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Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Under construction - GeoCities of Gold

In 1995, David Bohnett and John Rezner launched Beverly Hills Internet, a group of virtual communities, or “cyber cities”. Some of the make believe cities included SiliconValley, CapitolHill, and the fabulously intriguing Colosseum. If you had a PC and access to the internet, you could have your own personal home page for all to see. By the end of 1995 more virtual cities were being erected, and thousands of people were signing up every day, generating six million page views a month.

BHI quickly went from Geopages to GeoCities and each city became its own little themed community. TimesSquare was home to video games, Hollywood is where you’d go for films and actors, Area51 had science fiction and fantasy. GeoCities quickly became the third most visited site on the internet (only AOL and Yahoo were more popular. The 90s seem so far away, don’t they?). Yahoo, doing what it does and did best, decided to buy it out and ruin it. They spunked away $3.57 billion in stock and quickly made unpopular TOS changes, including demanding the rights to all content and pictures. GeoCities users understandably got a bit miffed and Yahoo quickly reversed the decision. Ten years of losing money later Yahoo shut the service down, and just like that, a curious, beautiful bit of internet history was lost.

Not completely, though. Internet archaeologists and historians like the Internet Archive, Archive Team and OOCities did their best to archive what they could. Archive Team released a 641GB torrent of GeoCities content on the one year anniversary of the site’s demise. This information was actually used by artist Richard Vijgen to create a beautiful zoomable urban grid.

Hidden within the torrented treasure trove were thousands of websites devoted to all sorts of wonderful, sometimes tedious, but definitely unique bits of WWW history. You could find poetry, reviews, early forms of blogs, random personal pages. There were sites set up for clubs, pubs, churches and sports teams. If you had an idea, GeoCities could host it for you.

In late 1999, at the ripe old age of 14, I decided it was time the world got to know what was going on in my head. I wanted to make a website about either The X-Files or video games. There were plenty devoted to both (The X-Museum and RPG Galaxy, for instance), but I thought with a little hard work I could be better than all of them. I was slightly hampered by having no knowledge of HTML and not owning a PC. The only device I had that could connect to the internet was a Sega Dreamcast. You know what’s really hard? Learning HTML, sitting down at a keyboard and coding a website. You know what’s harder? Trying to do that with a video game controller.

A few days work and I had the shell of something terrible, but something beautiful. It contained news (that I copied), reviews (that no one would read or be swayed by) and opinion pieces that largely boiled down to ‘Sony is STUPID and Nintendo is GREAT’, which I’ve not really grown out of since. I emailed all my friends and hoped they’d follow me. As it was 1999, this list of friends was pretty small. No one cared and I soon lost interest. I was getting online via PC now, and free mp3s (rest in peace, Audiogalaxy), porn and AOL Instant Messenger quickly took my attention away from creating websites. GeoCities was still the place to go for quality internet-ing, though.

To look at a GeoCities site now is to be reminded of an old friend. A slightly awkward, clumsy, sometimes stupid friend. A friend who hasn’t aged well, is maybe missing a few teeth, put on a few pounds, isn’t as fun or entertaining as you remember, but a friend nonetheless. Frames were still a thing back then. The option to have frames or no frames is something I’d completely forgotten about with web design being so uniform and simple nowadays. Back then it seemed so bloody important.

The MIDIs! O, the MIDIs. It doesn’t matter what the website is about, it’s going to have a terrible, tinny MIDI atrocity on it; something that plays automatically and you’re lucky if you can pause it. The most nostalgic thing of all, though, is the holy grail of GeoCities excavations — the Under Construction gif. Back in the 1990s, for whatever reason, most people who kept a website were terrible procrastinators. They’d throw an idea at an internet wall, then stick a gorgeous Under Construction gif on and promise they’d be back soon with updates. I estimate (very unscientifically) that 92% of GeoCities websites that had Under Construction gifs were never actually fully constructed. From now until the heat death of the universe, that tiny little construction worker will be lifting up his pick and slamming it down into digital dirt. Up and down he’ll go, an eternal symbol of man’s battle against time.

I don’t know if I had a gif like that, it was hard enough typing, let alone putting a gif on my website. I remember finding it really complicated just making tables. In 2015 you can press a few keys and have an incredibly polished, professional-looking blog-cum-website. Like this one! In 1999, especially on a bloody Dreamcast, it was like trying to sculpt something with no hands, forever pawing at the internet clay with your stupid, sweaty stumps. I still want to see it, though, I don’t care how awful or badly-written it is. I hit TimesSquare first, via OOCities, thinking that’s almost certainly where it’s going to be. The first thing that hits me is the adverts. I’d temporarily paused AdBlock for some reason, and these websites are almost unusable without it.

If you’re ever tempted to go on a digital dig, put your AdBlock helmet on, because it’s going to be messy otherwise.

The first website I find is PGW, a PlayStation website. The PSX and GeoCities launched at roughly the same time, so in a way they grew up together. PGW looks a lot like my website, at least how I romantically recall it. Unfortunately a lot of the content has been lost, so I can only guess at the what wonders were kept in the Letters and Features sections.

The next site belongs to a guy called Piong. It seems to be exclusively made up of Dragonball Z pictures. He has a guestbook, which is a feature of websites I miss terribly. Some of the comments are a bit mean, like gotophily’s - “Your site sucks. You must take it down. In fact, I demand it. It makes me sick. Thank you”. Classy. Most are comments praising the website and asking for link exchanges. It’s all very harmless, slightly pointless. People hadn’t yet developed a daily online regiment like we have now. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, wank, cup of tea. GeoCities was a wild west of shite, and guestbooks are a cute chronicle of the first pioneers of this desolate, digital dustbowl.

I try and leave an entry, but of course this is just an illusion, the guestbook is already gone. Piong couldn’t see my comments even if I tried, and there’s not enough information to track him down. A lot of the websites I find have guestbooks on. As annoying as it is not to be able to leave a message, it’s even more depressing when I find guestbooks that aren’t archived. I know it’s all going to be crap, but it still feels like a loss learning all these messages are gone forever. Sometimes some digging on the Internet Archive brings them back, but a lot are lost in the ether. We think the information we have online is there forever. We don’t consider how finite everything is, how the biggest companies are always a scandal or a drop in stock price away from going down. It seems unthinkable that our Facebook entries and tweets will one day vanish, but they will, not without a fight from the Internet Archive of course. I feel like a career in digital preservation might be for me.

I stumble upon a website dedicated to postcards next. It’s a part of the Postcard Ring collection of postcard websites. I find it a bit odd, but pretty endearing that a group of people dedicated a whole collection of websites to postcards, then figure Tumblr and Reddit have probably taken over this little niche. A quick Google confirms Tumblr is home to Postcards From America, fuck yeah vintage postcards!, the Postcard Club and BAD POSTCARDS. Every little niche first etched into GeoCities, long lost thanks to Yahoo, now has a home on Tumblr. Tumblr is even more beautifully segregated and disparate than GeoCities ever was. Guess who recently bought Tumblr for about $1 billion?

The Principality is my next port of call. I have little to say about this website except to point out how hideous it was. I don’t know if we just had a higher tolerance for eye-bleeding visuals in the 90s, or if we were all taking a lot more drugs back then, but look at this monstrosity. The longer I look at it, the dizzier I feel. I become nauseated, but still unable to look away. It’s like a magic eye puzzle that has no solution. There’s a MIDI soundtrack, of course.

I’m a fan of the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George RR Martin, which spawned the cult TV show, Game of Thrones. Fan sites have mostly been taken over by Tumblr and subreddits these days, but I remember massive collections of fan sites for everything from video games to TV shows, anime characters to football teams. Where now everything is concentrated in a community of subreddits, back then it was webrings. I do some research into the books, to see if things were different. They weren’t. People were still complaining about the wait for the books. People were still making terrible fan art. I cover it in more detail here, but it’s nice to see it’s not the fandoms that change, just the ways we interact with each other.

I give up trying to find my website in the video games section. The words needle and haystack keep going around my head, so I just potter about the cities, like an internet flaneur. I find Cheri’s Home Page. Cheri has three iguanas, two children, and loves to list things she hates. She’s not a fan of spandex, hairspray, mimes, wet toilet seats or country music. I hate all these things too, so I’m immediately a fan of hers. The website is, of course, under construction, and is basically an aimless collection of crap. It’s exactly the sort of thing I imagine I would’ve made back then. I get the urge to contact her, to tell her about this wonderful historical artifact; this time capsule of her life from a simpler, better time. It doesn’t take long to track her down on Facebook, but I feel a bit weird, a bit stalker-y. I hesitate for a bit, then realise that if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d definitely love to be reminded of this sort of thing. I shoot a message across and hope for the best.

This isn’t the first message I send to people. I find all sorts of personal websites, like Soul Cough’s Home Page of Randomness, which has a delightful gif advertising the fact that this website is open 24 hours a day. This was an actual thing back then, people didn’t realise websites weren’t powered by coal and that they actually just kinda stayed there until a multinational corporation comes in and e-bulldozes it out of existence. Soul Cough’s site is under construction, gifs and all, and has lots of links to websites about his favourite games and TV shows. I send an email, but the address is long dead.

When you’re doing research for stories, you get used to people not responding to you. Sometimes people are too busy, sometimes sources dry up, but you never quite know if you’re being ignored or not. For this story, I always get a reply from some dickhead called MAILER-DAEMON and it’s always bad news; it’s always a failure of delivery notice. I do a bit of research, but a lot of people weren’t as free with their personal information as we are now. I remember a time when even revealing your name was a bit of a taboo, something you’d never do lest rapists and murders literally climb through your monitor and kill you right there and then. Lots of people have awful pseudonyms, email addresses with eldritch, long dead providers, so it’s usually impossible to find them.

Addy Angus & Freya is next, another personal website. They’re a British family from Scunthorpe and their page is basically a proto-Facebook. There’s lots of pictures of the family, lots of information about their family and hobbies, their jobs, their dreams. It’s actually really lovely, and just a few minutes of browsing makes me feel like I kinda know them. Due to the wealth of information on hand it doesn’t take long to find them on Facebook. Again, do I mention it to them? Am I going to seem weird? Freya, Angus and Addy’s daughter, has suddenly grown up before my eyes on Facebook. Would she be embarrassed to see her parent’s digital photo album? Would the parents be amused? Maybe they’d forgotten all about this. I make the decision that they’d probably love to see it and message them.

No one replies. Maybe it’s a bit weird, maybe they’re busy living their lives and don’t have time to talk to some random idiot from Birmingham. I hope they check out their websites. I hope they stumble upon this article.

GeoCities is dead, but we’ve mostly replaced it, just split across various services. We’ve got Tumblr and subreddits for niche interests. Facebook and Twitter for sharing our lives across the world wide web. Flickr (again owned and ruined by Yahoo) is there for our pictures. All these websites are well designed, look better than any GeoCities site could ever dream of, but they’re so uniform. We all look the same on Facebook, but for better or worse, we all looked like awkward, but glorious fools on GeoCities. We were explorers, planting our flags into fertile swathes of internet land. Sure, eventually it was taken away, but thanks to OOCities et al, we’ll always have these little reminders.

Every day I glance at my inbox, waiting for someone other than the MAILER DAEMON to reply. No one ever does. In the end, it doesn’t matter much. I couldn’t find my website, but I managed to find theirs, and that’s a lot cooler.

Written entirely in my office in Bearwood, desperately waiting for the Yahoo email notification to sound off.

Soundtrack - Parole de Navarre by Dale Cooper Quartet & the Dictaphones.

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