This episode is about what happens when the metaphors we use to speak about things change. But mostly it’s about Geocities.
Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2023/01/14/301-2302-the-geocity-and-the-city/
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The Geocity and the City
Back in Episode 22-39 I talked about the usefulness of the word Cyberspace.
A metaphor that helped people understand what the internet could be for. This episode is about what happens when the metaphors we use change.
But mostly it’s about Geocities.
Ah yes Geocities. Scrolling text, and starry night background gifs. I built my first website there, as I’m sure many of you listening – of a certain age – did too.
But before the under construction signs there was an ISP called Beverly Hills Internet or BHI. Founded by David Bohnett and John Rezner in 1994. Providing internet, modems, and training to business. They also built and hosted websites for customers too. It was doing this that the company cut its teeth understanding the fundamentals of web hosting.
One of its founders Bohnett was also obsessed with webcams and their potential. Inspired by the Trojan Room coffee pot – the first ever webcam built at Cambridge university in 1993 – Bohnett hand built one as a hobby project. Soldering a camcorder onto a video capture card and writing custom software to display an image updated every 8 seconds live on the Internet. BHI had a customer situated at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles and he put the device in their office window. It generated an enormous amount of traffic, so BHI began to build and serve more webcams.
By mid-1995 web hosting was becoming a larger part of the company’s core business. As a way of justifying Capex to investors, they decided to offer users 2 MB of free space to anyone who wished to build a homepage on the Internet. With all the eyeballs on their webcams they funnelled people towards their new product – Geocities.
Recall the metaphors that we once used to understand the early web. Cyber-Space, the Global-Village. With Geocities – the city.
Online communities that predate the World Wide Web also used spatial metaphors.
MUDs, for example, are organised around a virtual world with rooms, corridors, etc. BBSs, forums – think roman forums and message boards. These spatial metaphors helped to create a sense of place and community.
To explain the spatial nature of Geocities we must consider the anatomy of a Geocites URL.
Port Lussuria for example was THE destination webpage for role play games about vampires and werewolves.
The Geocities founders thought that web addresses should be human readable – unlike lots of URLS today.
So like a ‘street address’ Port Lussuria was situated at 1062, Labyrinth, Area51, Geocities, the world wide web.
All of Geocities was organised around the concept of neighbourhoods and suburbs. Athens for history, Area 51 for Sci-Fi/fantasy, Hollywood for film and Paris for romance etc
From the beginning Geocities users were known as homesteaders.
As an aside I have a chapter discussing the use of frontier language and the Internet in the Lost Zone anthology. Homesteaders were encouraged to metaphorically claim one of the 9999 plots in a suburb of a neighbourhood.
Geocities’ thought fostering a sense of place was important for the emerging web.
A 1995 business wire article quotes Bohnett – inspired by the popularity of webcams saying:
the intense interest people have in creating cyber communities all their own, linked to places they know, understand and have a strong affinity for.”
Taking cues from pre-web technologies the early web was strongly community oriented. Each Geocities neighbourhood had its own forum, live chat, and even displayed lists of neighbourhood homesteaders celebrating their birthday each day. More importantly, active and prominent neighbourhood members were invited to become paid community admins.
Then, Yahoo bought Geocities for $3.57 billion dollars in 1999 at the height of the dot com bubble. The first thing Yahoo did after the crash – of course – was to lay off all the paid community positions. Imagine how different the web would have been if community roles were an expected norm on all social websites? Anyways.
After the bubble burst the world no longer needed metaphors like cities or global villages.
People understood what the web was. New metaphors came along: web2.0, the social web. And the big one: E-commerce. The internet was for making money.
Yahoo, pressaged the web’s wider metaphorical shift into the era that’s currently ending with their decision to replace the street address system with vanity URLs in 1999. Derived from Yahoo IDs, this new URL or profile isolated individuals. They became users rather than members of a community.
Worse, that same year, Yahoo changed their terms of service. Stating that the company would now own “all rights and content, including media such as pictures.“
NYT’s cybertimes wrote in June 1999:
GeoCities members, many of whom have built elaborate Web sites that they regard as entirely their own property.
In an e-mail in response to an angry GeoCities member, the company said the new provision was written to allow it to copy the content of member pages onto Yahoo Web servers scattered throughout the world, making access to the pages quicker and more reliable.
But the revolt was colossal. Yahoo! quickly reversed its decision.
Chronic mismanagement followed and Geocities became deeply unprofitable.
Yahoo struggled to get users – content with a free service – to pay for it. Cf. Tumblr, Twitter today. Rupert Goodwins, editor at ZDNet, described GeoCities as “first proof that you could have something really popular and still not make any money on the Internet.”
By 2005 Geocities was a ghost town.
Homesteaders tired of being treated like users had found the metaphor of being someone’s friend on MySpace far more appealing.
In 2009, Yahoo unceremoniously killed the service.
The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.
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