The 1990s were exciting times for booting up personal computers. Dial-up modems connected millions of homes to the internet, often trying to corral its borderless stream of information with sanitized interfaces like CompuServe and Prodigy. More ambitious users browsed Usenet discussion groups or directed themselves to URLs for web pages.
The majority of web users were content to consume, not create—as the latter required knowledge of HTML, a coding language spoken by only a handful of people.
But David Bohnett saw things a little differently. To the software marketing expert and USC grad, 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.
Bohnett, who originally began his online ambitions with Beverly Hills Internet, a storage server enterprise, believed that people would embrace the idea of GeoCities as a kind of virtual scrapbook that could be shared with others. There were pages on pets, politics, movies, television, regions, and memorials to deceased relatives; tributes to actors, support pages for illnesses, and non-specific personal pages that acted as an introduction to the user. It was as though someone’s stickered, decorated Trapper Keeper had been digitized and made available for mass consumption.
“You may surf the net via access utilities or online services but you'll live in BHI's GeoCities,” Bohnett said in 1995. “There, on the street or in the city of your choice, you'll dwell in a home that reflects the context of your life, become part of the fabric of the community, and establish your own net culture.”
The “homesteaders,” as GeoCities referred to its users, were linked to other pages with similar content. If you enjoyed a person’s Persian cat tribute site or the hearse collectors of New Zealand, GeoCities could guide you to several other pages that you might like. Before search engines were a fully integrated part of the internet experience, this circle of links helped users navigate what seemed like a vast web space.
More importantly, GeoCities was self-reporting. Instead of “Likes,” users had a page counter where they could check to see how many people had been by to view their content. Most webmasters had email addresses on the site and were excited to receive correspondence from around the world. The internet was new (and novel) enough that getting a message from a stranger in Brazil or Iceland came with an endorphin rush.
By 1998, GeoCities had signed up 2 million members, giving each one of them 15 megabytes of storage space for their pages, photos, and tinny MIDI music files. In an era of paid web hosting, it was an attractive offer, and GeoCities tried to monetize the exchange by selling advertising on the sites. With 19 million unique visitors per month, it trailed only behind Yahoo! and America Online.
But not all content creators were satisfied with the arrangement. Rich Brown, who maintained an early and highly popular Monty Python fan site, protested GeoCities’s watermark that appeared on the bottom of his page that offered links to other Python sites. It slowed down load times, which frustrated dial-up users. Other creators felt GeoCities owning their material but placing responsibility for the content on the site administrator was an odd approach.
By the time GeoCities was absorbed by Yahoo! for $3.6 billion in 1999, the site’s advertising profits weren’t as substantial as Bohnett had hoped. While Yahoo! looked to integrate the GeoCities community into their business, the purchase came at a time when social networking was on the rise. With the advent of Myspace, which launched in 2003, thoughts could be shared with a ready audience. With GeoCities, you had to hope someone would come across it.
Yahoo! kept GeoCities active through 2009, at which point they decided to sink the proverbial ship. All member accounts were scheduled for deletion. On the surface, terabytes of data containing shirtless Vanilla Ice photos didn't seem like a great loss. But internet archivists argued that GeoCities as a whole was an important snapshot of both our culture and how early internet surfers expressed themselves. They were able to salvage most pages before Yahoo! wiped them from their servers.
Today, GeoCities lives on in archives like the GeoCities Institute, which present captures of these site relics without judgment—their curators sifting through old pages to gauge what people wrote about, from Harry Potter fan fiction sites to the pervasive “Under Construction” pages. Bohnett’s virtual neighborhoods may have been razed, but his foundation for an interconnected social infrastructure lives on.