The Blogosphere has been abuzz over the past few days, with remembrances of the halcyon days of the internet viewed through the lens of atrociously-designed GeoCities sites. If you missed the xkcd GeoCities tribute, you’ll have to be content with a screenshot, as it was a limited-time engagement. (Update: a mirror) The Archive Team is working on saving as much of GeoCities as possible for future generations. The internet is ephemeral, and, like ancient civilizations, it seems we’re constantly building our new cities on the ashes of our old cities, but, this being the internet, in a much faster cycle. Like anthropologists who get excited about pot shards or shriveled woven sandals found in a cliff dwelling, a lot of internet old-timers like me get pretty nostalgic about how the internet used to be, and think it’s worth preserving, or at least commemorating.
I ran across an excellent article today entitled “Goodbye GeoCities: 7 Retro Things We’ll Miss Forever.” It lists mid 90s web conventions that have fallen from favor (for good reason), such as “under construction” GIFs, guestbooks, “webmasters” and the marquee tag. Looking over this list, I remembered just how Wild West those early days were, and how home-grown the internet was, and what an earth-shattering milestone the popularization of the internet was in the history of computing.
When OSNews had its ten year anniversary in 2007, I created a live archive of old OSNews pages, and I think both the news and the the design of the site hold up pretty well, but slick design was by no means the norm back then. But in the earlier days of the internet, the Web was only one of several ways to view internet content, and in fact, earlier on, was the worst way. The net experience back then was much more desktop-centric, and each internet user had a quiver of desktop apps to perform various tasks. Let me actually take a step back and mention that in the early nineties, it was more common to actually use only the terminal to connect to the internet. My first few years on the net was viewed through a terminal window to an aging VAX/VMS machine. But later on, it was desktop apps for email, FTP, Usenet, (and later) IM and Napster. And, of course, a Web browser. As the internet has become more Web-centric, and the computing landscape has become more internet-centric, the browser has replaced not only many of the old internet apps, but has started to replace all desktop apps. In the unlikely case of a marketing slogan becoming reality, the Network really is the Computer.
I think that one of the reasons that people get nostalgic about how the network used to be is that, just like the great indie band that goes mainstream, old-time fans are simultaneously prideful about having known them before they were popular and resentful at having to share with all the latecomers. It’s about losing the sense of wonder and community that used to exist. I remember that, years ago, I used to buy and sell things on the various “forsale” Usenet groups. The internet was a relatively tight-knit community back then, and you could generally know who someone was by looking at their email address. Their domain name was either a school or company, and their username was a short version of their real name. firstname.lastname@example.org was A. Smith, a student or faculty member at University of Michigan, and if they were on the internet, it pretty much meant they were a member of the geek elite. Because of this, often when I bought something on the internet, the seller would mail it to me, and when I got it in good condition, he would trust me to send a check.
I went back to Archive.org today to see whether my very first website was stored there. It was a site that I’d made as part of a school project on Western US Land-use issues and wilderness preservation. It’s on there, but all of the images have been lost to time. When I made it, I had recently made the move from Gopher to the WWW, and I was still bristling at the difficulty of creating an aesthetically-pleasing web site. HTML was easy to learn, but very difficult to use well, even for a master. Its layout capabilities were rudimentary, and your page would look different in every web browser. Sites like Geocities, and the software that I helped create, ShopSite, attempted to make creating a web site easier for the non-technical, but the tools that we had to work with ensured that we wouldn’t be able to help people very much – either we bound them with overly-restrictive templates that didn’t let them express their creativity, or we handed them a loaded gun and let them shoot themselves in the face.
While I feel nostalgic about the internet of the past, I wouldn’t want to go back. Just like I wouldn’t want to go back to a 486 running Windows 3.1 or a Performa running System 9. If I never saw another “under construction” icon being used un-ironically, I could live my life in complete contentment. But I treasure the memories, and I’ll miss GeoCities, even though I had been scarcely aware that it was still up, and can’t remember the last time I ever visited.