Whats this? Recreating the Old World Web
An Introduction and Retrospective
by Max Gilles

GeoCities, founded in 1994, was a site that allowed users to put their personal websites in a collection of similar sites called a ‘digital city’. These communities were joined together by interest, similar to a forum or community on a modern social media site, like Reddit or Facebook. What differentiated these sites was the lack of any formal structure as we are used to. Rather than making a post on r/Umass (a reddit forum), a user interested in posting about the school would need to find or create their own site dedicated to the topic; on GeoCities they would look under the ‘CollegePark’ or ‘Quad’ cities, as these were focused on University life. The aesthetic and topic of each city was never officially enforced, and many cites were personal cites only loosely related to their city. The decentralized nature of the system, as well as the ‘city’ theme, led to users interacting in a way that treated each site as a digital location within a digital world. A website was not just a users post, it was their home page, the first thing they see when they go online, and the center of whatever their interests were. The culture of the early net was based much more in the rules of a digital-local interaction than social media provides us now. Digital-local in the sense that small communities were formed of individuals only interested in the genuine and earnest sharing of personal content. These communities treated the digital world with much of the social expectations of the real world; this is contrary to modern digital interaction, where the digital is an aid to the real world, and has its own entirely different set of social norms. Digital social norms have gradually changed over time, and looking at GeoCities and similar early websites provides a window into the primordial internet, a place where the digital was treated like the physical, and content was much more genuine. Genuine in the sense that irony and cringe culture had not saturated the content creation process, and people were less self conscious about their digital presence. Geocities was purchased by Yahoo! In 1999, and was officially shut down by the company in 2009. At the time of the shut down there were at least 38 million pages on the GeoCities platform. Users had gone to the GeoCities network because it offered community and more importantly it offered free website hosting. The site announced its shut down and allowed users a few months to edit and save their content, and after the shutdown, existing sites could be accessed but no longer edited until 2014. After 2014 all content hosted solely on the site disappeared, with all GeoCities URLs leading to a Yahoo! error page. The shutdown of GeoCities was understandable, as presumably the organization was no longer making enough money to support the server upkeep costs, however, there was no effort made to backup the sites, and nearly all of them were lost. Today, there are some ways to see GeoCities content, my favorite being InternetArchaology, a site that hosts a few select webgrabs of GeoCities sites and images. I was fascinated exploring these sites, as it felt like a window into the past, and archeological dig. Not only have the rules of digital interaction changed, but so have the aesthetics. Everything online now is made by graphic designers or users with premade web templates. Early websites were mostly user generated on every front, as the only limitations were your HTML skills. For my final project, I wanted to recreate the aesthetics of these sites for my own personal site. No templates or rules were enforced then, but there were features that became commonplace enough that many of the sites had them, such as an “About Me” page, or a “Gate” to the site. My project was an endeavour of aesthetics, as well as an opportunity to host and share my other side projects and hobbies. Additionally, my site is fairly tongue-and-cheek and I allowed myself to make it as goofy and genuinely fun to make as it could be, as the point of a personal site is to have fun. I initially started the site in 2018, but had not made much progress. My site has a variety of pages, each with intentional aesthetic choices made to reflect myself and the medium. I will walk you through as you explore my world, hosted on https://people.umass.edu/~mgilles/ .

The Gate (landing page)
When you first open my site, you are greeted with a shifting background made of my own face tiled repeatedly. Backgrounds were made with small files that could be tiled to create a pattern and that is how this .gif background works. “ENTER MY DOMAIN” reads the header, engulfed in low rez flames. A gate was a feature found on a fair few geocities cites, especially anything medieval or edgy in theming. I decided to include a similar page to my site to really pull users in and enforce the idea of the website as a physical place. Its not just my site, its my kingdom. The paragraph (in yellow comic sans, any graphic designers bane) encourages the user to run away, and describes a rotting kingdom. I thought that this fit the outdated aesthetic of the site, of course its a rotting kingdom, its one made in the 90s, as far as the user knows. Additionally, I thought it fit the fairly gross looking background. Lets click the big ‘enter here’ button and continue on. I should note that all graphics on the site were made by me, mostly using paint net, a drawing software, with text being made via googling ‘Flaming Text Generator’ and using one of those wordart generators.

The Second Gate
This part, I don't really know why I included. It was mostly me learning how to route in HTML, and how to imbed videos and links. It shows a small non-sequitur video I made and has the text below “DO NOT PIRATE THIS VIDEO!!”. The bottom text is a reference to another old web phenomenon, anti piracy text. People thought that the downloading of any element on someone else's page was effectively stealing, and would often include anti-piracy signs and notes. I thought it was funny whenever someone included a hostile sounding anti-piracy note, because there are literally zero repercussions of stealing someones content, spare community outrage. I included a particularly hostile message. I wanted the website to feel somewhat eerie, and I picked that video because it looks old and says effectively nothing, leaving the visitor bewildered as to why I included it. Anyways, lets move on.

The Home Page
This page, made of a block of text to the side of the page, serves as the home page for the site. I really did not know what to add to the visuals, so I stuck with a fairly simple aesthetic, but this may change in the future. The text explains that this is my site, and offers the visitor a variety of links to explore. The word choice on this page was very intentional, as well as the formatting and grammatical choices. I sought to recreate the amatuer and personal elements of personal websites. “Hi my name is MAX and this is my internet page” is a fun way to welcome them to my page and bring focus to myself. I wanted the page to feel genuine and used, so I included several red-herrings such as the note about pylon documentation, something that never existed, but clues the visitor that I am active in many projects, with a fan following. I chose the phrase ‘pylon documentation’ because it is vague and confusing, but seems like it could be a real project. The heap of links leads to the rest of the site, some are fairly self explanatory and serve only to fill in content gaps such as the movies list and the link to my instagram; soon there will be a link to this very artists statement. The other three I will talk about more in depth. I will continue updating the site in the future, and these links may change or grow.

Home for Lost Pets
One of the most fascinating phenomenon of geocities cites was the creation and sharing of Cyber Pets. These were simply images of animals or mythical creatures that users would create then give to other users specifically. The expectation was that each pet was personalized, and it was considered incredibly taboo to download someone else's web pets. Some creators hosted their own adoption centers and would include an ‘adoption certificate’, an additional jpeg that stated where the pet was from and that it was authentic in nature. When I was exploring the old webgrabs, it struck me as particularly sad that these pets had been forgotten and deleted, so I went out of my way to download them. This, might have been bad practice then, but I figure in downloading these guys and giving them a new page, I am honoring and respecting their heritage, and keeping in line with the tone of the tradition. If anyone wants to add or remove pets from this page I encourage you to email me. I tried my best to find pets where I could find their name, and I included some with adoption certificates. The thing I really like about these is that they are so based in the medium. Its not just a picture of an animal, the picture itself is the pet. In hosting these critters I’m not just putting some images up, as these specific images have and should be treated as semi-living things.

The Hub of Truth
This page is confusing and visually busy from the moment you hop on. This part of the site is an homage to the conspiracy theory and alien enthusiast websites of the 90s. The 90s was a hotspot for alien and conspiracy content, as never before had the crazies and weirdos of the world had a way to share their theories and explanations. These sites ranged from serious scientific explanations, to schizophrenic ramblings. One that particularly inspired me is TIME CUBE, a website that was ran by a clinically schizophrenic man that documented his theories about time and space. These sites had a distinctly spooky aesthetic and took themselves very seriously. I made all the graphics on this page, and sought to render some aliens as well as create some art. The symbols along the top i made up and the rendition of the aliens includes the names of my friends as a little inside joke (such as Chilton or Keleher). In the future, I plan to expand this section and add more art and imagery that falls in line with the unique aesthetic.

Found Footage/ Video Vault
This page serves as a place for me to host an assortment of my video projects from the past. Many users would have pages to host their art and writing, so I decided to include my video projects, regardless of their context.

The disappearance of GeoCities was a significant moment in digital history, but the remnants of those sites each act as a time capsule into when they were made, as well as a window into who made them. In todays digital climate there are too many social media sites to keep track of, but they are all managed and monitored by large corporations. I think that there should be a digital renaissance, a return to old net aesthetics and rules, as decentralized social networks allow for more creativity and autonomy on the site of the user. I will continue to use this site to express myself and host my various projects. I am proud of what I have made, and will continue to update it. I will include some links to inspiration cites and tools used below. I hope you will enjoy my website in all of its crappy glory. In its poor code and low rez graphics lie a feeling of digital genuineness that I miss about the internet. The internet now is too big and too depressing, and I hope that my site will serve as a fun distraction for others and a cyber safe haven for myself.

Inspiration Sites
Internet Archaeology (check out the webgrabs)
William Verts Personal Site
TimeCube Check out a good explainer here
Another Geocities archive
More Archives

Tools Used
Win SCP server interface
Paintnet drawing software
Flamingtext Generator
HTML Code chunk assistant
UMass Server Hosting

A big thank you to james for helping me code and a big thank you to Nefeli for encouraging me to keep creating