An Interview with Spencer Chang

Image by Spencer Chang. [Images and hand-scrawled paper notes taped to a board, scrapbook style.]

Spencer Chang is a programmer, artist, and writer who creates new interaction mediums, website environments, open protocols, and local-first applications. For the last year or so, Spencer has been conducting independent research on what they term “communal computing,” or making tools and spaces that allow for people to gather, play, and create things together. One result of that research is Gather, a new offline-first mobile app for archiving, maintaining, and curating collections, with support for syncing your collections to channels.

Gather is available for iOS and Android, so we’re publishing a guide to using Gather as well as the below interview with Spencer on their reasons for making the app, personal saving habits, and philosophy toward technology.

Charles Broskoski: We have that channel “How do you describe at a party?” I was wondering, how would you describe Gather at a party?

Spencer Chang: The thing that I reach for most is a very simple description. I usually just say that I've been building this small app. It's offline-first. It’s made for you to gather multimedia data into collections. It’s easier to show rather than tell, so I'll show the texting screen (the home page, which looks like a text conversation) and say that it’s inspired by people who text themselves what they want to save. Most people have done some form of that — maybe emailed themselves a reminder – so it tends to capture that familiar urge when you see it. 

Meg Miller: How did you first come up with the idea for Gather? What sorts of things were you thinking about at the time?

Spencer: The question behind it was “how can anyone, whether they’re technical or not, create or cultivate their own database?” When I started doing independent research last year, that was one of the main questions that was swirling. It’s fundamental to a lot of the other explorations that I'm doing now, looking at how alternative forms of technology might allow people to collect data, own it, and shape it in the ways they care to.

When I started formalizing Gather into the shape that it is now, I wanted it to feel like a very accessible exploration of this. Building an app basically forces you to remove all the complexity. There are a lot of explorations that are more desktop-centered — that's what my work was focusing on back when I was working full-time in tech. It always ends up adding all this complexity. But if you’re making a mobile app, it has to be really non-technical. 

There's already a lot of energy concentrated into collecting data. I take photos all the time and organize them into albums (orange things, things that made me say “wow”, etc.). Text messages also feel like specific collections of data. There’s one friend I always message, and we have these ritualized greetings and evolving meme formats we exchange, so our image history is just remixed memes. These feel like very particular kinds of collections to me. 

I use all the time to collect stuff on my desktop, and I realized these various methods of data collection were rarely merging. So I thought about what it would look like to create something for my practice of gathering in the physical world and how to connect it to my existing digital worlds. I wanted it to feel as smooth and trustworthy as the Camera app on my phone or your standard Notes app, which meant it had to work all offline. And then I thought, what if you could plug it in to and make it easy to extend to additional new data sources? What if it could be so easy that people could add new data sources themselves? But to start, I really just wanted to make  something that was valuable to me immediately, an app for collecting things on my phone and connecting them to my channels. Now my worlds are really melding. 

Collecting in Gather. [Two screengrabs of what look like a text messaging interface. The channel title runs across the top in orange, and blocks present like text boxes. The image on the left shows a specific channel, and the one on the right shows a view for “all collections.”]

Cab: So there are two modes to it, right? One is the collecting mode, and one is the arranging mode. Was that on your mind first and foremost when you started making Gather? Or did that come later on? 

Spencer: Yeah, they were already there at the start because I noticed I had these two distinct modes when dealing with the data I collect. When collecting, I’m just noticing what is important to me and realizing that I want to capture this. Once I have that set of items that have passed this initial filter, it’s much easier to categorize them into specific collections. Now there are technically three modes, the last one is a reviewing mode, which emerged a little later. 

And before that, the question was, if I create my own collections app, do I create a new service to host this? My own api? I've always hated that way of building. It's sort of like one of the only legible ways to do it, but it's worse for me too, right? Because I have to maintain this whole new thing. That's not the thing that's important about the idea — the important things are having it work fully on my device, being able to connect to the existing data platforms I use, and exploring new interfaces for managing data. The fact that it can work standalone but also connect to existing platforms is core to this. That's part of the question of “can that be a form of app-making that works?” 

One of the other main components of Gather is the unique interfacing with data — I guess I say unique because they are very personal expressions of how I want to handle data and the different ways I care about interacting with data, between collecting it and organizing it and reviewing it. It feels like my personal data story wrapped up in an app.

Select, Organize, and Review in Gather. [Three screengrabs showing three different modes for selecting material from a list, organizing it into collections, and reviewing.]

Cab: Something that I think about a lot, and I wonder how you feel about it, is why it’s important to save the things you come across. Like, why do you think that people feel compelled to do this? What is personally important to you about being able to have a handle on the stuff that you see in the world, the things you think — why is it important to make those things accessible for yourself?

Spencer: Yeah I think set a lot of great philosophy for this question. For me, there's a very marked point in my own personal history where I started thinking in this way of organizing the data I saw into collections. It feels like there's a point where it became woven into my actual being. It mirrored my own change towards being more creative and freer with my ideas. I think it comes out of our urge to create; it feels like it's this foundational thing you have to do before something can come out of you. 

It’s research, but not in a traditional sense of research. It’s almost like a personal philosophy research or something. It’s how you form your opinions about a specific category of things. The terms I use most often are “textured” and “resonant” — I think when you see collections that have been cared for over many years and have a very specific view of the world, there's this texture or grain that just explodes out of them. I don't know, it feels like you would be losing a part of yourself if you stopped. 

Cab: I relate to that for sure. 

Meg: I think both Gather and speak to this idea that a lot of times ideas and projects are formed out of a more ambient kind of thinking and talking and doing. Research is not always this thing of sitting down and concentratedly looking through archives or something. 

Cab: Yeah totally. Gather is really nice because it feels like it's really oriented towards the ambient part of that process. I keep going back to you talking about your texts with your friends, but thinking about that as an archive and framing it in some way as research is really interesting. When you're thinking through something with a friend or just interacting with your own thoughts via a chat interface, even when there’s no one on the other end, there's something that feels like… it's more available for you to catch a passing thought, you know? 

Spencer: Yeah I love that about text conversations. I hear a lot from people who feel like those are where their most important thinking happens. Maybe Gather can help justify these more casual or ambient encounters as important or real research. It creates this shift in thinking that anything can be critical to a formulation if you have the right containers.

Meg: You said earlier that you left a full-time tech job to start thinking more about this research thread of a human-created/centered internet. How long has that been now?

Spencer: It's been a little over a year.

Meg: How’s that experience been, being able to work independently on projects like Gather?

Spencer: For the few months leading up to when I left, I had felt a disagreement between where the company was going and what my core philosophy is. Prior to that, there was this really magical period of feeling like my philosophy and the company's philosophy were fully aligned. But due to a combination of factors – it was a venture funded company and it was a period of time when companies across the tech industry were feeling a lot of pressure to cut costs down and bring revenue up – I saw their priorities shifting further away from the kinds of things I cared about. The moment of departure was definitely a moment of grief for me. I was sort of mourning this idea of how software could have been changed through my work. Working independently felt like the best way to continue exploring my ideas. 

Meg: You mentioned your core philosophy towards technology. I think you’ve been showing it to us throughout the interview, but I wonder if you could say directly what it is. Alongside Gather, so many of your projects seem to speak to similar ideas.   

Spencer: This feels like the “how would you describe Gather at a party” question, but now about myself. [laughs] 

This is a hard question for me, even though my past year has effectively been all about answering this question. The term I reach for most is “communal computing.” What I care about most is technology as a medium for humanity. I care about making technology feel more like a material that we can use to connect better with each other or express ourselves or create things; tools and spaces that allow us to gather, play, and share in the joy of making things together.

I'm really drawn to creating infrastructure to further enable all the ways that we already change or shape technology, even when we're not really given the permission to do so. All the ways we co-op existing platforms to either create the social spaces we care about or collect data. The predominant technology industry philosophy is that there are these problems in the market and you have to disrupt them and create something that completely fixes them — I guess the opposite of that to me is that there are all these opportunities in our already existing technology and the internet more broadly. We already know how we want those things to behave and how we want to change them, and we're doing that every day. This philosophy has roots in things like Melanie Hoff ’s Always Already Programming and Robin Sloan’s Home-Cooked Apps — the idea that we don't need to be separated into people who know about technology and people who don't. We're all technological beings now; it's ingrained into the way we operate. It's almost an extension of our body. And we already know how we want to shape that technology. We just need to be better supported to do so. 

Cab: The really nice part about your work is that you're doing that for other people. You're giving people who are not technological a reason to be optimistic about technology, which is such a service. It’s the kind of thing that really ripples out in a way that you might not expect. 

Spencer Chang is an internet artist and engineer stewarding and making computers as communal environments and creative infrastructure. Their interdependent practice spans open-source tools, internet playgrounds, and homemade software (like Gather) that offer alternative forms of digital being and invite & empower visitors to make their own technology. Their focus on collective infrastructure embodies a practice of longevity by imagining, realizing, and maintaining technological patterns that nurture agency, intimacy, and solidarity.  Ultimately, their dream is an internet that feels like a home made for, and tended by, all of us—a patchwork of cozy websites, playful interactions, and communal libraries.

Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of

Meg Miller is seeding, organizing & double checking Editorial.