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Going doorless

In today's web, we are accustomed to gratuitously sharing articles, videos, podcasts, and other content. By default, most of it is available for free and posted to privately-owned spaces like social media platforms. Most of it is public, for anyone to consume, and some of it is even public domain, for anyone to use. This culture exists because we recognize the value of unlocking the commons by maximizing the number of people who can access and benefit from what we share: the more the merrier.

Apps proliferate differently. We share a 'link' that someone can use to 'install' and then 'run' the app, assuming it's 'compatible' with their system. Some apps must be purchased in order to be used; one hopes they offer a way to understand what you're buying via a trial or screencasts. Some apps require you to create an account to get started; one hopes they can be trusted with your data. With native apps, sometimes a link points directly to specific content inside the app, but an unlucky recipient might still find themselves figuring out where to go in order to find what was actually shared. What if instead of these complex steps, apps behaved more like the content we already share? What if they were as simple to pass around as articles, videos, or animated GIFs?

Imagine an app that behaves more like a park: a non-exclusionary public space where you can sit anywhere, have a picnic if you like, hang out with your friends, come and go as you please, see how you feel at your own pace—there is no survey to fill. There aren't really doors or walls, and anyone is welcome. This kind of 'doorless' app allows you to 'show up and start using it'. It has no 'app store', in the same way there is no 'article store' or 'podcast store'. You can send it in a way that the recipient sees what you shared, and then they can interact directly without other steps—as shareable as the other content we send to one another.

There are several technical affordances to this at the moment. Local-first or edge apps enable the whole experience to take place in the security of one's own device and can continue offline without internet connection. Zero Data protocols like remoteStorage, Fission, and Solid obviate the need to create accounts (because people bring their own data storage) and also enable apps as swappable lenses—"software is the principles of an experience" (as Steve Jobs might have said) and your data becomes the details. Sharing content via URI fragment stores data in the link itself so that no 3rd-party server is necessary to hold the data (for example, a multi-platform music playlist).

These design decisions go beyond technology to encourage free exploration in new spaces. This approach fosters values like privacy, autonomy, resilience, device-independence, open protocols, owning your data, sovereign identity, data accessible beyond an app's lifetime, multiple apps for any data (i.e. Bring Your Own Client), scalability, etc…

The people who maintain these spaces become stewards of something that resembles a public utility—omnipresent resources available to all—and if it can be thought of as such, how can we ensure its longevity? Direct funding via supporters is one method, popularized by platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, Open Collective, and others: projects can offer features or perks based on what people contribute. Metering or usage-based pricing can be 'fair' in some scenarios and inclusive of countries whose currency tends to price them out of 'western' economies. Stronger sustainability however, probably requires a culture shift. Can we popularize supporting makers to the extent that it's as common as an electricity bill (perhaps in the direction of the Web Monetization standard)? And the financial aspect is only part of the picture. Can we make the production of these spaces more participative? How can we normalize building together, getting more stakeholders involved, cultivating community, making things easier to understand, and documenting as much as possible?

Considering that the circumstances of our time leave much to be desired from leaders and institutions, it's important to think about the role technology plays in making our world a better place. Technology will not save us, but it's a useful vector to affect societal issues as long as it remains intertwined in all aspects of life. Not only are doorless apps magical to use—who among us likes bureaucracy?—but they serve as an antidote to account-itis (and its resulting data collection overkill), while encouraging a culture of housing everything in the commons. Zero Data empowers publishing from sovereign spaces, enlarges the pie for developers by pooling together userbases, and builds an ecosystem of apps that can work together without needing a trusted entity to coordinate everything. Direct funding or patronage reduces financial intermediaries and creates dialogue between makers and the communities they serve. Releasing projects as open-source enables anyone to inspect, understand, or contribute. All these dimensions might be merely 'technological' but they increase freedom and empowerment for more people.

Doorless apps and Zero Data are somewhat old ideas, but revitalized by new protocols to promote public spaces where people can move freely. Experiences don't need to be trapped behind 'installation processes' and data does not need to be held hostage by an app or its developer: bring your client, bring your data, and have it your way. Apps can become part of the commons where we find most Internet content, especially if we fund it as a public resource and provide opportunities for more people to participate. All this is possible today and you can help realize this vision of the world: just share.


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