By Vicky Blume on May 22nd, 2023
An Infinite Game: Interview with Laurel Schwulst
If the internet is like a big, welcoming watering hole, what makes some shores more welcoming than others? You may have noticed the waters becoming choppier this year as big, new players enter the scene—the AI gorilla and a Twitter tarantula, to name a few—raising profound, evolving questions about how we build, cultivate, and engage with online spaces. I decided it was time to sit down with one of the most thoughtful internet builders I know. For the past 12+ years, Laurel Schwulst has brought to life networked tools as a designer, writer, educator, & power user. Currently, she teaches web design at Princeton and directs the Are.na Gift Shop. Here’s a selection of projects she has enjoyed working on:
How to Build a Kite
interactive tutorial for New York Times
travel app, an “Ode to Airplane Mode”
The Creative Independent
online garden for Kickstarter
In lieu of standard small talk, Laurel and I agreed to show-and-tell an object that represents how our weeks were going:
🐚 Sharing objects
Vicky Blume: I found this little piece of tinfoil that has been run over multiple times and just appreciated how aggressively flat it was. I like that it became something new from that whole process. The past few months have been a lot, so I really relate to this little, transformed tinfoil.
Laurel Schwulst: That's beautiful. My object is this bag. It's dreamy because it’s made up of these repetitive pleats. It’s a “Pleats Please” bag designed by Issey Miyake, who is one of my favorite designers. I originally only had this bag in green. But then, over the winter, I bought it in pink as a gift for my mom. However, my mom said she didn't need a bag. So when spring started, I switched bags and noticed that people were looking at me differently because I was carrying this bright, magenta bag. The bag’s structure is interesting, too. It has very regular ups and downs and which feels representative of my week. It’s calming that the pleats are so regular—dualities are to be expected.
🌙 Building online community
VB: You've helped cultivate a number of online communities, like The Creative Independent and Are.na. Is there something you're looking forward to in the world of social networking or social media?
LS: Maybe we can think through this one together. Of course, it’s easy to say negative things about mainstream social media. But I think it's important to take stock of the amazing things that have come about, at least in my life, because of it. There are so many people I've only met through Are.na, Twitter, Instagram, and even Tumblr back in the day. Those connections have changed my life in significant ways at times. Any network that facilitates meeting people—people who can change the course of your life in ways that are impactful—is kind of huge. Right now, Are.na and BeReal are the social networks I regularly enjoy.
VB: To me, it always boils down to where people are showing up most authentically. I think places can be built in a way that allows people to show up as humans.
LS: Absolutely. Instagram feels like it's trying to turn every human into a company, or some kind of metric driven being. There was a time when Are.na displayed follower counts, but in their community channel, someone was like, “hey, you should remove that because it’s against your ethos.” So they removed that element, and I think it’s had a real impact. I never check my follower count on Are.na, whereas when I log onto Twitter or Instagram—I immediately see those numbers. Another platform I like is Read.cv. I see it as a designer newspaper, in a way. They also recently launched Posts, which is essentially their Twitter clone. They made a few key choices that make interactions feel very cozy and encouraging. You can also feel that the people behind the platform genuinely care about people and the community they are building, and that ethos permeates through everything they do.
🐛 Birds, bugs, and snail spirals
VB: What's the role of nature metaphors in your teaching and art practices?
LS: I believe alignment is everything. If I can align with a group of people, then we can vibe together and create something that we all feel excited about. Metaphors can be an amazing alignment strategy. Nature metaphors specifically are easy to talk about due to their universality. When paired with technological themes, they naturally lead to discussing ways technology can be more humane. I've also noticed I like working “upstream” — to me, good projects are holistic, and it’s exciting to make decisions about projects at a root level, which will then naturally influence every part of it.
VB: There’s basic humor in it, too. Like the birds you used for The Creative Independent. They're disarming. And I think oftentimes in educational settings and work settings, people are coming in with their own work trauma and baggage. So these warm, approachable metaphors can feel like a reset button.
LS: Totally. In my work with The Creative Independent, for example, I had to come up with a symbol to represent what it is. We came up with this spiral snail, which represents an artist's circular path. I feel lucky to have helped them find that.
🔭 Making work that feels human
VB: To me, your work often draws me in with its playfulness and humanness. “Humanness” is on everyone's mind right now with AI, and I'm curious how you're thinking about humanness these days. Is it important to you to create work that feels human, or involves the human touch?
LS: Artificial Intelligence is going so fast these days—it's hard to keep up. Personally, when I use ChatGPT, I've noticed that I'm getting better at talking to a computer. To me, it underscores how amazing the ability to simply have conversations is. And if you’re someone who enjoys having conversations with yourself, I think it helps if you personify the different aspects of your personality. For example, I was writing in my journal recently and tried talking to my own imaginary personal “navi” — my glowing, guardian fairy over my shoulder, like in the Zelda video game, and it was helpful. I’m excited about anything that allows you to converse with yourself and lets you speak to other humans in a more fruitful way. There's a lot of fun to be had, and real relationships to develop. I don't know if you've tried talking to a ChatGPT in a group setting—
VB: Oh, wow.
LS: Yeah, I've done that a couple of times with friends, and we are able to have conversations we wouldn't have normally because we have this interesting third party present. Holding a conversation is an amazing, amazing thing. Questions are the instruments of perception. Good answers encourage continued questions, like an infinite game.
If you enjoyed this free flowing conversation about online communities, nature metaphors, and creating work that feels human, we recommend exploring The Creative Independent website, or becoming a part of the Are.na community. They are built with care, and sustained by the everyday creativity of people like you and me.
About Vicky Blume
Vicky Blume is an arts worker based in New Haven, Connecticut. After moving to the city to study art and psychology at Yale, Blume lit up communications for a contemporary art gallery and a community art school. Most recently, she served as Creative-in-Residence at the New Haven Free Public Library's Tinker Lab. In her artistic practice, Blume builds interactive websites, animations, and installations that offer calming and consensual alternatives to the Attention Economy. At home, she is passionate about her houseplants but struggles to care for more sensitive plants. She aspires to create a home environment where every houseplant can thrive.