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...
...fulfil a similar function: they both shout: "I'm here." Facebook is about connection and networks: MySpace's very name says: "This is about me."
These sites are both vital uses of the web. In most countries, social-networking sites occupy multiple positions in the top-10 sites accessed by mobile phones.
So, GeoCities's role has been taken on by MySpace, and much of the content was simply ephemera that had been untouched since the early years of the millennium. Is there any reason to give its demise a second thought?
I think so. Today's ephemera is tomorrow's archaeology, and GeoCities is a fantastic record of the early years of the revolutionary medium we call the web. That's why The Wayback Machine and ReoCities have mirrored up all the GeoCities pages they could find — the owner, Yahoo, elected not to back it up.
One person's ephemera is also another person's precious memories. When researching this article, I came across this post on Reocities:
"My husband, a stand-up comedian, died suddenly aged 38, nine years ago. His first, and last, entry into the then nascent world of the internet was his GeoCities page. It's gone now. I had no idea.
"Yeah, I had nine years to print it out but I never thought it would be gone without warning. I feel stupid. If anyone can somehow access this and/or let me know who to contact, it would truly mean the world to me to see his writings one more time."
Perhaps, then, the end of GeoCities serves as a warning that as we increasingly entrust our data to the cloud, we should always ensure we share via the cloud but keep the original safe and backed up.
We put out photos on web-based photo sharing services, our thoughts on web-based microblogging sites — with links that are shortened by third-party apps that, if unavailable, cause the link to fail — we rely on web-based email services and expect them to be available 24/7/365 at no cost to us.
We have been here before with AOL pictures shutting down, and now it is the same with GeoCities. Yet only 12 years ago it was among the top five most popular sites, seemingly invincible and destined to last for eternity.
It seems that, once again, the only thing constant about the web is change. And animated GIFs.
Epilogue: while researching this article, I wrote on Twitter that neither Archive.org nor ReoCities had backed up the lady's husband's GeoCities site. Jacques and Joyce — who run Reocities — contacted me for more information and, within an hour, had fully restored the site so his widow could read his writings again.
Bruce Lawson works as an open web standards evangelist for Opera. He has been involved in standards and accessibility since 2002. The views expressed in this column are his own. You can follow him on Twitter.