GeoCities once seemed to occupy an unassailable position on the web, so its recent demise contains important lessons about the nature of the medium, says Bruce Lawson.
Once upon a time, long ago, there was a much smaller web. When I first encountered it in 1996, there were 100,000 domains registered; now there are 184 million. As both a geek and a show-off, I secretly longed to have my own page on the information superhighway, but there was no Blogger.com or free WordPress.com sites to be had.
A friend showed me his GeoCities diary in 1999 and soon my inner show-off was satisfied. The class of eight-year-olds I was teaching at the time made a web page with our photograph and a line introducing each of us, then emailed the link to a Peruvian school we had been corresponding with. It felt like the beginning of an era of jetpacks and food pills and robots doing all the work. It felt like the future was here.
On 26 October, 2009, that future became history, as Yahoo, the owner of GeoCities, pulled the plug and switched off the servers, so all the data is gone. Who cares? said many. Good riddance, said some. I disagree.
Some have written that the demise of GeoCities was because it provided a platform for people who had nothing to say. Arguably, so does Twitter, along with Facebook and other poster children of social networking. Of course, one man's dull-as-dishwater web page is another man's wonderful treasure trove of information.
As the first generation of user-generated content, GeoCities had only rudimentary ways for readers to find similar content. The 'cities' in the name GeoCities referred to the directory structure of the site. So, for example, www.geocities.com/paris/ contained pages about the arts, while /tokyo/ contained pages about Far East-related topics such as anime. Another way to link your page to related pages was to use a webring script that you added to your page.
But GeoCities, along with similar services such as Tripod and Angelfire, democratised the web. Normal people, like you and me, could put up homepages, show pictures of our kittens, pay homage to Kylie Minogue or introduce our class to Peruvian nine-year-olds.
The urge to be heard fuelled the webmaster-resources sites that were set up to house garish animated GIFs and buttons that underpinned the view-source, cut-and-paste web that grew so rapidly in the late 1990s. I pay tribute to the view-source culture in my ZDNet UK article How openness unlocks the web's power.
Mass-market taste is rarely appreciated by the top-notch designers. In the world of painting, Vladimir Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl, aka The Green Lady, is one of the best-selling prints of all time, yet is derided by critics.
The same is true of GeoCities. Most homesteaders plastered their sites with as many animated under-construction notices, rainbow dividers, rotating email buttons and tinkling Midi soundtracks as possible. While this might not show great aesthetic sensibility, it displays a fantastic outpouring of joie de web that Olia Lialina celebrates in her essay on early web design The Indigenous and The Barbarians, which I used as an inspiration for my CSS Zen Garden reskin, GeoCities 1996.
Web design dichotomy
That dichotomy between good and mass web design continues to this day. In an 2007 essay Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace, Danah Boyd notes: "Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and so middle school.
"They prefer the clean look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is 'so lame'...
"That clean or modern look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house… while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook."
It is appropriate that MySpace, with its autoplay music and gaudy backgrounds, should inherit the tradition of democratic web design from GeoCities, as both sites...