GeoCities' founder explains the death of the old Internet

Originally published at: GeoCities' founder explains the death of the old Internet | Boing Boing

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This seems to be the consensus among people my age who transitioned from BBSs to AOL/Compuserve to the web and from 24,4 to 56k to always on connections while we were kids/teens/early 20s. People used to talk about their interests. They posted whole sites dedicated to their interests. You found people on LiveJournal based on tags of interests. You didn’t necessarily know what anyone looked like and if you did, it was from a small, pixelated picture that took them at least 30 minutes to upload. You chatted with people and continued to chat with the ones you made a connection with.

One thing that modern social media does is it puts everyone in the same place and makes them less distinct. It makes the post from your aunt about a party she went to with friends you’ll never meet equivalent to your best friend’s interesting post about the new makerspace they just opened up and the cool custom electronics they’re designing. It’s all just an infinite scroll instead of an intentional journey of seeing what interesting things people are doing or are getting into. It creates more of a feeling of competition among people to show off a carefully curated depiction of the best (and likely exaggerated) aspects of their lives. I feel like the older interactions were more honest because there was less incentive to try to appear to be super impressive.

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The possibility of immediate monetization didn’t exist then either. In the GeoCities era, caring a lot about your niche interest and wanting to connect with others about it had to be enough of an incentive alone to set up a site and maintain it. Now appearing to be interested in something is nearly frictionless, and chasing trending topics has both concrete and more nebulous financial incentives.

Tostitos wasn’t going to set up a GeoCites about hamster-dance, but they sure will tweet about it now, and influencers building a following might step into all kinds of things to build a following. I’m not trying to be an influencer by any stretch and my most-liked tweet has 81 likes (and was a sarcastic joke about the F-35 cost overruns) but even I couldn’t help but have a weird demonic whisper in the back of my head: “man, what if I can get a following, then a patreon, I could quit my job!”

All of us being in front of each-other in a big pool is one environmental change, but I think the commercialization is the most powerful change.

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I had 40 columns of uppercase only text. I had 300bps. I was a computer nerd.

Things went horribly wrong when computers were no longer the realm of the computer nerd - when they got into the hands (literally) of the common folks.

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You couldn’t quit your job. You’d just have another job, which would be endless, web-based grift and you would hate it. The fundamental tenet of capitalism is, work is awful. Because, if it was fun, they would make you buy a ticket to get in there.

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But then everyone else wanted to join in, and in most cases didn’t have any interests; or more to the point, weren’t one of the top 1000 most interesting voices on any given topic.

There was a time when, say, liking The Cure counted as an interest. At your school that was just enough of a catalyst to form a group of 5 other people “like you”; anything more specialised or intense would be isolating. But on the internet, liking The Cure makes a pretty weak shibboleth. No one’s going to say “oh, you’re a Cure fan too? We should hang out in person”.

So you end up with insecure peeps visibly forcing themselves to care about some piece of Disney bollocks the way Joan of Arc cared about Jesus, like they can forge their own special lunch table in a high school of 7 billion students. That’s why Qfolk have that embarrassing WWG1WGA slogan. They’re a short step from calling it the Super Special Best Friends Oh God Someone Please Like Me Club.

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Thankfully, much of the “old” internet can still be found, if you choose. It’s okay if not everyone is on it, because the same was true back then, too: only the real digerati were there for much of that time - it took real work to get online and so it was often a fairly small set of people before Eternal September really kicked off in earnest.

I find sometimes the “death” of certain aspects of technology are greatly exaggerated. It might not be new or what the self-appointed cool kids are talking about…but it’s there and people are still using it. And I’m perfectly okay if the narcissists and “influencers” don’t even know or care about it, TBH. You’ll often see these types show up on the federated networks, by the way, only to usually fade.

As for the “new” internet - I have an account on all the big ones, but ignore nearly all of it. Linkedin is for keeping my resume kind of up to date (and ignoring all the performative corporate nonsense from so very many on there) FB is for sharing pics of family/pets to…family, Twitter is something I signed up for in the very early early times, then quickly checked out of when I saw the massive amount of infighting and mobs and dogpiling, and people inside the beltway seemingly taking most of that toxic stew as somehow a real cross-section of…anything. The “old” internet sure is a welcome respite to go browse instead.

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GeoCities? Get off my lawn!

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LOL. I think I was still mostly using USENET during the GeoCities heyday, so I missed that wave mostly - except for the sites that went viral. I do remember a time when most ISP gave you a “home page”, though, and I’d often roll my own system to put up on their platform, even to allow comments. This obviously was before the duopoly moved into most areas - you get the freedom of either Coke or Pepsi for your internet connection.

Speaking of GeoCities, though - there is NeoCities, so we can live like it’s 1999 again.

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For some reason, this prose struck me as something from either Generation X, Shampoo Planet, or Microserfs.

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I played with geocities early on but in 95 or 96 I bought my first domain and taught myself html followed by Frontpage and various other wysiwyg editors. Played with Dreamweaver for a bit.

Once CMS and php came out it got a lot easier.

I also remember Angelfire and Tripod.

And ICQ was all the rage.

Good times, I still have the books teaching all that stuff.

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Is it just me or is there a bit of an elitist vibe here? “The old internet was cool and interesting because only nerds who really cared were on it. Then capitalism gave the internet to everyone and now they’re all pretending to be interesting.”

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It’s not just you. There’s probably a modest amount of truth to the observation that the internet was more interesting (on some topics, while others were completely ignored) when only those that really wanted to could access it and big corporations were relegated to providing access to user generated content rather than providing content themselves, but that doesn’t mean that people who have no technical ability have no interests or inner life, as could be inferred from some of the comments here.

And of course the internet still produces some really cool stuff. I mean, we’re in the BBS of a blog that aims to regularly highlight just that.

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Oh yes, don’t mistake what I said (for instance) - Sturgeon’s Law applied even back then. Thing is, I guess it was a lot less…performative and homogenized, at least as far as what was considered the “mainstream” Internet. It had a lot of bespoke quirkiness and people were not doing it for the followers or for the money. Especially precommerce/pre-web. That didn’t last all that long, IMHO, and honestly, as soon as commerce was permitted on the 'net, the writing was on the wall for the mallification of it. All the VC and the “content is king” types came rushing in about 1994/1995 and it was pretty easy to see where all this was going to go… if what existed before was the Homebrew Computer Club, these people intended on making new Apples and Microsofts.

But, the nice part is - people can still make choices about it all - they can absolutely check out of the mall part and lock into other things. Facebook, et al - no one is really required to use them.

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Speaking of communities based around interest, I think Discord is really great for just this sort of thing. Anyone can create a Discord channel and invite people to join it and there are hundreds of thousands of channels. But specifically, if there’s something you’re interested in, there’s very likely an entire Discord channel full of people chatting about it. Forget social networks like Facebook or Twitter, go join some Discord channels!

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I grabbed the app and it’s the most confusing thing. I thought it would be just search for topics I enjoy, then lurk for a bit reading, and then slowly join some conversations.

Seems a little complicated. Servers, invites, friends…? It looks more like glorified chat rooms then forums.

Yeah, it’s for sure not forums. You’ve got the general idea that it’s sort of like chat rooms, but the idea here is that each server has it’s own set of rooms. Generally what happens is someone who’s doing ‘cool thing x’ or whatever will say, we’ve got a Discord channel dedicated to talking about cool thing, here it is: [insert link here] and then everyone goes and chats about that cool thing in a dedicated place to chat about that cool thing. But because you can have multiple rooms in a server, you’ll often get servers dedicated to cool thing with separate rooms for other not-specifically-related topics.

this was one of the early complaints about the google+ experience. People would create circles/rings with people that had all nerdy interests, but then one of those nerds would make a post about “enjoying an IPA from this local brewery” and 100 people would complain “this isn’t the content I follow you for.”

I think it’s mainly nostalgia. The memory cutting out the bad and/or boring stuff. The longing for the halcyon days when you were the kid on somebody’s lawn.

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Yeah, Google+ did feel like a new Live Journal for the five minutes anyone seemed to use it. Few of my friends and none of my family members followed me over so I’m still stuck to this day checking Facebook to see life event updates because they are change averse.