What Happens When Digital Cities Are Abandoned?


Laura Hall in The Atlantic (image: flickr/Ray Dumas):

The nomenclature of the early Internet is domestic: home pages, key words, hosts. And in those days, the web was small, knowable. Search engines contained a finite, hand-indexed listing of every website that had been submitted.

In the late 1990s, GeoCities was one of the first sites that let people create webpages of their own. It was organized into topic-based neighborhoods, and those into suburbs, with what were essentially house numbers. Because the service was around so early on, and because it was free, many users found their first taste of internet self-expression there. When Yahoo! shut down GeoCities in April 2009, there was a concerted effort to collect and archive all of the site’s contents.

“The great paradox about these digital communities is that they’re easily kept around forever, and they are even more easily deleted utterly,” said Jason Scott, an Internet advocate and archivist who launched a digital preservation team that year. His Archive Team worked quickly to capture as much of the info as they could, backing it up on the Internet Archive and releasing a torrent of all of the files, and a handful of other sites scraped and reposted what they could.

“When we founded Archive Team, it was in a dearth of recognition that these communities had lasting historical and societal value,” Scott said. “They were considered to be byproducts, like a street corner—thinking of it as the point where two streets collide, rather than being a hangout that when removed, removes the entire community.”

I recently tried to revisit my own first homepage, a wonder of center-aligned blinking text, purple tiled backgrounds, clever “Under Construction” gifs and pixel-art icons I had traded with other GeoCities page owners. But all that remains is a single mention of the username on someone else’s page, a record of my having visited there once. Because of the nature of the sites, none of the archives of GeoCities is 100 percent complete, and it’s difficult to know for sure how much actually still exists; much of the data is simply being stored for a later date, when technology has reached the ability to collate and curate it all.

More here.