Local Based Software (where “Local” means your neighbourhood)

Some scattered / caffeinated thoughts buzzing through my head this afternoon.

Usually when someone says “local-first software” they mean software that stores data on your device by default and optionally syncs it to the cloud. But I’m thinking about the original meaning of local, as in your whereabouts, specifically your neighbourhood. Thinking about software that only people in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn or [Your Neighbourhood Here] -based software. What would that look like?

Perhaps it’s rooted in your local library, seems as good a place as any in your community (community! there’s another word that takes on weird meaning in the software world. “library” too, but that’s a whole other thing). This is the central, physical place the software lives in (but maybe you can take it with you too, or borrow it?), probably is primarily made there. And only people who live in your neighbourhood get access to it, it’s not something people from around the web can use. You’d get access to it by getting a physical copy of it from the library, maybe? just like a library card. (Aside, I believe one of the visions for the Dynamicland project is / was that it was also rooted in public libraries, so, similar energy here)

But what is this software? Usually when I think of neighbourhood-based software it’s yucky things like “Next Door” where nosy people rag on each other and like to call the cops. Um, fuck that specifically. And also, these sorts of software are made as a “platform” where there’s one vendor who serves localities all over the world (or nation), in a uniform way. Every neighbourhood is effectively the same on the platform. It’s homogenous. But maybe it would be better if each place had its own, homegrown software. You have to live here to get it, and it takes on the character, the grain, the terroir of its neighbourhood. (and maybe every location makes their own custom emoji sets? typography? sticker packs? design language?)

(I also think it would be neat if this wasn’t a phone app or a web app, but maybe some other kind of form factor. Maybe it’s more like a physical, flexible book, or maybe it’s a big papery thing like a map that again is kind of like a 2018 Dynamicland object — I don’t know, but while I’m fantasizing, why not move out of the realm of small phone apps too?)

And what does it do? What do you use it for? Here is where I lack imagination. See, I grew up with the internet, and growing up I felt like it was so cool because it was the same all over the world — location didn’t matter, so what’s the point in caring about local things (sigh). And increasingly it feels like this is the world(view) we live with today — I don’t really know my neighbours! Would software fix this? Nope, but the act of a community-collaborative project might bring people together — the act of making it together might be more important than whatever it actually does. Of course, that suggests it doesn’t even have to be software, but hey, I’m a software person and it’s fun to imagine things. So maybe I’ll dwell on it more (and I’m curious to hear your thoughts too)

Some inklings:

I’m kind of obsessed with Animal Crossing for the Switch, in particular the concept that Tom Nook gives you a little island phone. The device acts as the game’s UI / menu system and it’s a compelling conceit. But I like thinking about it literally, a world where this one character (and his two doofus nephews) made a whole damn smartphone and a handful of apps that everyone on your island (of like, 15 inhabitants) uses. It’s extremely local and it was presumably custom made. I absolutely love this concept.

The Community Memory computer / space thing that was in Berkeley in the 1970s. It was a computer rooted in a physical space, and you had to visit it to use it. Looking through it with today’s glasses, it looks kind of like a forum / message board, but I’m probably missing lots of the nuance of what made it so special. You can read more about it in Jenny Odell’s fabulous “How to do Nothing” book. Also this tweet thread and this one too.

Last summer, when coming back from my beloved local sandwich shop, I tweeted:

Obsessed with my local software bodega

I can get all the objects, lists and collections, updated views, everything I need. Great people who work there too! I’m thinking about buying one of their tote bags or hats

Anyway, support your local software bodega!

It’s a bit silly, sure, but it’s like an alternate world where local electronics shops that sold boxed software still existed today (instead of things coming from digital “App Stores”), and beyond that, not only could you buy pre-packaged software, you could also buy software “parts” for the software you’re making yourself (akin to a hardware or art supply shop).

I love my local sandwich shop, it’s got its own vibe, the food is great, and people in my neighbourhood generally love it. Same with the delis, the bookshop, the cafés etc. These are all small businesses, not aiming to reach millions of customers, just trying to make their way and provide services and goods for the people who live here.

Similarly, Tyler tweeted:

was having some fun with cyclic cellular automata the other day, looks a lot like terrain maps. this is all using my neighborhood graphics library

And I quote tweeted it, deliberately misinterpreting it:

I like the idea of “neighbourhood graphics library” meaning the library your physical neighbourhood all uses. Like there’s a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn library, an Upper West Side library, etc. and they’re all different

Does it really make sense for a physical neighbourhood to reinvent a whole graphics library? Probably not really, but it’s fun to imagine, it’s fun to think about software that manifests the attitudes of the people living closely together, that speaks with their accent.

Tell me what you think!

Speed of Light