Why was (is) GeoCities important?

What can old websites teach us about a new internet?

I first came across the GeoCities archive about five years ago. I don't think I ever stopped thinking about the archive since then, and I would revisit it from time to time and open up a few sites. But browsing through the archive extensively was intimidating.

Unlike most things we come across online, the GeoCities archive at OoCities.org is not curated or arranged in a user-friendly way. Over time I realized that this is part of what makes it so interesting to walk through. Because when you go to OoCities archive you really do wander through it.

The archive consists simply of lists of file directories which you can click through to open up old websites. These are organized by GeoCities' original themed neighborhoods, such as SoHo (arts), Rainforest (nature), Athens (philosophy), etc. So you have some idea of what you will get when you open a neighborhood. Looking through this archive is a totally different experience from regular web browsing — sort of like Chatroulette but instead of talking to strangers on webcams, you're reading their diaries and CVs and flipping through their family photo albums.

Finally in 2019, ten years after GeoCities was shut down, I decided to take the plunge and start going through the entire archive manually, one website at a time. Since then I have been visiting hundreds and hundreds of websites and clicking through them. Along the way, I taught myself HTML and CSS and made this website to share some of the webpages I've found.

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The commercialization of the internet has changed the communities we build online, mostly not for the better. When we connect with likeminded people on mainstream social media, we are also generating profit for some of the world's largest companies. Every new friend we make on Instagram is also a new data point that helps Instagram know more about what kind of ads we might click on — and those ads are an inescapable and deeply embedded feature of the platform.

The acceptance of constant ads in online social spaces has come about over a period of several years. When GeoCities introduced ads on user webpages in the late 1990s, there was an outcry. People had no control over what the ads looked like or what they were selling, and of course they did not keep any of the profits. A Forbes article from 2001 discussed Yahoo's new model of imposing ads only on users who used their free service with the cynical title "A Community That Stays Together, Pays Together." While various people have since floated the concept of a paid social network that would be ad-free, it has so far not materialized. Instead we have an influencer economy in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish "real" content from paid.

It's interesting to see GeoCities pages gain a second life on Instagram, and also to see how many people there are interested in not only GeoCities but in the history of the internet in general. The community that has grown around @geocitiesmemory is a diverse mix of young people who were born too late to take part in the early internet, and members of Gen X and earlier who are nostalgic for the hopeful internet of their youth. What unites these people is an interest in an online world not defined as today's internet is by targeted advertisements and mass commercial surveillance.

I can't deny that some of the appeal of the archive, for someone who was too young to build a website in the 1990s, is the naive dream of a simpler internet that one can imagine to be a friendlier and better place than the internet today. But my intention for GeoCities Memory is not to idealize the old internet. Instead I hope that GeoCities Memory helps us think differently about how we exist on the internet now, and how we could build a better internet in the future.

One of the most crucial differences between today's internet and the GeoCities era internet is that today most people do not have any hand in creating the infrastructure that they use online. We have ceded control over how our online homes and communities are structured to Facebook, mostly, and a few other companies. This is the first website I ever built myself, because I never needed one before. Coding a space yourself gives rise to unique modes of thinking and perception which are difficult to access the same way when using a premade website builder or a social media platform, as most people without technical knowledge do when sharing content online.

The rise of social media has also increasingly meant that people no longer create their own archives online, at least not in the sense that GeoCities users often used their websites to host archives of academic research or personal data. Today it often happens that we can only access the photos and other shared content that make up many of our own memories by logging in to a platform like Facebook. Even if you take the time and effort to actually download all that data and store it on your own hard drive, it is still structured by the design of Facebook.

Your (digital) memories are formed by the way Facebook encouraged you to talk about and photograph your life. When the very format of our own memory is organized by a company in this way, we lose some independence and originality of thought. It is as if everyone was compelled to purchase the exact same photo album and fill it with the same type of photos and musings on those photos.

Browsing through the GeoCities archive and seeing the millions of different ways people chose to build their websites and introduce themselves to the world is a reminder that there are many other possibilities of ways to exist online, ones that no one has even imagined yet.

In her recent book How to Do Nothing, artist and media theorist Jenny Odell discusses new ways of being on the internet, and how we might pay attention differently to the information we receive from others in both on- and offline worlds. "If we can render a new reality together — with attention — perhaps we can meet each other there," she writes. Encountering someone online through their personal website is a totally different experience than meeting that same person through Twitter or the like. It demands a different attention. As we can see from all those GeoCities websites which proclaimed "Welcome to my home," you are brought into a shared space, a new reality.

All this is not to say the answer to a better internet is simply that we all create our own websites again. But considering the different modes of interaction that personal websites encourage can be a useful way to rethink how we relate to each other online.

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I am choosing to use Instagram to share the websites I have found because it seems to be the simplest and most efficient way to make sure people who are interested are able to find them. I am aware of the possible inconsistency of making use of Instagram for a project that is ultimately critical of contemporary social media — but I also hope that experimenting with different uses of our existing social media could be a first step towards conceiving of different platforms.

Net artists and researchers Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied have already used Tumblr to create a blog, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op, which shares screenshots from the archive at regular intervals. I am trying to build on their foundational work with the GeoCities archive and their efforts to ensure the archive continues to live and change as it is accessed by people on a contemporary social media platform. To the best of my knowledge GeoCities has not been discussed much on Instagram; at the time of this writing #geocities has been used less than 3000 times. I hope to share the archive with people who might not have been aware of it otherwise.

After working in social media I no longer use Instagram much personally, and have found the pressure to present a curated image of oneself to friends and strangers immensely stressful — as I think many of us do, no matter how photogenic our lives may be. @geocitiesmemory has offered a completely different mode of using the platform: I interact anonymously with people I do not know at all, based only on our shared interest in old websites. On this account nobody knows my gender, age, location, or what I look like. I could be anybody at all. This feeling has become increasingly difficult to access in an online era in which so many websites insist on verifying identity or linking to existing social media accounts.

Certainly there are practical reasons to verify a person's identity online in some contexts; however presenting a consistent identity across the internet also makes it easier for one to be advertised to, in increasingly invasive ways. And the consistency that contemporary social media demands puts a particular pressure on us which we don't necessarily experience offline. You may not be the same person at work as you are off the clock, but when your colleagues follow you on Instagram, these two identities begin to blur together. For many people, especially those who work in digital media, maintaing a private personal identity becomes a challenge.

On GeoCities, many websites contain almost no personal identifiers at all, while countless others are the home of completely fictional personas. Those personal pages that do offer (what appears to be) an introduction to a real person are often deeply inconsistent: lists of interests that seem totally incongruous, contradictory political views, dead links, and deleted images. The photos are often unflattering, unretouched, the biographies painfully honest. Without the self-conscious personal branding of the age of LinkedIn, one often gets more of a feeling of meeting a real individual — despite the fact that (especially now the websites are no longer updated) one also has no way of knowing if this person ever existed at all.

This is a big simplification, to be sure, of a complicated social history. Indeed this whole project is an effort to take a simple, zoomed-in look at one piece of an endlessly difficult question. But in any case I hope that it helps people to think in new ways about that question: what does it means to be a person on the internet, trying to be seen and understood by other people, and how could we re-envision that experience for a better online future?

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