Remember when the web was young? The salad days of AOL Instant Messenger, Geocities, and Netscape. Back then, when you wanted to dork around on the internet, you made your own web page. It was simple: You just clicked “view source,” then copy and pasted some stuff. And it probably didn’t look much worse than what the pros were doing. Fast forward 25 years: The web is overrun with “platforms.” Sites? Psh. When you dork around, you want to build apps and bots. But there’s no “view source” for that. How do you even get started?
Anil Dash feels your pain. “On a fundamental level, it’s just too hard to go from conceiving an idea to making it exist in code,” he says. “There used to be an immediacy to the web. It was something you made. But as the technology advanced and the complexity of the tools got layered on top of each other, it got harder to just get something up and running.”
Glitch.com is Dash’s antidote to this frustration. As CEO of Fog Creek Software, he’s in charge of tools and communities that programmers all over the world use every day. But he and his fellow Fog Creekers didn’t launch Glitch just for code ninjas, though Facebook, Slack, and others have used it for demos since it launched in March. In fact, with its goofy illustrations, rainbow color scheme, and emoji-everywhere text styling, Glitch looks and feels like a cross between Github and an old Geocities page. It’s all part of Glitch’s design language, intentionally organized around getting you to think of “making internet” as something you can do casually, on a whim, without having to overthink it.
Basically Glitch looks . . . amateurish. But in a good way: It’s a place to be an amateur, and have that be okay. Dash agrees: “The root of amateur is the Latin word for love, and our aesthetic follows from that quickly.” One of Glitch’s signature features is a “help” button signified by the ???? emoji. Press it when you get stuck, “and then someone else on Glitch can go in and edit code next to you, just like in a Google Doc,” Dash says. “The only thing you can do to establish a reputation in Glitch is to help people. If you want to build a Slack bot, the easiest place to do it is on Glitch, because it’s the place where you’ll actually get help–it’s just more fun than scrolling through a documentation site or getting scolded on a forum.”
So what can you build on Glitch? Anything from doodle-y interactive art projects to grown-up workplace apps. (One of Dash’s faves: a game that tests your reaction time to Formula-1 starting lights–which actually went viral among real Formula-1 drivers.) Chatbots for Facebook Messenger and “skills” for Amazon Alexa are also on the menu. And by “menu,” I mean that literally: Glitch offers up a handy selection of cool projects that other people are already building, which you can nondestructively “remix” on your own–just like copy-pasting the raw HTML from a website in 1991.
And that’s the whole point: avoiding the coding equivalent of facing a blank sheet of paper and losing your nerve, whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned programmer. “Even expert programmers are newbies at times,” Dash says. “They’re always learning, because there’s nobody with five years of experience building Alexa skills. But just getting your tools set up to start tinkering around with something can take several hours, and then your creative spark is gone. Giving people the tools to instantly remix something in a couple minutes–that’s something that people really respond to, regardless of their experience level.”
For a newb like me–who’s also old enough to feel a pang of nostalgia for Glitch.com’s visual stylings–the “learn to code” section looks especially inviting. I mean, it’s pink: How could I feel intimidated? Plus, it says right at the top of the page: “Learn by doing, then breaking, then doing some more. You got this!” You’ll have to excuse me while I stop writing this post and start dorking around.