In the mid-1990s, a Londoner named Bobby decided to introduce himself on the World Wide Web. “I have a website,” proclaims the headline of his page in the Tokyo neighborhood of GeoCities, its large, bold letters painstakingly coded with HTML hex color codes to create a gradient from oxblood to coral to pale peach. Below, there’s a picture of Bobby. He has close-cropped, mouse-brown hair, wears a black T-shirt and blocky aviator glasses, and holds a small camera in his large left hand. “You might wonder why an Englishman has a web site in this geocities neighborhood,” he writes. “Well, I’ve had my holiday in the Philippines. Actually, a friend of mine owns this homestead and he gave me this webspace as part of an advance birthday gift. Now, ‘I have a web site’.”
It’s difficult to put an exact date on the end of GeoCities, in part because it acquired the stigma of obsolescence long before its official death in October 2009, when Yahoo! shuttered the site; and in part because it lives on, through web captures and torrents and mirror sites – and through a project titled One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age. In 2010, artists and partners Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina took on the herculean task of restoring a terabyte of GeoCities data that had been rescued and released as a torrent by the Archive Team, a loose federation of online archivists and programmers. For five months, Espenschied and Lialina downloaded the data. They watched as fellow seeders dropped from a few hundred to three or four. Then they began piecing the world of GeoCities back together.
Bobby’s personal page was one of those captured by the Archive Team, and a screenshot appeared on January 4, 2014 on One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo-Op, the Tumblr associated with Espenschied and Lialina’s project. The Tumblr publishes one screenshot of a restored GeoCities per 20 minutes, with around 137,000 posts to date; “I have a website” was one of three pages to be fully built out, made navigable to a contemporary web user. From the 1990s through 2009, Bobby did have a website; when GeoCities went down in 2009, he didn’t. Today, his website albeit in altered form, exists.
The homespun aesthetic of GeoCities belies a degree of technical complexity and interdependence that makes restoring the sites a challenge. Websites designed for older browsers and operating systems – Netscape and Internet Explorer 5; Windows 2000 and XP – won’t look right on a newer computer. Icons designed for a smaller-resolution screen shrink. Colors that were festive on an old cathode ray monitor are garish in LED. Restoring the websites requires a kind of digital forensics, replicating the conditions in which they were first viewed. And even with contemporary software, buttons, borders, and GIFs were often borrowed from other places on the web, and the original images have been deleted; broken image icons abound.
“For us, it was the most important thing that we take on a user’s perspective,” Espenschied said at the offices of digital art nonprofit Rhizome, his desk bordering a powered-down VR stage. “It was an interesting time for that because there was no standard for how to express yourself. They couldn’t really use photography, and making your own images or animations would be too much for a lot of users. It was about combining elements, circulating elements, and maybe adding something to an element.” Rather than present the surviving images and animations in isolation, it’s central to Espenschied and Lialina’s project to restore the sites themselves, all 400,000 of them, on their contemporary browsers. Otherwise, GeoCities’ collaborative ethos might be lost.
Today, Espenschied and Lialina use EAAS (Emulation-as-a-Service), an emulator, and Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool to present the pages in an authentic browser window. These don’t just allow icons to load in the right size; they also embed the pages in a moment in internet history. “These operating systems provide so much of the context already, because they really embody ideas of what a computer is, what is useful to you, what is beautiful and practical, if Times New Roman is a great font or not,” Espenschied said. “It immediately gives you access to a lot of backstory.”
This is the beauty of One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age: by treating amateurish GeoCities pages as the stuff of art history, it tells a different origin story about today’s online culture. GeoCities users may have had a surfeit of fondness for animated flames and glitter roses, but they articulated one of the first mainstream visions of what the web could be: expressive, decentralized, and, for the most part, touchingly sincere, even neighborly.
"[GeoCities] was, for hundreds of thousands of people, their first experience with the idea of a webpage, of a full-color, completely controlled presentation on anything they wanted," Jason Scott, the founder of Archive Team, explained at a talk in 2011. “For some people, their potential audience was greater for them than for anyone in the entire history of their genetic line. It was, to these people, breathtaking.”