R.I.P. Geocities: The End of an Internet Era

Long before Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Wikipedia, the entire blogosphere or even Google, there was GeoCities, a seemingly endless community of user-driven content. It was a decade before anyone had even uttered the term “Web 2.0,” yet it had more to do with the way the Internet evolved than most people acknowledge. It was a place for anything: Fathers uploaded scanned family photos, teenagers posted information about their favorite bands, small businesses used it as their digital storefronts, and animal lovers used it to tell the world about their pets.

Despite what many people believe, social media is hardly a new thing. Its roots are in the 1990s with services like GeoCities, Hometown AOL (defunct as of Halloween 2008), Tripod, Angelfire and the Internet Movie Database. GeoCities was at the forefront. Back then, it was virtually impossible to browse the Internet and not encounter user-created GeoCities sites in your travels. Founded in 1994, the service quickly expanded to 29 communities, including Area51 (for the sci-fi/fantasy crowd), CapitolHill (for political junkies), CollegePark (for students), Hollywood (for film buffs), Pipeline (for sports fanatics), SoHo (for artsy types) and TimesSquare (for video game enthusiasts).

I remember those days well; I experimented with the service myself. Before platforms like WordPressJoomla! and Drupal made web content management simple, GeoCities offered a service that allowed just about anyone to create their own web sites without training. And it was free. Sure, the sites lacked captivating designs and often had hokey features like blinking “Open 24 Hours” signs, MIDI sound files and visitor counters, but many of them delivered valuable content and were not created as vehicles for PPC advertising. They didn’t need the flashy designs that dominated professionally created web sites in the late 90s/early 2000s or the clean, minimalist looks that are popular today. Their amateurish  designs only added to their charm.

As of October 27, GeoCities is no more, but the folks at the Internet Archive have vowed to maintain as many of its records as possible for their historic value. You know you’re getting older when the things you enjoyed in your youth start being looked at as artifacts. Though it might not have been the best move to purge every GeoCities site, you can’t blame Yahoo! for liquidating an underachieving asset. Chris Crum at WebProNews suggests that Yahoo! should offer to 301 redirect GeoCities sites to their new homes. It’s a nice idea, but unlikely to happen, and it’d probably be a nightmare to accomplish.

What once seemed like an unstoppable force started to crumble in the 2000s, after Yahoo! bought the service for $3.57 billion in 1999. What happened? Perhaps Yahoo! neglected the property, and failed to keep it up to par with always-changing web standards. Or maybe it’s just the nature of the Internet: Services come and go seemingly overnight. Remember Friendster? Popular in the early 2000s, it got toppled by MySpace, which has since taken a severe lashing from Facebook. Novelties tend to wear off more quickly on the Internet than in real life. The story of GeoCities illustrates that perfectly.