How GeoCities Invented the Internet

How GeoCities Invented the Internet

A garish collection of home pages paved the way for blogging, social networks, and the rest of Web 2.0.

By Farhad Manjoo

On Monday, Yahoo put GeoCities out of its misery, shutting down the last remaining pages on one of the Web’s original site-hosting services. It was an ignominious end—and some would say a fitting one. Yahoo’s $3.5 billion purchase of GeoCities in 1999 has been called one of the worst Internet acquisitions of all time. After all, just look at those pages!
Brimming with blinking, moving, garishly colored text and animated
dancing cats, GeoCities made MySpace look like a bastion of elegance
and restraint. Indeed, the surprising thing about GeoCities’ closure
was that it was still around. One of the fastest-growing sites in the
1990s—at the time of the Yahoo purchase, it was the third-most-visited property on the Web—GeoCities
hit hard times after the merger. Eventually, the "home page" fad was
surpassed by blogs and social-networking sites—and the fact that you’d
once set up a GeoCities page became an embarrassing confession rather
than a sign of your early-adopter savvy.

But that narrative sells
GeoCities short. Sure, the site was ugly, and, of course, Yahoo paid
too much for it (though it must be said that those were Internet-boom
billions paid out in inflated stock, not real money). But GeoCities
deserves much more credit than we give it, because it was the first big
venture built on what is now hailed as the defining feature of the Web
2.0 boom—"user-generated content."

The company’s founding goal—to
give everyone with Internet access a free place on the Web—sounds
pretty mundane now. But GeoCities launched in 1995 (it was originally
called Beverly Hills Internet), when there were just a few million
people online. Back then, the idea that anyone would want to carve out
his own space on this strange new medium—and that you could make money
by letting people do so—bordered on crazy. (Two other free hosting
companies—Tripod and Angelfire—started up at around the same time, but they proved far less popular than GeoCities.) In an early press release,
David Bohnett, one of GeoCities’ co-founders, hailed the idea this way:
"This is the next wave of the net—not just information but habitation."
Look past the tech-biz jargon, and his prediction is startlingly
prescient. Today, few of us think of the Web as a simple source for
information; it’s also a place for dissemination, the place where we
share life’s most intimate details. In other words, it’s for
"habitation"—and GeoCities helped start that trend.

Even 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. We can
blame GeoCities retroactively for not exercising a little more control.
But that’s only because in the age of blogs, YouTube, and Twitter, we
take for granted our power to broadcast anything to everyone. Put
yourself back in 1996. Imagine you’ve just pitched your tent online,
and you’ve been given a blank page and 15 megabytes to tell the world
about yourself. Think about how intoxicating it must have been to be
able to do that for the first time. Wouldn’t you, too, have gone a
little heavy on the blinky text?

Perhaps that intoxicating
feeling explains why a lot of the pages on GeoCities seemed 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. And what was
the point, anyway? After all, it quickly became obvious that setting up
a Web page wasn’t a surefire way to find fame, wealth, or dates. That
was especially true as more and more people came online, creating a
glut of home pages. Now that everyone had one, no amount of flashing
text could make your page stand out.

This sense of boredom likely
accounts for GeoCities’ eventual failure. The site came upon one of the
chief ingredients of Web success—letting people put up their own
stuff—but was missing what we’ve since learned is another key feature:
a way to help people find an audience for their daily ramblings. The
main difference between GeoCities and MySpace is the social network:
Both sites let you indulge your creativity, but MySpace gave people a
way to show off their pages to friends. On MySpace, your site was no
longer shunted off to some little-traveled corner of the Web. Instead
it was at the center of your friends’ lives—and so there was some small
reward to keep hacking away at it. At least, that was true when MySpace
was hot, which is no longer the case—just
like GeoCities, it lost cultural cachet to newer, better sites that
came along after. In this way, too, GeoCities was a trailblazer, the
first example of another reality of user-generated sites: They’re
extremely susceptible to faddism. You want a page on GeoCities or
MySpace or whatever else only if other people are there too. As soon as
the place becomes uncool (like, say, if people start calling you "GeoShitties"), everyone leaves in droves.

Could
Yahoo have saved GeoCities? Probably not. It could certainly have done
a better job keeping the site up to date, but even if Yahoo had added
the sort of social-networking features that have since come along on
the Web, GeoCities would never have lived down its late-1990s HTML
excesses. It’s likely that any attempt to revive it—to turn it into
something like Facebook—would have seemed less savvy than sad, like a
hair metal band coming back to do grunge. GeoCities was a pioneer, but
it was firmly of its time and place. And for anyone looking to relive
those glory days, there’s always Angelfire.

Farhad Manjoo is Slate‘s technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can e-mail him at farhad.manjoo@slate.com and follow him on Twitter.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2233723/




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