Friday, May 24, 2019

Remembering GeoCities Pt2: The Internet Suburbanized

In the 1990s computing was very exciting. The World Wide Web had just been created and with the release of the first graphical web browsers Mosaic and Netscape, "surfing the web" was a new national past time.

At first web sites and web pages were only for the privileged few... academics and later big business. But in 1994, entrepreneurs David Bohnett and John Rezner founded a Web hosting service called Beverly Hills Internet, which would later be known as GeoCities. The service allowed anybody to create their own Web page for free!

For David Bohnett, the web was like a new frontier -- a landscape where people would want to claim virtual real estate and settle in. He wanted to offer it to them for free, creating "neighborhoods" of sites that would be linked up to one another and categorized by subject. He even wanted to give them templates that made learning basic HTML easy.

In 1994, Bohnett’s virtual world -- which he called GeoCities -- debuted. For the next 15 years, users would spend incalculable hours building and tending to more than 38 million pages, most of which featured an eye-searing blend of primitive graphics, pre-loaded music files, and flashing fonts. There were a lot of toys to play with, and most users didn’t concern themselves with whether one component of HTML coding complemented another.

The fact that GeoCities inspired a lot of terrible Web design doesn’t seem so terrible in retrospect. The site gave people tools to do amazing things with a few quick clicks -- without much in the way of training, anyone could add music, animation, graphics, and other HTML wizardry. In this age of blogs, YouTube, and Twitter, we take for granted our power to broadcast anything to everyone. But back in the mid to late 1990s you had 15 megabytes to tell the world about yourself with no restrictions!

While AOL and Netscape may have helped early users find their way around the net, it was Geocities that gave them a home. Quite literally: In order to establish a presence on the nascent hosting site, users were tasked with finding an empty lot in one of the website’s 29 thematic neighborhoods. Whether it was the HotSprings ("where the focus is on health and fitness") or Area51 ("A brave new world for science fiction and fantasy fans"), the ability to enter a community based on similar interests and hobbies, with fellow users understood as digital neighbors, was an alluring proposition.

However, lot of the pages on GeoCities stayed frozen in the gestational state, their most prominent feature some kind of wacky “under construction” graphic. After the thrill of setting up the site wore off, the creators seemed to get bored of the daily work of maintaining a home page. What was the point, anyway? Setting up a web page proved not to be any kind of surefire way to find wealth or fame.

The story doesn't have a happy ending... In 1999, Yahoo acquired Geocities in a multi-billion dollar deal. 10 years later, Yahoo closed the doors and shut Geocities down.

In the years after it was acquired, Geocities actually continued to grow. While it may have been filled with plenty of cheeky first sites of middle schoolers and sappy personal diaries, there were also entire fan fiction communities that worked tireless hours on a ring of interconnected stories, families connecting to their loved ones with online newsletters, and war stories from veterans looking to create some sort of digital record.

In June of 2009, Yahoo announced Geocities would be closing for good. When site was taken offline on October 26, 2009, a lot was lost. Not just the amateurish, barely visited trash pages of middle schoolers, but entire family photo albums and vast fan fiction communities bit the dust.

Stay tuned for Remembering Geocities Pt 3: Archival to Revival...

What you your thoughts? Sound off in the comments below!


  1. Don't remember going on Geocities when I was small, but at least I've played Neopets, a website where each pet has their own customizable webpage. But here's the catch: you have to be 13 and over (unless you have your parent's permission).


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