From the late ‘90s through the 2000s, one of the most popular ways in which people engaged with the internet was through GeoCities. GeoCities was a web-hosting service, meaning that it allowed its users to create websites on their platform without the need for an advanced knowledge of programming. Its rise to popularity can be attributed to the fact that it was one of the first of its kind to offer website creation to the general public, and that it was done so free of charge. What made GeoCities stand out from its competitors, however, was that it gave its websites “street addresses”, with a series of websites making up a “block”, which were further grouped into “suburbs”, making up “neighborhoods”, based on the content being covered by the creator of the website. For example, the creator of a website dedicated to their favorite movies would list their website under the neighborhood “Hollywood”, in the “Film” suburb. Despite the closure of GeoCities in 2009, the large collective effort of the internet to archive its database has allowed us to see what these GeoCities looked like, as well as who the website creators themselves were. Although it is hard to imagine due to the vast endlessness of the internet that exists today, these GeoCities represented the majority of the people who were online at the turn of the millennium. Thus, by studying the many GeoCities available to us via the archives, we are able to get a glimpse into the kind of people who were creating or sharing content on the internet at the time.
I will be looking at a webpage called Jon’s World in the CollegePark neighborhood. Notably, this website was not designated a suburb, but the creator of the website, who will be referred to here as Jon, was a community leader of the CollegePark neighborhood up until February 1999 but not from October 1999 onwards. CollegePark was a neighborhood that was made for all websites that were related to college: there were websites about applying to college, accounts of college experiences, or websites made by and about college students themselves like Jon’s World.
Upon exploring Jon’s World, it is clear to see that Jon created it to tell the world who he is. After signing the guestbook and leaving your mark on the site, which was common practice in the early days of the internet, you can embark on the journey that is Jon’s World by clicking on its link as shown in the above image. This first takes you to a page about the Monon Bell, a historic part of the college Jon was attending at the time, the Wabash College in Indiana. Then, you are given the opportunity to do what many students dreamed of at the time, to pull down the fire alarm. Doing so takes you to Jon’s personal page, which includes his email, a picture of him, as well as a brief description of who he is. At the time of making the website, Jon was a nineteen-year-old junior chemistry major at Wabash College in Indiana. Given the brief and concise nature of the website, it appears that Jon’s intentions with it were to have a platform that described who he was. Furthermore, the fact that he was a community leader for the CollegePark neighborhood makes me believe that he primarily wanted to use GeoCities to engage with other college students, and that having his own site made it convenient for other members to know who he was, without him having to introduce himself every time he met someone. Because Jon wanted to consume or engage with the content on CollegePark, it drove him towards producing his own website, which in turn created more consumption through those who visited his world. Although Jon put in the effort to learn HTML to be able to create his site, his interest in the internet didn’t develop into more than a means to reach others; Jon is now a practicing physician.
Jon being a chemistry major interested me; I expected creators during the early days of the internet to be those who already had a foot in the door of technology, such as computer engineers or video game developers. However, website creators across the entirety of GeoCities stem from people who study and/or work in the arts and sciences (film, biology, philosophy, etc.). A plausible explanation for this may be that the public perception of the internet twenty years ago was not that it was some science (as it is now with the field of computer science), but more of a platform for expression, exploration, and opportunity. Moreover, despite the fact that users from the BBS era paved the way for the internet, few of them were active on GeoCities in the early 2000s. Rather, it was the younger community that made up the majority of the producers, just as how the younger community primarily propelled BBSs into popularity in the ‘80s. This furthers the idea that the internet, or any new online platform that allows the public to create content, for that matter, is scarcely viewed as a tool for monetary gain or expanded reach during its early stages, meaning that it attracts those who want to use it for the sake of learning something new or exciting. The producers on GeoCities used it as a platform for expression and engaging with others. Indeed, only when GeoCities became one of the most popular sites on the web, that had capitalized on their popularity through ad monetization, did Yahoo take notice and purchase it.