How GeoCities Invented the Internet

A garish collection of home pages paved the way for blogging, social networks, and the rest of Web 2.0.

On Monday, Yahoo put GeoCities out of its misery, shutting down the last remaining pages on one of the Web’s original site-hosting services. It was an ignominious end—and some would say a fitting one. Yahoo’s $3.5 billion purchase of GeoCities in 1999 has been called one of the worst Internet acquisitions of all time. After all, just look at those pages! Brimming with blinking, moving, garishly colored text and animated dancing cats, GeoCities made MySpace look like a bastion of elegance and restraint. Indeed, the surprising thing about GeoCities’ closure was that it was still around. One of the fastest-growing sites in the 1990s—at the time of the Yahoo purchase, it was the third-most-visited property on the Web —GeoCities hit hard times after the merger. Eventually, the “home page” fad was surpassed by blogs and social-networking sites—and the fact that you’d once set up a GeoCities page became an embarrassing confession rather than a sign of your early-adopter savvy.

But that narrative sells GeoCities short. Sure, the site was ugly, and, of course, Yahoo paid too much for it (though it must be said that those were Internet-boom billions paid out in inflated stock, not real money). But GeoCities deserves much more credit than we give it, because it was the first big venture built on what is now hailed as the defining feature of the Web 2.0 boom—”user-generated content.”

The company’s founding goal—to give everyone with Internet access a free place on the Web—sounds pretty mundane now. But GeoCities launched in 1995 (it was originally called Beverly Hills Internet), when there were just a few million people online. Back then, the idea that anyone would want to carve out his own space on this strange new medium—and that you could make money by letting people do so—bordered on crazy. (Two other free hosting companies—Tripod and Angelfire—started up at around the same time, but they proved far less popular than GeoCities.)  In an early press release, David Bohnett, one of GeoCities’ co-founders, hailed the idea this way: “This is the next wave of the net—not just information but habitation.” Look past the tech-biz jargon, and his prediction is startlingly prescient. Today, few of us think of the Web as a simple source for information; it’s also a place for dissemination, the place where we share life’s most intimate details. In other words, it’s for “habitation”—and GeoCities helped start that trend.

Even the fact that GeoCities inspired a lot of terrible Web design doesn’t seem so terrible in retrospect. The site gave people tools to do amazing things with a few quick clicks—without much in the way of training, anyone could add music, animation, graphics, and other HTML wizardry. We can blame GeoCities retroactively for not exercising a little more control. But that’s only because in the age of blogs, YouTube, and Twitter, we take for granted our power to broadcast anything to everyone. Put yourself back in 1996. Imagine you’ve just pitched your tent online, and you’ve been given a blank page and 15 megabytes to tell the world about yourself. Think about how intoxicating it must have been to be able to do that for the first time. Wouldn’t you, too, have gone a little heavy on the blinky text?

Perhaps that intoxicating feeling explains why a lot of the pages on GeoCities seemed frozen in the gestational state, their most prominent feature some kind of wacky “under construction” graphic. After the thrill of setting up the site wore off, the creators seemed to get bored of the daily work of maintaining a home page. And what was the point, anyway? After all, it quickly became obvious that setting up a Web page wasn’t a surefire way to find fame, wealth, or dates. That was especially true as more and more people came online, creating a glut of home pages. Now that everyone had one, no amount of flashing text could make your page stand out.

This sense of boredom likely accounts for GeoCities’ eventual failure. The site came upon one of the chief ingredients of Web success—letting people put up their own stuff—but was missing what we’ve since learned is another key feature: a way to help people find an audience for their daily ramblings. The main difference between GeoCities and MySpace is the social network: Both sites let you indulge your creativity, but MySpace gave people a way to show off their pages to friends. On MySpace, your site was no longer shunted off to some little-traveled corner of the Web. Instead it was at the center of your friends’ lives—and so there was some small reward to keep hacking away at it. At least, that was true when MySpace was hot, which is no longer the case—just like GeoCities, it lost cultural cachet to newer, better sites that came along after. In this way, too, GeoCities was a trailblazer, the first example of another reality of user-generated sites: They’re extremely susceptible to faddism. You want a page on GeoCities or MySpace or whatever else only if other people are there too. As soon as the place becomes uncool (like, say, if people start calling you “GeoShitties“), everyone leaves in droves.

Could Yahoo have saved GeoCities? Probably not. It could certainly have done a better job keeping the site up to date, but even if Yahoo had added the sort of social-networking features that have since come along on the Web, GeoCities would never have lived down its late-1990s HTML excesses. It’s likely that any attempt to revive it—to turn it into something like Facebook—would have seemed less savvy than sad, like a hair metal band coming back to do grunge. GeoCities was a pioneer, but it was firmly of its time and place. And for anyone looking to relive those glory days, there’s always Angelfire.