by Christina Spiker, University of California, Irvine, Visual Studies
Although SOPA and PIPA have been taken off the table, it has become increasingly important to examine digital histories of user-created content on the web, especially as that content faces the threat of censorship and moderation. While there was a nostalgic part of me that smiled when I stumbled upon The Deleted City project, there also seems to be an immediate need to reevaluate these kinds of digital, generative spaces such as the late Geocities and other early online communities. According to the project's website,
The Deleted City is a digital archaeology of the world wide web as it exploded into the 21st century. At that time the web was often described as an enormous digital library that you could visit or contribute to by building a homepage. The early citizens of the net (or netizens) took their netizenship serious, and built homepages about themselves and subjects they were experts in. These pioneers found their brave new world at Geocities, a free webhosting provider that was modelled after a city and where you could get a free "piece of land" to build your digital home in a certain neighbourhood based on the subject of your homepage... Around the turn of the century, Geocities had tens of millions of "homesteaders" as the digital tennants were called and was bought by Yahoo! for three and a half billion dollars. Ten years later, in 2009, as other metaphors of the internet (such as the social network) had taken over, and the homesteaders had left their properties vacant after migrating to Facebook, Geocities was shutdown and delted. In a heroic effort to preserve 10 years of collaborative work by 35 million people, the Archive Team made a backup of the site just before it shut down. The resulting 650 Gigabyte bittorrent file is the digital Pompeii that is the subject of an interactive excavation that allows you to wander through an episode of recent online history.
As an exercise in media archeology, The Deleted City project visualizes the archive of personal websites cataloged immediately before the deletion of Geocities on October 27, 2009. This installation work visualizes the data of the archive as a city map, spatially arranging the "neighborhoods" based on file quantities. The website explains, "In full view, the map is a datavisualisation showing the relative sizes of the different neighborhoods. While zooming in, more and more detail becomes visible, eventually showing individual html pages and the images they contain. While browsing, nearby MIDI files are played." In their visualization of digital space, The Deleted City simultaneously embraces the communitarian aspect of Geocities (and dated artifacts such as the MIDI sound file) alongside new touch technology that allows us to point, swipe, and pinch our way through the neighborhoods of internet past. The Deleted City visualizes Geocities in a way intended for the gallery. Does something become truly past once it passes into the realm of the museum?
My own history on Geocities seems like a distant memory. After playing around with several other free website hosts, I navigated my way there in order to create an account in the digital neighborhood of SoHo (one of the "cities" dedicated to the arts). My page started with a default template that soon became littered with tacky animated GIF files and a variety of MIDI songs that changed with my adolescent mood. It housed poetry from junior high and artwork from my freshman year -- all before my own awareness of things like internet piracy and creative commons. My barebones website encouraged me to experiment with HTML (first with "free layouts" offered by more experienced web masters and later by layouts created by my own hand). However, Geocities also introduced me to new kinds of interaction through their interest-based communities and the glorious invention called the "webring" used to discover new sites of similar topics (a rudimentary StumbleUpon, if you will). For me, Geocities and the phenomenon of the personal website so popular in the 1990s, prefaced much of my engagement with the internet as a space of creative possibility. However, when Geocities faced its immanent deletion, I had already said my goodbyes and, like many of my peers, moved on to the thrill of domain ownership and social networking. My "homestead" stood vacant among many others when the plug was finally pulled.
Despite my nostalgic attachment to Geocities, its existence testifies to the life (and death) of a particular venue for user-created web content. It forces us to consider the preservation of digital material, and, in some senses, digital world and community making. There is a certain kind of utopic idealism that these spaces seem to enjoy and embrace. However permanent a fixture Geocities seemed to be during its height, it makes us cognizant of the eventual passing of other platforms and the impermanence of the content created on them. In light of current news, it also forces us to consider the value of those spaces should they one day disappear.