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The Geocities Archive Is Bringing the Early Internet to Life

Come for the anime fansites, stay for the Spice Girls MIDIs

by Gita Jackson
Jan 27 2020, 1:00pm

Geocities was one of the first places your average person could make a website for free. The Geocities Gallery aims to archive these sites and return them to functionality, MIDIs and all.

Geocities was a web hosting service launched in 1994. Along with Angelfire and Tripod, Geocities offered your average human being the ability to build their own website. What made the service unique was its neighborhoods. During sign up, users would select which neighborhood would host their site according to what their site would be about. Websites about theater would be hosted on Broadway, and sites about sports would make their home in the Colosseum. According to a Wired retrospective on the service during its closure in 2009, Geocities hosted over 38 million websites before it closed.

While there have been a few attempts to archive Geocities sites in the past, Kyle Drake, a software engineer who also founded the Geocities-esque web hosting service Neocities, told Motherboard that those archives are currently in a state of disrepair, and were hard to navigate.

"We actually have a good amount of the history of the web backed up, thanks to a tiny band of nonprofits, rogues, artists, and hackers like the Internet Archive and Archive Team that do most of the real work to archive the web," Drake said in an email. "But they're faced with an impossible burden, because of how fast data disappears and how time critical that work is, they're extremely busy."

The Geocities Gallery aims to restore the sites from Geocities to functionality, and also to create an easily searchable way to explore the kinds of sites people made on the service. It provides a look into a version of the internet that felt open and friendly (if a little anarchic), rather than siloed and hostile. Drake said he thinks that Geocities' neighborhoods system, which allowed like-minded people to self select where they would make their home on the web, is better for users than algorithm-driven sites like Twitter or YouTube.

"For example, WestHollywood was the LGBT community, and Area51 was for the tinfoil hat crackpots and anime cyberpunks and whatnot," he said. "It wasn't always a perfect system, but it did help provide some structure to things, instead of just throwing everybody together into the same fucking moshpit like Twitter does."

Given than many of these sites were created by people who were teaching themselves how to code, restoring them to functionality isn't a walk in the park. Drake said that sometimes a site that would render correctly in a browser would break the tools he used to add them to the archive. MIDI files were also a headache, though Drake was able to use a MIDI player for web browsers made for the BitMIDI archive in order to get the autoplaying sound files we all know and love up and working. But getting all these technical bits and bobs working now means that it'll be easier to archive more parts of the early internet.

"The payoff though is that once I get the parsing stuff to work for Geocities sites, it basically works for the other 90s websites too," Drake said, "and then I can move on to other website portals that were similar to Geocities, like Geocities Japan and AOL Member Pages (yes, AOL had web site hosting too)."

"The history of the web is now the history of humanity," Drake added. "As we publish online, we no longer leave paper trails, which means that if we don't back up the web's history, that's it, poof, our history is gone. Dark ages."

Maybe once Drake's project really kicks off he'll be able to archive the Sailor Moon fansite I made as a pre-teen. I think it was on Tripod, and though it doesn't have a MIDI, it's full of sparkly marquee text.

Tagged:
Archive
early internet