A record of early web communities: GeoCities 1994-2009

I went to a digital history seminar last week at the Institute of Historical Research entitled ‘The Challenge of Digital Sources in the Web Age: Common Tensions Across Three Web Histories, 1994-2015′. The speaker was Ian Milligan who is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo and specialises in historians’ use of web archives.

In his talk he discussed a range of web archives and how they can be used by historians, but one stood out in particular as it archives material that many of us might remember. It is the GeoCities archive.

GeoCities was an internet hosting service, which was set up in 1994 to allow ordinary people to set up their own websites. It was designed as an online version of a physical community where users (or “homesteaders”) would set up their sites within one of a range of “cities” or “neighborhoods”, each of which had a name and associated theme.

In 1994 it served an excellent purpose: to ease people into the concept of the internet by associating it with the physical space of the real world. The service started with 6 neighborhoods and by 1996 it had twenty-nine. It gained popularity and by 1999 it was the third most popular website on the web. It was at this point that Yahoo! purchased GeoCities for over three billion dollars.

Dukem's First Homepage, original url http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/4294/
Dukem’s First Homepage, original url http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/4294/

As the years went by and the internet became slicker, the GeoCities pages were ridiculed for their amateurish design and use of animated gifs and this perhaps what people remember about it today. Many people left the service following Yahoo!’s takeover and interest in GeoCities waned as the company diverted resources to more profitable areas. In 2009 Yahoo! announced that the US version of GeoCities would close; users were given litle notice before all the pages were deleted.

Luckily, some people realised that GeoCities could offer an invaluable insight into not only the history of the early web but also the lives of thousands of ordinary people. The Archive Team and the Internet Archive rushed to take snapshots of the GeoCities communities and so today we still have a record of this unique  early web experiment.

In his talk (and also in this blog) Ian Milligan explores the varied ways historians can use the vast amounts of data in the archive to understand how web communities developed, track topics and concepts and identify community leaders. Milligan argues that:

It will be one of the largest records of the lives of non-elite people ever. The Old Bailey Online can rightfully describe their 197,000 trials as the “largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published” between 1674 and 1913. But GeoCities, drawing on the material we have between 1996 and 2009, has over thirty-eight million pages.

These are the records of everyday people who published on the Web, reaching audiences far bigger than previously imaginable.

You can find more details about how to view old GeoCities pages and about the archiving projects on the Internet Archive and on Archive Team’s wiki. You can also hear more detail about this project and several other web archives by watching this recording of the IHR digital history seminar:

Leave a Reply