The tools to be a good citizen of the internet

When I was growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, the internet felt like a blank canvas. If you wanted a presence on the web, you had to build it, either by writing HTML code or using primitive, though at the time groundbreaking, services such as Yahoo’s GeoCities. As a 14-year-old, my pride and joy was my GeoCities site, a nerdy fan page for the PC game RollerCoaster Tycoon.

Over the years, this changed. By the time we’d gone from GeoCities to Facebook, via the messy MySpace, our personal corners of the web looked and acted in the same way. Someone who may once have been inspired to build a website would start a Facebook group instead. Sure, it meant large swaths of the population could get online. And the functionality on offer far exceeded what the vast majority of people could build themselves. But for digital self-expression, it was a bit of a disaster: billions of people all stuffed into the same template.

The nascent “no-code” movement provides some hope of a return to those days of internet freedom. What used to require months, even years, of training as a developer can now be recreated by most semi digitally literate people. No-code is exactly what it sounds like: powerful websites or apps built without writing any code (or “low-code”, meaning writing very little). Intuitive tools such as Softr offer building blocks to create what you need, whether it’s an image gallery or the ability to accept membership sign-ups or process payments.

Where these tools truly become powerful is when paired with database software such as Airtable, providing the kind of sophisticated “back end” previously out of reach for non-developers. You could, for example, spin up an Airbnb-like site for accommodation rental in minutes. Or a homepage for a kids’ sports team. Automation tools such as Zapier bring even more utility. You can tell it: “If [football match] is cancelled, send a [text message] to everyone in the [parents] list.”

Why go to the effort, and sometimes expense, of building anew? It’s important. The coalescence of what we do online and where we do it has brought well-publicized and serious negative consequences. The cost of running mega-platforms such as Facebook or Google means the only way to fund them has been to sell access to your information so you can be manipulated, whether into buying a handbag, streaming a new show or deciding not to vote.

By contrast, when you democratize the creation of software, great things can happen. Qoins, a debt-management app, was first created on a no-code platform called Bubble and has, it says, gone on to help people pay off more than $30mn in debt. And Rebel Book Club, a global community of avid readers taking part in on- and offline events, was built on Strikingly, a website builder similar to Wix and Squarespace.

In the world of work, no-code can unleash great potential. Gartner, the management consultancy, says that by 2025, 70 per cent of new applications developed by organizations will use no-code or low-code platforms, up from less than 25 per cent in 2020. So the creation of new tools or systems will more often be handled by those who actually use them. They won’t have to rely on poorly designed software made by someone else.

Some are calling this the era of the “citizen developer”. I like the connotation. To be a no-coder is to be a good citizen of the internet. It’s to create useful things — for you, for friends, for everybody — on your own terms. The canvas suddenly feels blank again.

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