The Rise And Fall Of GeoCities
A precursor to Social Media and Internet Aesthetic movement, Gone too Soon
Most people would think of Social media as an exclusively 21st-century development, the credit for which lays at the feet of Mark Zuckerburg. However, if we were to look back in time a few years, we can (thanks to the efforts of archive.org) take a look at possibly the very first Social Media website, that in its inadvertent success, led to one of the most pure and popular mediums for self-expression that we’ve seen on the internet.
In this blog, we’ll be taking a look at GeoCities, a hosting service that led the way for sites like Myspace, Friendster, Facebook and the like. We’ll also take a closer look at some of the most aesthetic GeoCities sites that thankfully were not lost to time.
What is Geocities?
A web hosting service, founded in 1994 by David Bohnett and John Rezner. The service initially began as a web hosting service for small businesses. At the time, it was not unheard of for web hosting companies to offer free storage to attract new customers, so David and John opted to do just that.
The thing that differentiated GeoCities (Beverly Hills Internet at the time), was the decision to organize the free server space it offered users into “neighborhoods”. Originally, the service consisted of 5 cities and users were free to choose which city they wanted to join.
Cities were organized according to content types and were named after their geographical namesakes. For example, Silicon Valley housed content focused around technology, while Hollywood was centered on fan and celebrity sites.
Eventually, the five neighborhoods that originated with the service, would grow into 29, which hosted content of a wider variety.
Self-Expression and the Emergence of Aesthetic
While Geocities was fundamentally a web hosting service similar to many other emerging services at the time, it was also years, ahead of its time in many ways. The division of free space into cities and neighborhoods was intended to increase the effectiveness of a digital advertisement.
However, the service also allowed people to create webpages of their own personal interest without much knowledge of coding or web design being required. The combination of self-designated “neighborhoods” and complete freedom of expression resulted in the service expanding quite rapidly considering the standards of the time.
This brief explanation fails to capture what GeoCities really was though.
Considering how ubiquitous Internet access is in today’s Western society, it’s probably a little difficult to understand how hard it may have been to navigate at that point in time. The internet had only been made public in 1991 and even still, computers were only beginning to become household items at the time.
GeoCities became a home for then-brand-new internet users, much like Facebook and other forms of social media are for our generation.
When a new user signed up on GeoCities, they were taken to a “global” map of sorts, that allowed them to choose their neighborhood based on what they were interested in. Within that neighborhood, were a litany of other pages, which hosted similar content to their own.
Every time a “Homesteader” - the name given to users by the owners of GeoCities - signed on to the internet, they literally had a “home” to go to. A starting point from which to navigate the potentially infinite amount of information you now have access to. Each webpage was even labeled with a URL that included a Street Address within each neighborhood.
One can argue that GeoCities played a massive role in the expansion of the internet and it becoming a household commodity. Certainly, GeoCities laid the foundation for social networks that would soon replace it such as Friendster and Myspace.
At its peak, GeoCities hosted over 38 million pages designed by 3 million users. Unfortunately, the golden age could only last so long and following its acquisition a few seemingly innocuous corporate decisions would eventually lead to the downfall of GeoCities and it’s closure on October 26th, 2009.
Why Did Geocities go dark?
In January of 1999, Yahoo! purchased Geocities for a whopping $3.57 billion in stock. After taking control in March of 1999, Yahoo! decided that users would be required to “re-register”, “ because “We just want to make sure all your member information is safe and secure after we combine our two databases”.
As it turns out, Yahoo! had made a rather gluttonous, new addition to their new TOS. This addition required Geocities users to provide Yahoo! with the exclusive rights to:
“the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sublicensable right, and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed.”
Which in layman’s terms means that all content that would be posted on Geocities thereafter, would be owned by Yahoo! without question and without compensation for the users who had put their time and energy into creating quite literally billions of dollars of intellectual property.
Naturally, having learned of the new TOS, users almost immediately called for a boycott of the site until the new Terms of Service were reverted. Approximately 10 days later, Yahoo capitulated under the pressure of the boycott and reversed the change unconditionally.
Had Yahoo!’s ambition to maximize the financial upside of their Geocities acquisition ended with this single oversight, Geocities may have grown into a platform that could rival the Social Media Giants of Today.
Unfortunately, in 2001 Yahoo! Released a premium Geocities service that allowed more hosting and bandwidth. While this was a good move for users at first, there was now a wide gap in the quality of experience between the free and premium service.
This would eventually drive the free service into obsolescence and with it, the main source of growth for Geocities. Combined with the emergence of new platforms, Geocities userbase would continue to dwindle until 2009 when Yahoo! eventually put the service to rest.
The Resurrection and an Appreciation of Geocities at its Finest.
Fortunately for us, the death of Geocities was temporary and only somewhat complete.
Jason Scott, leader of the Archive Team, was nominated with the task of preserving what was then rightly considered a monumental portion of human history on the Internet. The motivation behind this was plainly stated in a short public post Jason made following Yahoo’s announcement to shut down Geocities.
Part of that post reads:
“It’s cute and pithy to say “Well, good fucking riddance to Geocities”. And I totally understand that outlook, make no mistake. Many pages are amateurish. A lot have broken links, even internally. The content is tiny on a given page. And there are many sites which have been dead for over a decade. But please recall, if you will, that for hundreds of thousands of people, this was their first website. This was where you went to get the chance to publish your ideas to the largest audience you might ever have dreamed of having. Your pet subject or conspiracy theory or collection of writings left the safe confines of your Windows 3.1 box and became something you could walk up to any internet-connected user, hand them the URL, and know they would be able to see your stuff.”
Thanks to the efforts of the Archive Team, a whopping torrent of over 650 GB was created, the entirety of Geocities webpages held within. A part of human history was saved and remains available for download to this day.
Since then, GeoCities has become a topic of nostalgia, research, and artistic appreciation. The easy to use nature of the service lent itself to ease of expression that was not found anywhere else at the time and with that ease of expression, came the emergence of aesthetics pieces that are being displayed even to this day.
Cameron’s World is a brief web-collage that stands as “a tribute to the lost days of unrefined self-expression on the Internet”. You can find a link to Cameron’s World here, but below you’ll find a few samples from the collage. It is HIGHLY recommended that you visit the original link, since many art features are animated in their original formats.
Since the early efforts of the Archive Team, many others have taken up the calling of preserving this piece of Internet history, through displaying the sometimes obscure aesthetic pieces online. Olia Lialina and Gragan Espenchied are two Internet Archaeologists, who have done just that with their “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age” Tumblr and blog.
Here are a few of my recent favorites from their sites.
(P.S. Their Tumblr features over 16,000 pages of amazing content, so be sure to check it out here.)