ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Unpublished Article on Geocities —

I was asked by someone working for a Very Big Newspaper to write something to appear in the Very Big Newspaper.  Told I needed it in within a couple days and definitely by morning of a Thursday, I pulled an all-nighter and composed the writing as well as ensuring Geociti.es had a copy. It is now 30 days later and guess what happened. I am therefore publishing it here. Bear in mind that it was written to be the very first time the reader might have considered or really heard of Geocities; jaded ASCII blog readers are likely to sniff. Feel free to reprint this, as long as you are not the Very Big Newspaper, who I am sure will have a Very Literate and Well-Meaning Reason For Never Writing Back One Way Or Another but seriously can cram themselves into a boiler.

geocities-1996

To browse among these artifacts is to find a cross-section of humanity. A mother’s emotional memories of the loss of her two year old son, sixteen years earlier. A self-described alien abductee’s recounting of 25 years of unusual memories and ufo sightings. A proud owner of a parrot. All of them dated, or strange, or heartwarming. And all of them gone.

When Yahoo! Inc. shuttered the free web hosting site Geocities this past week, the explanation given by the company was a classic example of uplifting corporate euphemism: “We have enjoyed hosting web sites created by Yahoo! users all over the world, and we’re proud of the community you’ve built,” an information page explained. “However, we have decided to focus on helping our customers explore and build relationships online in other ways.”

But behind this statement was the wholesale destruction of hundreds of thousands of websites, many of them over a decade old and representing some of the first general user sites to come online. Not created by experimenting technical wizards or forward-thinking companies, these sites were hand-made by regular folks – people who had heard there was a thing called the Internet and they should consider buying a modem and getting on the bandwagon.

At a time when full-color printing for the average person was a dollar-per-printed-page proposition and a pager was the dominant (and expensive) way to be reached anywhere, mid 1990s web pages offered both a worldwide audience and a near-unlimited palette of possibility. It is not unreasonable to say that a person putting up a web page might have a farther reach and greater potential audience than anyone in the history of their genetic line.

But putting a website online was often a difficult experience, requiring access to a server with a IP address, a knowledge of operating systems and programming, and in some cases paying significant money and fighting uphill for negotiating domain registration and hardware purchases.

This changed as companies such as Geocities, Tripod and Angelfire joined what became the dot-com boom and started offering these services for low cost, and eventually for free. From a widening field of competitors, Geocities rose up to be the dominant player, with hundreds of thousands of accounts and an enviable webrank – in 1999 it was estimated to be the third most browsed website anywhere on the internet. This success, built on a volunteer force of hundreds and an ever-growing userbase, had allowed Geocities to go public, and ultimately be bought by Yahoo for a still-staggering 3 billion dollars.

In recent years, the site had fallen out of favor but still had some pull – Alexa rated it as the 196th most popular site the week before it went down. And it still stood as an example of the general public joining the Internet, with loud backgrounds, spinning logos, and guestbooks dominating through a cycle of fads and explorations of what a website should be.

Here’s a collection of curated websites from the now-departed Geocities, a large of which was downloaded by a group of rogue archivists I’m proud to be a part of: the Archive Team.

http://geociti.es/Heartland/Hills/1961/
Dee’s Parrot Page
Last updated July 30, 1998

Untouched since three months before Google incorporated as a  privately-held company, “Dee’s Parrot Page” contains a clear indication of a pre-Yahoo Geocities site: the owner is a “Community Leader” in her online Neighborhood, assisting others in putting up their pages on a volunteer basis. Yahoo did away with volunteer leaders soon after their purchase of Geocities, removing an entire support network from the site with no direct replacement. Like other pages in this period, Dee’s page loses its layout in screen resolutions greater than 800×600. The menu for the site, created using a long-outdated Java applet, confounded crawlers; the remainder of this site is lost to history.

http://www.geociti.es/Area51/Cavern/3220/
AF-7′s
Home Page
Last updated January 24, 2001

The “Area51″ neighborhood of Geocities was dedicated to science fiction, paranormal, and fantasy subjects, including UFOlogy. The front page is a blend of animated graphics and badges of membership in a variety of UFO and Paranormal activities.This site, run by AF-7 (short for “Alien Friend 7″) contains a personal journal of nearly a quarter-century of unexplained events in the author’s life. One sub-page entitled “Personal Experience: Sightings” lists dozens of UFO and strange visions; another lists “Paranormal” experience, such as visions of a past life or visions of future events. An example of a Paranormal experience: “12 March 1988 – Dale City, Virginia. Precognition? We were watching the David Copperfield X: The Bermuda Triangle special on TV. hen he disappeared into the pyramid, I knew he would return with the tugboat that had been missing before they showed it on TV. My senses were heightened throughout the show.”

http://geociti.es/Heartland/Fields/9422/patrick.html
Patrick Joel
Last Updated July 29, 2004

A memorial site to a child who entered a hospital with an ear infection at two years of age and died during surgery; maintained by his mother, who created the site sixteen years later, in 1999. Besides a first-person account of a parent losing her child, the author provides memories of her son, a scrapbook of photographs, and poems and biblical passages. Her pain is evident in every paragraph, every page. The site is decorated with images of angels - in fact, it is part of a “webring” (group) of “Moms of Angels”, for mothers who have lost their children. A bright side emerges from the tragedy; a young girl at the same hospital recieves some of Patrick’s organs and survives; the site urges parents to consider organ donation to lessen the sense of loss, as it did for them.

http://geociti.es/Nashville/1756/nfindex.html
Allen & Becki’s Page
Last Updated July 16, 2000

Originally, web pages had an unchangeable background- a grey color was the norm, on top of which was black text. Over time, browsers and HTML were modified to allow more exotic designs, including this example, which came from the Nashville neighborhood of Geocities. (Geocities originally separated into geographic “neighborhoods” that represented different interests; “Nashville” was for “Country” or “Country Music”.) The use of a bucking horse graphic as the background, combined with the light blue text, ensures that this welcoming page from a military man and his wife is very difficult to read; usability experts might cringe at these choices but the users thought this was a perfectly fine aesthetic. Interestingly enough, the author is a member of the “HTML Writers’ Guild”, an ad-hoc (and later for-pay) guild of web designers.

http://geociti.es/WestHollywood/Heights/2563/
The Shack
Last Updated November 21, 2006

Redesigned from the ground up in 2006, the author reminisced about his first experience with Geocities: “The moment I discovered the Web, I fell in love. A new and exciting world opened up and I simply couldn’t get enough of it. The Shack was first constructed way back in July ’97 by a 53 year old, crazy redhead, who had just discovered the “Web”, Paint Shop Pro 5, and the Geocities Neighborhood where you could put up a free web page…Life in cyberspace was much different then. There were no shopping sites to speak of, or financial sites, no Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, and basically life was simple! You didn’t have to be afraid of having your identity stolen or opening an email to find it had a virus in it..People were connecting in a totally different way, sites sprung up everywhere, and we all marveled at just how cool this New World was! This little corner of cyberspace has provided me with lots of opportunities to meet some great neighbors, learn a lot of really neat new things, broaden my horizons, and expand my creativity. YES I am addicted to this web and am so thankful for my cyberworld.”


Categorised as: computer history

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9 Comments

  1. Jeremiah Miller says:

    Quick question: are you only trying to salvage sites that would otherwise be lost, or are you intending to make as complete of an archive as possible?

    The reason being, I did keep a backup of my Geocities site. Sorting through my old My Documents folder the other day, I flipped the archive into the Recycle Bin, but after catching up on you blog, I pulled it back out, thinking “Eh, maybe.”

    If you would like it, let me know and I’ll figure out some way of sending it to you. If not, I’m just going to kill the poor thing and forget I ever built it.

  2. jayrtfm says:

    Did you get paid your “kill fee” for the article? According to http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/507889/what_is_a_kill_fee_and_what_happens.html it may be 90% for a newspaper.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Kill fees are for contracted workers. Contacted like a guy standing with a sign in the parking lot of the local Home Depot, I did my work and was summarily left at the parking lot again. So the kill fee doesn’t apply. While the newspaper having a quick turnaround and fast dropping of articles is noted in the article, it doesn’t note the situation of someone tapped on the shoulder and told to produce something in another day or two. I was focused on getting the word out about some of what was lost with Geocities. Next time, the first answer is “sounds great. where’s my contract?”.

  3. robohara says:

    Great article, and it’s too bad they didn’t run it. Over the past year I’ve been contacted by two different local newspapers for interviews. After being stood up twice, my new policy is all newspaper interviews take place at my house.

  4. Bill says:

    Yahoo! has been chasing the all might dollar for far too long. They pulled that bait and switch with the domains as well, which broke a promise of a $1.99 .com renewing at $17. Their renewal fee was changed right before the expiration of that promotion and was changed to $35 to renew.

    The bottom line is Yahoo! is struggling to survive and has no concern for the promises they made to people or the creative minds that posted their webpages on Geocities.

  5. First: All but the link to the “Area 51″ page work fine. I first though that it was the ‘ in the URL and removed it manually, but that did not do the trick either. Just FYI.

    Some pages seem to be still up or is it just the proxy of my internet provider?
    E.g. Joan Stark’s original homepage at http://www.geocities.com/spunk1111/index.html
    The new homepage at http://www.geocities.com/joan_stark is down. :(
    Is that a fluke or what?

    Well, I started up my web scraper and download a copy of the site as long as it is still there.

    Like RadMan did on Acid.org, I also republished her article about the history of ASCII art on my site
    http://www.roysac.com/asciiarthistory.asp . A prime example of what would get lost, if nobody would preserve it. Since Joan does not seem to do much anymore on the site, it started to suffer from some decay.. mostly broken outbound links and worse, broken hotlinks to vital images. At least she referenced them well so I was able to find the originals elsewhere and replaced the broken images with the original ones, but all hosted on my site this time.

    One reason NEVER to hotlink anything, especially if you deem it to be important days, weeks, months or years after you created the content surrounding it. A broken image becomes as bad as a goatse pic in my opinion.

  6. Shii says:

    Re: Carsten

    People who paid for their Geocities account are being given a grace period to switch to Yahoo hosting.

  7. Kuro says:

    That article is a good introduction to Geocities for those from reality. It’s a pity that it was never used.

    I had two Geocities pages, but sadly the backups of them were lost two years ago when my old laptop’s drive became corrupted.