The joke going round about Yahoo! closing GeoCities is that the headlines should have been “GeoCities still exists!” It’s so much a part of the pre-Web 2.0 world — a world before weblogs and MySpace and Facebook — that before the announcement of its closure I couldn’t have been sure whether it was still online. Given the thousands or millions of sites hosted at GeoCities it’s remarkable how rarely one stumbles across any of them. Only with their impending disappearance do we realise what we’ll be missing.
Of course, GeoCities is, and always has been, awful. Its “neighbourhood” structure (described in this post by Jason Scott about Archive Team’s medal-worthy efforts to archive everything at GeoCities) is bizarre. The sites are primitive both technically and in terms of design. It’s a world of abandoned and forgotten pages created in a world when any and all new technologies and styles were utilised in an effort to fend off anything that could be termed “good design”. Tiled backgrounds, clashing colours, rivers of centered text, animated gifs, frames, midi background music, guestbook pages, Java applets… it’s enough to make the owner of your average multi-coloured mess of a MySpace page look like a hard core advocate of the International Typographic Style.
GeoCities is an awful, ugly, decrepit mess. And this is why it will be sorely missed. It’s not only a fine example of the amateur web vernacular but much of it is an increasingly rare example of a period web vernacular. GeoCities sites show what normal, non-designer, people will create if given the tools available around the turn of the millennium.
This isn’t solely a matter of a period style of graphic design. It’s about the changing concept of what a peronsal website is. GeoCities began in the mid 1990s and many of the abandoned websites there were last updated within a couple of years of 2000. This was before weblogs became widespread, an era when people had “homepages” rather than “blogs”. Consequently the structure of these sites is different to most modern day ones created by ordinary people.
Today, if you want a website, it’s often easiest to set up a weblog and start posting, creating an archive of individual articles. Ten years ago a personal website was usually a collection of static HTML pages created by hand or using primitive tools. Consequently every GeoCities site has its own unique structure appropriate to its content.
Because of this the websites appear less like journals and more like published pamphlets. Despite the often confusing designs they are frequently a more coherent whole — in terms of structure — than a modern weblog. A weblog is a stream of posts organised by date or category or tag, while a GeoCities site is created with a structure that is, hopefully, more related to its content. The creator probably thought about what they wanted to publish and produced a website which accommodated that from the start.
This isn’t better or worse than a weblog but it’s a fundamentally different kind of site and one that is probably increasingly rare among amateur website creators. Anyone who’s passionate about a topic today is usually best served by firing up a free or cheap weblog and throwing stuff up, one post at a time. Without that the author had to consider everything they wanted to publish and create a site to match, updating content in place as they wrote more.
While I rarely visit any GeoCities-hosted sites I’m still bothered that it’s disappearing. In the same way, I rarely read old books or newspapers but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy if they were all destroyed. It’s a shame that while many companies — such as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters — are putting much of their historical archives online for the first time, we’re simultaneously destroying online archives created by individuals. It’s only thanks to the efforts of people like the Internet Archive and Archive Team that we’ll have a record of what people, rather than companies, published in the past.
As companies like Yahoo! switch off swathes of our online universe little fragments of our collective history disappear. They might be ugly and neglected fragments of our history but they’re still what got us where we are today.