in an expanded sense.

Why care for blocks and channels on Are.na?

Libraries are considered “community information centers,” and in some ways, Are.na is similar. Perhaps caring for blocks is like caring for books in a library. Books often contain knowledge. Some are particularly old and fragile (by the way, some of the most ancient Are.na blocks are over 11 or 12 years old). Others were written by people you know. But even if you don’t personally know who wrote a book, what’s more important is that these books are being shared in a community of people. Different people’s views and understandings of these books help all of us access and appreciate them more easily.

Similarly, on Are.na, community members can express care for blocks and channels in different ways. Maybe some people take extra time to compose intentional metadata. Others may create personal taxonomies for organizing their channels (there’s also a guide for that). Both are useful steps towards handling our collective knowledge with care.

Thanks to Leslie Liu who came up with the title of this guide and in general was indispensable in dreaming up this concept.

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