Depending on when you were born and when you first started using the World Wide Web, you may or may not have memories of an online era that is now behind us. By design, the Web—invented by Tim Berners Lee in 1989—made the Internet far more accessible to those outside of scientific and research communities than ever before, reducing the technical barrier to online access. In the 1990s the Web experienced rapid growth and expanded user adoption; with this surge of users also came an increase of content, in no small part due to the phenomenon of the personal web page. Individuals, hobbyists, companies, fan clubs, pet owners, etc, were all making their unique presence known on the Web, and all were on theoretically equal footing. It was an era that embraced personal style, amateur design, loosely moderated authorship, webring communities, low fidelity animated GIFs, and free expression which was restricted only by the technical capabilities of browsers of the time.
GeoCities, an immensely popular free hosting service for personal web pages in the early days of the Web, has become a symbol of, and a legacy to this early online culture, one that has largely disappeared in time. It was shut down in 2009 with many of its pages already long abandoned by that point; so many guestbooks left untended and visitor counters at a standstill. If not for the work of Internet archivists to preserve and make available this content, these documents of an historical era might have been lost forever.
The discussion of the early Web often focuses on the visual aesthetics, an understandable dialectic; the DIY quality, amateur design, tiled background images, and prominence of browser-default styles is far removed from the aesthetic of the Web today. Visual cues like these are a nostalgic escape for anyone who was online during the height of GeoCities popularity, and for anyone who missed it, these aesthetic devices read as comedic novelties through a modern lens. However, this tendency toward the aesthetics of the early Web becoming a focal point of discussion surrounding it is troubling. For those who lack the firsthand experience, the sight of an archived personal web page will oftentimes call to mind an homage, perhaps a parody of the designs of the era, casting a light on the early Web as something of parody of itself—something to poke historical fun at. Those of us who were there are likely to see a certain charm within these antiquated interfaces—but the interface itself is not the charm, rather it is what it represents through association. This can be difficult to articulate to an outsider looking in. It is this certain something about the bygone era which eludes the dead personal pages in the internet archives and is completely alien to generations too young to have experienced it. There is little doubt that the aesthetics can be observed and studied through the archives, the interfaces mimicked and appropriated using still-existing technology, but what truly defined the era is impossible to recreate on the post-millennial Web.
In many ways, the Web has gone remarkably unchanged from the 1990s to today. It still operates on the same protocols (TCP/IP, HTTP), uses the same markup language to structure documents (HTML), is overseen by the same standards organization (W3C), and contains the same client-server architecture. The primary difference dividing the early Web from its modern counterpart is not one of connection speeds, geographical reach, technical capability, user interests, interface complexity, or the availability of connected devices—it is one of power. The personal web page is a prime example of this change in the structures of control online. What was once a very common thing to create and maintain is now quite rare. The personal page was a portal between the individual and the community. Self expression was not merely accepted as commonplace, it was encouraged by example. Communities were built out of shared interests between geographically disparate users through vehicles like webrings and chat rooms. The content that one posted to their personal page was at their own discretion; the interface was as tastefully subtle or disastrously gaudy as they desired. Interests were shared, passions discussed, creations published. This behavior required a high degree of vulnerability from the individual, but there was a strength in the power of the communities built around such vulnerable interaction. The network was a distributed one, and all personal pages were theoretically equal. How often a page was visited or how much visibility it had online was largely dependent upon webring connections and how many other sites featured it in their Links section—driving traffic back to the page. Whether a page offered users something they were after—possibly content or photos of interest, ridiculous surveys, custom wallpapers, fan fiction, poetry, etc—or perhaps facilitated a sense of escape into cyberspace, the subjective factors determining the perceived value of any given page existed at the intersection between author and visitor. The users of the Web were in control of how they used it.
The post-millennial Web introduced a new way of organizing communities and publishing content. Beginning with the first appearance of Friendster and increasing in popularity with MySpace shortly thereafter, social networks changed the face of cyberspace completely. Despite several desperate attempts to stay relevant over many years, both of the aforementioned sites have since become casualties of the ubiquitous social behemoth that is Facebook. The advent of the social network meant that even if you did have a personal web page, in order to partake in this new breed of community you had to sign up and create a personal profile; if you didn’t have a personal web page, the list of reasons for creating one became much shorter. By joining a social network and posting your content to it, it was easier than ever to have your own little space on the Web: upload your photos; publish your thoughts; showcase your interests; interact with friends new and old, near and far. The transition happened in such a seamless way that few users mourned the death of the personal web page at the hands of the social network. After all, MySpace allowed users access to edit the HTML of portions of their profile, so it wasn’t as if personal style had been abandoned absolutely, on the contrary, the platform of self-expression was now more likely to be seen by a wider audience based upon the rate at which these networks were growing and the ways in which users interacted with them. By the time Facebook overtook MySpace, it seemed as if there was no choice but to go where the masses were going (Goodbye, custom HTML! So long, tiled image backgrounds!) if you wanted to remain a part of your existing online communities with a relevant platform for authorship and engagement.
Presently, we live in the era of the social Web. Facebook reports the number of monthly active users in the billions, and nearly everyone you meet uses social networks in one way or another. On the one hand, this speaks to the strengths of the Web and its ability to make the Internet easily accessible by reducing the barrier to entry and connecting people the world over: enabling multi-directional sharing of content; the collaborative documentation of information; and widespread real-time communication. On the other hand, this present era has come at a cost—we have lost our distributed system and put the social network in a position of power. The web has become centralized. Nearly all user actions happen through a select few central hubs, each with the ability to influence, alter, document, and monetize our online activity. We have sacrificed unrestrained personal expression and style for uniform personal profiles. We have lost the control of our own content, which is now subject to the censorship of the social network. Gone is the dynamic of meeting like-minded individuals through webrings and chat rooms; instead, social platforms suggest who we should befriend. No longer does the perceived value of a page rest in the text between author and user, it is determined by the goals and motivations of the centralized network. Even the content we consume is drifting beyond the reach of our own influence, with choice of relevancy and origin evaporating before our eyes. To those who came of age online when social networks were already in place, this is all quite natural—they don’t remember the Web being any different; for those who came before, it feels too late.
Internet archival work such as the GeoCities project is essential for documenting a medium which can be astonishingly ephemeral at times. As aspects of our lives become increasingly intertwined with the Internet, such archives will achieve great historical and anthropological significance in research, academia, and beyond. Where they have fallen short to date is in their ability to portray the underlying network control structures to those who are temporally disconnected from an era, which can result in a gross misunderstanding of the cultural significance of the material. If someone unfamiliar with GeoCities browses through its salvaged archival remains, do they see the pure personal expression of users who were in control of their online content and communities, or does it just appear to be the technologically constrained and aesthetically misguided shaky first steps of the World Wide Web? One can only hope that the work of our future historians will take special note of the magical moment in our past—brief and fragile, it turned out—when users of the Web were so much more than commodity.