Production: Sabrina’s Magical Land of Unicorns (and JPEGS)
GeoCities was a web service that allowed users to create their own webpages dedicated to whatever they desired. Pages were organized into “cities,” regions dedicated to specific genres of content. Below the city level were suburbs, another layer of organization brought to the site. The program, created by David Bohnett and John Rezner, provided the layman with a way to create webpages without extensive coding knowledge, bringing online production out of the realm of exclusively highly knowledgeable computer enthusiasts. With this came a slew of pages of varying quality dedicated to everything from local church communities to the latest in gaming new and everything in between.
In the suburb of Styx in the city Athens, dedicated to “education, literature, poetry, [and] philosophy,” is the subject of this post: “Sabrina’s Magical Land of Unicorns.” For the sake of brevity, I will refer to this page as SMLU. The creator, curiously, identifies herself as “Tracey,” and frames the page as her own little corner of the internet dedicated to her interests and hobbies, namely that of unicorns. The page is quintessentially nineties, with a crusty repeated JPEG of a rainbow and teddy bear as the homepage’s background, colorful comic sans MS text filling the pages, and an uncomfortably loud MIDI rendition of “Rainbow Connection” greeting you. It may not be the most tasteful choice in the eyes of the modern user, but it certainly represents the creator’s personality. The page is also cluttered with images of unicorns from various origins. The “Unicorns at Play” page is a compendium of all unicorn art, offering links to albums of artistic renditions of unicorns. This ranges from from 16th century tapestries to classical artists’ works such as “Raphaello Sanxio [sic]” and Domenico Zampieri to a collection of Magic: The Gathering cards featuring unicorns.
Unicorns at Play, most notably, includes a link to a page titled “Unicorns up for Adoption.” The page includes a PNG of a unicorn icon in a wide range of colors. Tracey invites the user to “save the unicorn you want” and “add a link under your unicorn to this page.” Tracey even offers to make a custom unicorn icon in whatever color you like. Besides offering her own unicorns, Tracey also has a page of unicorns she has adopted from other pages on GeoCities. This feature really highlights the intertextuality of GeoCities sites, a characteristic integral to production of websites on GeoCities. The connections made between sites and creators highlights the communal nature of GeoCities as a web hosting service. Authors’ websites do not exist in a vacuum on GeoCities, and the producers would frequently interact with each other. Another example of these connections can be found in the “guestbook,” where other users could leave messages on the author’s website for anyone to read. Other users could write comments on the site and promote their own sites in the guestbook. One user, Gloria the Gladiator, wrote in Tracey’s guestbook, “love you [sic] site and enjoyed the pictures of you. Would like to support you with a VE. Gloria the Gladiator.” GeoCities creators would apparently regularly consume other users’ content on their own pages, and this production-consumption dichotomy was baked into GeoCities as a platform. A whole ecosystem developed in GeoCities built on these connections between creators and was only strengthened by conventions featuring content from other people. Features such as the guestbook would become mainstays among many creators’ websites, cementing these connections between creators.
Besides being a massive repository for unicorn and unicorn-adjacent content, SMLU was also the home of Tracey’s poetry. “Poetry From The Heart” is the home of Tracey’s poetry, some incredibly personal work that deals with some very intimate experiences in her life. “The Pit!!!” and “Questions To The Sky!!!” are two poems about coping with her uncle’s cancer diagnosis and ultimate passing. The juxtaposition of such heavy material with the bright and colorful website aesthetics is stark. Almost conversely, poems Tracey has written about more joyous occasions are presented against a solid black background. “Chelsea’s Poem!!!” “Jakes Poem!!!” are both poems about the births of her grand-niece and nephew, respectively. The contrasts between Tracey’s poetry and the presentation of that poetry are interesting to observe, but I cannot determine definitively if this was a conscious choice. It is interesting that there is a uniformness in how the page is presented (barring the latter two poems mentioned) completely independent of the content. Aesthetics of the webpage seem to be at the forefront of considerations on GeoCities, with users taking every opportunity to personalize their page with graphics. While it may be garish and gaudy to the modern internet user, the advent of an easy way to include images on a webpage provided by GeoCities was fully taken advantage of by GeoCities producers. SMLU was no exception to this, especially with the galleries mentioned previously.
A final page of note on Tracey’s website is the “Pics of Me” section. This page is self-explanatory; it is a collection of photographs of Tracey, her various tattoos, and her two dogs. Pics of Me also includes a brief biography of Tracey. In it she divulges personal information such as her birthdate, siblings’ names, nieces’ names, and great-nieces’ and great-nephews’ names. As modern internet users we may look at this display with shock. Users online now go to great lengths to prevent their personal information from ending up online or attached to an account. This anonymity has become a core part of online culture and whole businesses have even been built up around maintaining it, namely Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The publishing of someone’s personal information online with malicious intent, known as doxxing, is now a major fear online. The idea of somebody voluntarily furnishing the online public with information about their true self is hard to understand. However, in the context of the internet of 1997, when this page was created, the internet was not nearly as massive as it is today. In 1997, according to the Internet World Stats only 70 million people, or 1.7% of the world’s population, were online. Compared to the 5,473 million (69% of the world population) online today, the internet appears to be a niche space for only those with an interest in computers. Search engines that could immediately fetch the page you were looking for had not quite been perfected yet (we would not see Google until 1998), making it much harder to find information online. Considerations of privacy were not at the forefront of the minds of GeoCities website producers, and the promise of anonymity that has cemented itself as central to the internet was still burgeoning. When producing a site that could be viewed by anyone the idea that people could use personal information with malicious intent may not have been as much of a concern because cybercrimes had not yet become as pervasive as they have as the internet has matured. Overall, the identity of online users has evolved; what was once a space to meet new people and share information about yourself has become a space where the user can obscure their true identity and go about their business totally unrecognized. This is especially clear in the shift from production of content that celebrates the users’ information and connecting with real people to the genesis and production of new means to ensure anonymity online.
GeoCities represents a major advancement in online production. Never was there such a ubiquitous and easy to use program to create websites online. No longer were people confined to software provided exclusively by their web provider, such as the pages AOL provided its customers. This led to an explosion of web creators producing pages geared towards so many varied interests. Representation of such diversity online had until then been unheard of, and GeoCities facilitated this through its ease of access. GeoCities, however, also represents a relic of online web design. As the internet has evolved and clean, easy to navigate websites have come to dominate, the loud and garish qualities characteristic of early-internet websites have been lost. Practically, this is a welcome change; making websites easier to navigate makes it easier to glean information from them. Still, there is a charm to the GeoCities aesthetic. The aesthetic choices, even if poor, were those of the creator. There is a certain intimacy ascribed to these personal choices over boilerplate website designs. As websites online get more and more streamlined and simplified we may get more productive, but we also lose some of that individuality that the early internet, especially GeoCities, thrived on.
Gay, Paul Du. “Introduction.” Introduction. In Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, 1–5. Los Angeles Calif., etc.: Sage, 2013.