When he was in the seventh grade, Brandon Stanton created his very first website. It was called Gaming Galaxy Online. It dazzled visitors (the few that managed to find it) with animated GIFs and decorative quotes all about video games. Like most people coming online for the very first time in 1996, he hosted his site on Geocities.
Stanton kept on making websites, one idea after another, for about twenty years until he started his most recent project Humans of New York, a photoblog that chronicles the lives of average New Yorkers. Each entry in HONY juxtaposes a beautifully composed portrait of its subject with a quote or small story from their life.
On the night of August 9th, 2013, Stanton was walking around uptown Manhattan, when he happened upon a man sitting alone at a table on his phone. As he often does, Stanton asked the man if he could take a picture of him for his site. The man said sure, and introduced himself as David Bohnett. While he was taking the picture, Stanton fired off a question he sometimes asks his subjects, “What was the happiest moment of your life?” Bohnett responded, “I founded a company called Geocities.com.”
Stanton, blown away the serendipitous connection, paired the image on his site with a tribute to Bohnett and Geocities which had so profoundly changed his life.
He’s not the only one.
The Life and Death of Geocities
Geocities has a fascinating history. A roaring beginning, a dramatic climax, the most tragic of endings, and just a sprinkle of hope right at the end. It has been the focus of more than a few case studies and thought pieces and nostalgic reminiscences. And still, I think its impact is hard to understate.
Bohnett and John Rezner started out with a company called Beverley Hills Internet in 1994, a fairly straightforward web hosting service for small and local businesses. Bohnett had first read about the web in PC Mag on an airplane, and became almost instantly convinced that the web was going to be like AOL or Compueserve, but for the entire world. In a prescient and ultimately fortuitous move, the duo wanted to be where the web was going and, working for themselves with no outside funding, set up a few servers and bet their livelihoods on the web’s future.
In their first year, they began kicking around the idea of offering up website homepages with around 15MB of space for free, as a way to have some fun and attract new customers. This, mind you, was not an unheard of idea. What was remarkable though, was how they decided to set things up.
Instead of simply giving people some web space in an anonymous corner of a server rack, they decided to divide up their free service into different virtual neighborhoods. Each “neighborhood” could host a different theme, and when users signed up they could chose which one they wanted to belong to. So the Hollywood neighborhood was the place for fan and celeb sites, Area51 for science fiction, and their own namesake, Beverly Hills, was reserved for fashion and shopping.
Bohnett sent around an email to just over a dozen friends and colleagues letting them know that they could sign up for a free page. Just a few months later, tens of thousands of people had joined up. In the end, they changed the company name to Geocities to fit the new motif.
What Geocities Did
Geocities had a lot to offer. 15MB of space might be minuscule by today’s standards, but in the ’90’s it was downright lavish. And Geocities came bundled along with some easy to use site templates (and later drag and drop tools). It hit all the marks. Fast, simple, free.
But the stop-everything-this-is-awesome moment for Geocities happened right when you signed up. You would visit Geocities, type in your email and a password and be taken to this 2D map of all the neighborhoods you could join. Hopping into a neighborhood meant becoming part of a community, and you could easily browse a directory of other sites that “lived” right next door. It became a comfort to a lot of people still trying to navigate what the web even was, nevermind their place in it. It reaffirmed that you, yes you, deserve a space on the glorious web. So come on in and fill it with a little piece of yourself.
As the years went by, Geocities racked up an impressive list of achievements. Fifth most visited website in the world. 2 million dollars in seed funding. 38 million users. An IPO with a price of, at its peak, $100. Then the big one. In 1999, Yahoo acquired Geocities in a multi-billion dollar deal.
10 years later, Yahoo closed the doors and shut Geocities down.
When Geocities closed in 2009, they cited a bunch of reasons. The site’s user base continued to grow to the point where neighborhoods, the topics of which were never enforced, became disconnected and amorphous. The sites themselves were often amateurish and not very well maintained. And by 2009, a new generation of social networks like Myspace and Facebook had surfaced, themselves an evolution of the very idea Geocities had helped to create. Social networks were the next big thing. Geocities was a dinosaur. So Yahoo took every single site offline, all at once. Just like that.
The Legacy of Geocities
The goal of Geocities was resolute and clear. Give everyone a front porch with a view of the Internet that was simple as dirt to set up. Its founders were excited about what the web could do for people, an enthusiasm they imbued in their site. Take the special interests and offbeat passions of people and use them as the seeds for a community. Let people express themselves, not just with some pointless and limited status box, but however the hell they wanted. Even if it was garish. Especially if it was garish. It was people all the way down.
In the years after it was acquired, Geocities continued to grow. It was filled with plenty of cheeky first sites of middle schoolers. And personal diaries. And entire fan fiction communities that worked tireless hours on a ring of interconnected stories. And families connecting to their loved ones with online newsletters. And war stories from veterans looking to create some sort of digital record. And on and on.
These were people coming online for the very first time and choosing to mark their spot in any number of ways. It was rough around the edges, but so was the web. No one knew what it was going to be, and in this hazy, undefined territory, many felt free to surface their passions, no matter how minute or narrow. Geocities gave them a chance to do it, and connected them to users that felt the same way.
In June of 2009, Yahoo began letting people know that they would be closing Geocities for good. The site was taken offline on October 26, 2009. We lost a lot that day. And not just the amateurish, barely visited trash pages some of us made in middle school. Families lost entire photo albums. Those fan fiction communities crumpled. And if a widow or widower couldn’t access their spouses Geocities account, there goes a historical record.
Fortunately, the Archive Team gathered together for the very first time in a last ditch effort to save the site. Little by little, they downloaded all of Geocities into a single, massive torrent (~650GB in all). It’s available for download, and archived on the web in a few different places. That’s a good thing, but it’s still just a punctuation mark that closes out this story.
So yea, some sites were pretty ugly, and a lot of people did just get bored. When you think back on Geocities, go ahead and remember the textured backgrounds. And the blinking text. And the ripped off content and compressed images and dazzling color palettes. But also remember that it was the web at its most raw and unconstrained, that some of us learned how to code on the site, that so many others learned what the web even was on there. And that a piece of the web’s soul will always reside deep in the archives of Geocities.