Yahoo GeoCities closes on Oct. 26

GeoCities, once the Internet's third most visited domain, will be shutting down on Oct. 26, taking with it thousands of user home pages and decades of data. All that information will be history.... Fortunately, some historians are making sure it's not lost to the annals of time.

Founded in 1994 as Beverly Hills Internet, what is now Yahoo GeoCities was one of the first services to offer an easy way for early Internet surfers to publish their own Web pages. Whereas most hosting options of the 1990s were expensive, thus limiting their use to more entrepreneurial pursuits, GeoCities' free hosting space became the home for thousands of sites built around thematically oriented "neighborhoods": conservation, fashion, military, sports, finance, travel, and more.

But that hierarchy proved limiting and then confusing, as neighborhoods expanded into blocks and suburbs. After a Yahoo buyout in 1999, the new management chose to make the URL structure even more complex. This era was quickly followed by both the dot-com bubble burst and the availability of affordable personal hosting, such as Yahoo's own Web hosting. Neither bode well for GeoCities' long-term viability.

In April 2009, Yahoo announced that GeoCities would cease accepting new registrations in preparation of the service's closing. In June, they clarified: the service would shut down on Oct. 26, 2009. As their FAQ states, GeoCities is not being decommissioned —— it's being deleted. That means any data not personally backed up by its owners or readers will not be recoverable, ever.

The shuttering of GeoCities has both historical and contemporary importance. In the latter category, GeoCities is currently the 195th most browsed domain, and a highly referenced one, with two million incoming links — a popularity most other hosts could only dream of. More important, GeoCities (which popularized the notion of webrings) currently serves as a vast archive of information. Digital archivist Jason Scott eloquently explained:

... for hundreds of thousands of people, this was their first website. This was where you went to get the chance to publish your ideas to the largest audience you might ever have dreamed of having. Your pet subject or conspiracy theory or collection of writings left the safe confines of your Windows 3.1 box and became something you could walk up to any internet-connected user, hand them the URL, and know they would be able to see your stuff. In full color. Right now.

Scott and his Archive Team are working to rescue GeoCities by downloading as much of its content as possible — which they estimate to be around ten terabytes. These historians recognize GeoCities as having played a critical role in the development of the Internet. Rather than protesting Yahoo's financially motivated decision, doing fundraising to "Save GeoCities!", or signing online petitions, these data hoarders have taken an active role not in preventing the inevitable but in mitigating its damage by preserving GeoCities in a format protected from further corporate terminations.

Our modern sensibilities may not see the value in dancing hamsters (yes, GeoCities originated that, too), but even that Internet meme has become a part of our online culture whose roots will soon be deleted. Scott sees value in recording such data:

Already, little gems have shown up in the roughly 8000+ sites I've archived. Guitar tab archives. MP3s that surely took the owners hours to rip and generate. GIF files, untouched for 13 years. Fan fiction. Photographs and websites of people long dead. All stuff that, I think, down the line, will have meaning. It's not for me to judge. It's for me to collect.

Scott is the proprietor of TEXTFILES.COM and producer of the excellent BBS: The Documentary. Based on that track record, if he says something is worth holding onto, chances are there's something to it. Even if we can't see that value now, if not for the Archive Team, we may never have another chance to discover it.

So farewell, GeoCities —— and hello, history.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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