Roman Mars [00:00:02] Myrtle Beach is 60 miles made just for you. It’s simply known as “the beach” because once you visit, you’ll know that this is where you belong. Myrtle Beach has 60 miles of stunning sandy beaches, over 2000 restaurants serving up the finest feel good food on the East Coast, 90 golf courses ranging in difficulty, 50 themed mini golf courses, and so much more, including amusement park rides, waterslides, fishing, shows, and live music every single night. Whatever you want, the beach has it by the boatload. You belong at the beach. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Start planning your getaway at visitmyrtlebeach.com. Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. If we’ve learned anything from watching the turnover of tech giants like Yahoo! and Myspace, it’s that internet darlings rise and fall. And there’s something darkly fascinating about watching it happen in real time. Maybe we’re seeing it now with Twitter and Facebook. Some of us will mourn the loss of the communities and connections that we’ve created in the virtual spaces owned by these billion-dollar companies, while others of us will enjoy visiting the graves of these once unstoppable behemoths to tramp the dirt down. Either way, the values and trends and hopes and ambitions that go into the architecture of the virtual world say as much about us as the architecture of the real world. And that’s what these two stories from 99PI’s past are all about. They are a couple of my absolute favorites. Enjoy. If there’s one sound that instantly transports me back in time, it’s this one: the dial up modem tone. It reminds me of being in grad school in 1994. I was talking to one of my thesis advisors about the World Wide Web, how much cool stuff was on there, and how distracting it was. And he recommended that I take the weekend to go through the whole thing and get it out of my system. The internet was so new that a person with a Ph.D. thought you could literally finish it in one weekend.
Vivian Le [00:02:42] For me, the dial up tone reminds me of being a kid in the early ’90s, when I thought the internet was just that thing that my older tech savvy cousins logged onto to yell at strangers. Now it’s that thing that everyone logs onto to yell at strangers.
Roman Mars [00:02:55] That’s millennial producer Vivian Le.
Vivian Le [00:02:58] It’s weird to think about because I, along with probably the rest of you, have been spending about 97% of my waking life on Slack, Twitter, Netflix, or Google Docs, but I’m just old enough to remember a time before the internet was a requirement to participate in society–a time before it was everywhere. It was this new thing that you heard about.
David Bohnett [00:03:21] I first heard about the internet…
Vivian Le [00:03:25] This is David Bohnett.
David Bohnett [00:03:26] I was reading a magazine–I think PC World or something like that–and I just thought, “Oh, this just sounds amazing.”
Vivian Le [00:03:36] Today, David’s a philanthropist and tech entrepreneur. But back in the early 1990s, he really wanted to do something great with this thing called the World Wide Web because the way he saw it, it was about to change the world for the better.
Roman Mars [00:03:49] David and his business partner, a guy named John Rezner, decided in order to be a part of this digital revolution, they would have found an internet company that hosted websites. The plan was straightforward enough–David and John would provide the online space and some basic tools so that individuals or companies could build their own web page, and the company would host those pages on its servers.
Vivian Le [00:04:13] And because their office was based in Beverly Hills, they named their company Beverly Hills Internet.
David Bohnett [00:04:19] It will go down as having one of the worst names in history.
Vivian Le [00:04:23] Actually, Beverly Hills Internet was doing okay at first. It was starting to get some visitors to its website. But John and David found it difficult to get the kind of sustainable traffic that they really wanted, mostly because of one huge early ’90s problem.
Bryant Gumble [00:04:38] What is internet anyway?
Katie Couric [00:04:39] Internet is that massive computer network–the one that’s becoming really big now.
Bryant Gumble [00:04:45] What do you mean that it’s big? What? Do you write to it like mail?
Katie Couric [00:04:48] Alison, can you explain what internet is?
Roman Mars [00:04:52] A lot of people didn’t really get what internet was.
David Bohnett [00:04:55] Nobody really understood at the time what it meant to create a worldwide web of these kinds of connections, where all computers were talking with one another and sharing information. So, I had the challenge of both trying to explain to my friends what I was trying to do and the wider world at the same time.
Vivian Le [00:05:16] Even though today the internet is woven into our everyday lives, it wasn’t that long ago that people had to make this enormous leap from a world with essentially no internet to trying to conceptualize what a globally connected computer network meant or what they would even do with it. Before search engines like Google or social networks or apps, the web seemed like this confusing, nebulous blob of information. It was a strange new technology that was hard to wrap our brains around.
Roman Mars [00:05:46] Because David ran an internet company, his business depended on users having some grasp of what the internet was. So, it was his challenge to get people comfortable on the web.
David Bohnett [00:05:58] We need to develop–we need to come up with something more.
Roman Mars [00:06:01] He needed a hook.
Vivian Le [00:06:03] And one day in 1994, it just came to him. His hosting site didn’t need a technological innovation. It needed a conceptual one. Users needed a new way of navigating the web. So, he sketched out a plan to make his website feel more like a real neighborhood.
David Bohnett [00:06:20] You’d go through what was a two-dimensional representation of a neighborhood, where you would see streets and blocks, you would see icons that represented houses, and you would actually pick an address that you wanted to create your website. And you had a sense that you were joining a neighborhood.
Vivian Le [00:06:39] David didn’t want people to think of the web as something you logged on to, but more like a physical place to dwell in, like a house. When you signed up for a new webpage, that webpage was your house in an online community of your choosing. This was all a new frontier, and you were, in a way, a virtual homesteader. David and his team were endowing users with a sense of digital manifest destiny, one virtual neighborhood at a time.
Roman Mars [00:07:04] It was such a revolutionary idea that David and his partner decided to chuck out the whole Beverly Hills internet name and change their company to something that fully leaned into the spatial metaphor they were creating. They called it GeoCities.
James Crawford [00:07:20] The story of GeoCities is just a fantastic parallel for a real building–for something that was conceived of and created to model real life but in the domain of cyberspace, and which ultimately had a catastrophic and dramatic fall in the end.
Vivian Le [00:07:38] This is James Crawford, the author of Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings. GeoCities was not a physical place, but he included it in his book because the way he sees it, it was inhabited like one.
James Crawford [00:07:51] And that was something that I think GeoCities was really providing, was creating these communities, and then conceptualizing them as places–as places you could go as neighborhoods on the net. So, you could be a citizen of a city, of a country, and you could then be a netizen of somewhere like GeoCities.
Roman Mars [00:08:10] The website was a collection of metropolises, each with their own neighborhoods built around shared interests. There was a region called Heartland, where you could discuss tractor models, or Pettsburgh, where you could talk endlessly about your cats, or in Area 51, you could find page after page after page of fan tributes to Dana Scully.
Vivian Le [00:08:32] As soon as David established the spatialized version of the web, GeoCities really began to click for people. David remembers how in the early days, he set up a little alert to go off any time someone registered for a new account.
David Bohnett [00:08:44] So I’d be sitting in my office, and it’d go, “Ding!” And someone would say, “What’s that?” And I would say, “Well, somebody just registered for their own page of GeoCities.” And they said, “Oh, that’s cool.” Then it would go, “Ding!”
Roman Mars [00:08:57] And then it really started to take off.
David Bohnett [00:08:59] Ultimately, it was just nonstop. “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” I mean, it was just really, really exciting. You know, this is happening a lot. And so of course, I turned it off because it was too disruptive.
Vivian Le [00:09:15] David wanted users who built their web pages in GeoCities to feel like part of a community–that no matter how obscure their interests were, they could find a neighbor who felt just as passionately as they did about Star Trek or 12th Century Norse mythology.
David Bohnett [00:09:29] I think a lot of that comes from my own experiences as a gay man, coming out, meeting other lesbian and gay people, and understanding the power of meeting others of your own identity.
James Crawford [00:09:44] I think people came to it with more open minds and less desire to be performative in how they were interacting online.
Roman Mars [00:09:54] It was this fleeting moment when users seemed more interested in making human connections and honest self-expression than in cultivating a web persona. They just wanted to build something. They wanted to build something dedicated… to Dana Scully.
David Bohnett [00:10:12] I was looking to give everybody the tools to create their own content and celebrate the terrific diversity, richness, and tapestry of content created by users.
Vivian Le [00:10:24] There were, of course, some limitations to user generated content. GeoCities was a website that was built by amateurs. And it showed.
Roman Mars [00:10:33] The color palettes of most GeoCities pages seemed like they were chosen randomly or maybe even chosen with the intention of making them illegible, like neon green text over a neon yellow background.
Vivian Le [00:10:44] There were “under construction” signs, twinkling star backgrounds, grainy low-res family photos, “welcome to my home page” gifs.
Roman Mars [00:10:53] Or gifs of dancing babies.
David Bohnett [00:10:55] You know, it was the Wild West–just different styles and different page layouts and different menus bars and even, you know, experimenting with menus and pages that were only menus.
James Crawford [00:11:06] There was an absolute obsession with comic sans font. You know, all these kind of things–flashing gifs–all these things that almost feel like a kind of early vomit of the internet.
Roman Mars [00:11:19] Looking back through the lens of the flat design and minimalism that came after, it’s hard to click through these pages without having a chuckle. It was a whole lot messier and much more chaotic, but the pages built on GeoCities reflected this amazing moment when people were attempting to figure out what the internet was and what it could be.
James Crawford [00:11:38] It’s this beginning of the creation of web culture. And that’s what’s so interesting. It’s the beginning of personal website. It’s translating your life–who you are–and putting it online.
Roman Mars [00:11:53] By 1998, GeoCities was the third most visited website on the internet, just after Yahoo! In fact, Yahoo! was so impressed with GeoCities rapid ascent that they bought the company from David.
Vivian Le [00:12:08] Executives at GeoCities believed that combining forces with Yahoo! would put the website on steroids. But that wasn’t what most GeoCities users wanted.
David Bohnett [00:12:18] Users had legitimate concerns that, you know, GeoCities will lose its independence and its identity, which is ultimately what happened.
Vivian Le [00:12:30] After the purchase, GeoCities users woke up to a notice saying they had to re-register, granting Yahoo the rights to…
Roman Mars [00:12:37] “The royalty-free perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensing right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative reports from, distribute, perform, and display such content in whole or in part, worldwide and or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.”
Vivian Le [00:12:50] Meaning all of the content on the website would now be owned by Yahoo!
James Crawford [00:12:55] Many threatened to leave the city in protest, and as a result of that, Yahoo! actually agreed to alter their terms of service. It was, though, the first real sign of unrest in the city. If you like, it was the moment that signaled just the very beginning of the end.
Vivian Le [00:13:14] It was the beginning of the end not just for GeoCities but for a ton of internet companies around the web. The dot-com bubble had been rapidly inflating throughout the late ’90s because investors were pouring money into internet startups left and right and just crossing their fingers that one day, they’d be profitable. There was actually a mantra that you weren’t a successful dot-com company unless you were losing money. By the year 2001, the bubble had burst and corporations like Yahoo! were losing their footing.
Roman Mars [00:13:44] The internet was starting to change fast. Up until this point, a lot of users have been working in a static entry level version of the internet. It was more homemade, identifiable by those vibrant personal pages, hand-built by users. It’s where GeoCities had thrived.
Vivian Le [00:14:00] But by the time the new millennium rolled around, the internet was evolving into a whole new experience. This internet was based around interactive social networking sites. You would punch in your name, age, and relationship status, and the site would spit out a manicured profile page. Users were encouraged to write on each other’s walls, tag, and comment. GeoCities had created this great spatial metaphor to help people understand the web, but users were outgrowing that metaphor.
Roman Mars [00:14:28] Having a GeoCities page began to feel embarrassing to a lot of users, which is basically a death sentence for any platform.
Jimmy Fallon [00:14:36] I got to check my GeoCities account.
James Crawford [00:14:51] I suppose, because we’re so close to it and we know the people who created these–you know, maybe they’re our parents, maybe they’re our older brothers or sisters–we don’t necessarily respect it.
Vivian Le [00:15:08] Yahoo! stocks started to plummet shortly after it bought GeoCities. And year after year, the site was losing more users. From a business perspective, GeoCities seemed like dead weight.
James Crawford [00:15:21] July 2009, they send what they call a “service announcement.” And all it says is that GeoCities is closing, and all files are going to be deleted from servers and will not be recoverable.
Roman Mars [00:15:34] GeoCities was about to be completely wiped out, as if it had never existed.
James Crawford [00:15:38] You know, even if you look at something like the dropping of a nuclear bomb, that still leaves ruins–it still leaves people. You know, those people can then grow something from the ashes. This is an absolute existential deletion of existence. You know, it is just taken, and it is gone.
Vivian Le [00:15:58] This was the wholesale destruction of a website that changed the way that people looked at the internet. A lot of people believe that these pages deserved to be saved.
Roman Mars [00:16:07] And a handful of people decided to actually do something about it.
Jason Scott [00:16:12] There’s this sense always that, like, the web is permanent. Like, if you do something terrible, it’s on the internet forever. And if you have one embarrassing photo and someone shares it, it’ll never go away. And I’m here to tell you that now, it’ll probably all go away.
Vivian Le [00:16:32] This is Jason Scott. Jason actually has a few roles. He’s a digital archivist, historian, software curator, Angel of Death.
Jason Scott [00:16:40] So the reason I’m known as the Angel of Death is because I have successfully let people know that when a certain kind of situation happens, call Jason Scott.
Vivian Le [00:16:51] The situation is that a website is on the brink of its demise and all of its digital information is about to be lost forever. Jason’s job is to swoop in and download all of that data before it’s gone for good. And like the Angel of Death, Jason’s face is the last thing that a dying website sees before it’s gone for good.
Roman Mars [00:17:11] Back in 2009, before he became the go-to Savior of the Web, Jason was noticing more and more that old school hosting services like GeoCities were going dark. He couldn’t stop thinking about all the user generated content that was being destroyed in the process.
Jason Scott [00:17:27] The one that still haunts me is this woman who in 1994 made an entire website in HTML about her child who had died when he was two. And she’s got a little, you know, candle gif and a little midi song playing in the background. And this was her story.
Roman Mars [00:17:46] Jason wanted to make sure sites like GeoCities and their data weren’t just erased. So, he connected with a group of like-minded digital preservation enthusiasts scattered around the world, and they drafted a plan.
Jason Scott [00:17:58] Somebody should come in. There should be an A-Team, an archive team, that rushes in and makes a copy. Wouldn’t that be something? So, we announced that we are Archive Team. We’re going to rescue your (bleep). And that was our slogan. We’re going to rescue your (bleep).
Vivian Le [00:18:15] Archive Team decided their mission was to keep an eye out for websites in danger of being shut down. The ones that they say are on death watch and download every piece of data they could before that site goes dark. Their goal is to preserve digital heritage no matter how small. In their first project, GeoCities.
Jason Scott [00:18:33] For us, it was worth it because we hate Yahoo!
Vivian Le [00:18:36] But it wasn’t solely about saying up yours to Yahoo! Okay, well, that was a very big part of it. But it was also about something bigger.
Jason Scott [00:18:46] I also wanted people to kind of get knocked in the head about the impermanence of digital information–that it was both brittle and easily lost, but also with a little bit of care, easily saved and kept.
Roman Mars [00:19:01] Archive Team had a dual mission. In addition to preserving things, they also want us to understand that digital information is fragile. The profiles you build on any social media site, the videos you upload to YouTube–they all exist out of your hands and on some corporation’s servers, and they can vanish at any given moment.
Jason Scott [00:19:22] They have no idea that it can literally disappear in a week or a day. And there’s an error, and it’s gone. And I get to see that over and over and over again. I’m delighted that they’re making these worlds, and I’m cynical about how long they last.
Roman Mars [00:19:44] Yahoo! had hinted in early 2009 that it would be closing down the service sometime later that year. So, GeoCities could have maybe a few months or a few days. Archive Team got to work immediately, trying to recruit as many people as possible to help with what Jason referred to as “GeoCities-download-a-palooza.”
Jason Scott [00:20:04] I started using whatever social media capital I had at the time, and about 200, I think, 300 people in total came in, and it was really lumpy.
Vivian Le [00:20:16] They had their computers crawling Yahoo! servers to pull out any piece of public GeoCities data they could get.
Jason Scott [00:20:22] And we were just doing it day in and day out and saying, “Okay, who wants to take this part over? Who wants to do this part? Let’s look for this. Let’s do searches on the web for every noun in the dictionary.” Try to find every GeoCities site that mentions any noun, then try to compile them into a unique set, and then assign it to people to download.
Vivian Le [00:20:44] Then on October 26th, 2009, after six months of work, the day they all dreaded finally came. Archive Team watched from their respective computers as the digital city slowly went offline for good. Jason said that watching Yahoo! pull the plug was like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Jason Scott [00:21:03] It is exactly like shutting down HAL. And we will be like, “This set has gone down. They’ve now powered down this server. They’ve now powered down this server.”
Vivian Le [00:21:15] Archive Team was still working as fast as possible to grab whatever GeoCities data was left while the servers went dark one by one.
Jason Scott [00:21:22] We’re like, “Here it goes. We just lost this one. We just lost this one. Keep going, keep going.” And we’re just going until finally it’s just not responding meaningfully at all. I mean, that’s pretty much the ending of every one of these stories–us packing up the boxes, putting them on the pallets. So, it’s this pride that we got the job done, but it really feels like we lifted a piano up 20 stories and then took it down again, you know, 20 minutes later, like, “Yep, we are good piano movers.”
Roman Mars [00:21:53] But it wasn’t all for nothing. In the end, Archive Team managed to extract a terabyte of data from GeoCities. And as it turns out, there were multiple parallel projects that were downloading GeoCities data. A lot of them have sent their data to Jason for safekeeping. Altogether, Archive Team saved more than a million accounts from deletion.
Vivian Le [00:22:15] Archive Team wanted to bring some attention to their work. So, they took all of that GeoCities data they’d preserved, and they turned it into a torrent on the Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay is generally used for illegally downloading games, movies, and software, so no one really saw this coming.
Jason Scott [00:22:32] We were like, “We have the hottest new ware for you. Here’s GeoCities.” And it was the largest torrent at its time. It broke everything. And when it got uncompressed, it turned out Windows machines couldn’t handle it. People were furious because it’s terrible. “Why am I doing this? It’s telling me I have, you know, 19 months to download. Surely, it’s some sort of top secret, you know, allocation of information of the darkest parts of the web.” And it’s like, “No, it’s cats. And it’s lots of rock and roll fan sites. And it’s families telling you that they’re going to have a barbecue.”
Roman Mars [00:23:18] Jason wasn’t sure what people would actually do with the GeoCities data, but that really wasn’t his concern. He just wanted to make sure that it was safe and available to anyone who wanted it. And maybe if he was lucky, something useful would come out of it down the line.
Jason Scott [00:23:33] I long ago got out of the argument of “What good is this?”
Vivian Le [00:23:37] Actually, a number of people have downloaded the GeoCities torrent and have made some really cool projects with that data. A good amount of GeoCities pages have been restored, and you can browse through them online.
Roman Mars [00:23:49] Since saving GeoCities, Jason and the Archive Team have preserved a number of dying websites around the internet, from Yahoo! Groups to Justin.tv. It’s all accessible on a digital archive called Wayback Machine, where you can find over 477 billion saved web pages. The Wayback Machine was founded by the Internet Archive, where Jason Scott is now an archivist.
Vivian Le [00:24:13] A lot of time and energy went into rescuing GeoCities, along with a ton of other archaic sites from this generation of the web. But I want to be clear, none of this was salvaged as examples of how well the web worked back in the day. No one needs more Netscape Now buttons or Backstreet Boys fan pages. I think for good on Backstreet Boys fan pages. The point is these archives should be studied because our web history is our history, no matter how goofy it might appear.
Roman Mars [00:24:44] If the internet’s history were sketched to look like the March of Progress–a famous illustration charting human evolution with an ape on one side and a man on the other–GeoCities would be, like, that third guy from the right and a little hairy, a little clumsy, but definitely an important link that made us what we are today.
James Crawford [00:25:03] It’s not necessarily art, but it’s absolutely culture.
Vivian Le [00:25:07] James Crawford again.
James Crawford [00:25:09] You know, this is what we’ve always done as humans. You know, going back to the earliest marks we put on the caves, is you’re presented with a surface and what do you do with it? How do you mark it? How do you represent who you are on that space? And, you know, a number of people have made this comparison between the kind of cave paintings of Lascaux and what was happening on GeoCities. And it seems like a bizarre, almost absurd comparison to make. But actually, if we fast forward another 10,000 years and look back, that’s absolutely what it was. It was people grappling with the new technology and how to represent their humanity in that space.
Vivian Le [00:25:50] You can imagine thousands of years from now, past the boundary of the cringey recent past, to a future human, dusting off an old PC desktop from 1997, finding a GeoCities torrent, and taking an anthropological exploration of what’s inside.
Jason Scott [00:26:07] So the first thing they’re going to do is just waste a week trying to figure out if they’re getting the colors wrong. Like, they’re going to look at these backgrounds, and they’re going to be like, “This is objectively illegible.” And they’re going to check the specs and go, “Nope. Those people had no taste. What was going on there?” And the answer was: The sky was the limit. So why not yellow on pink? Why not blinking text, saying that this is your home page, and then an animated gif with three frames of a waving Care Bear right next to your description of, you know, love for Jesus.”
Vivian Le [00:26:46] This future person is going to discover a tiny window of web history where people were trying their best to chart a course through completely unknown territory–where users took chances and weren’t ashamed to look a little messy, garish, or hopeful.
Jason Scott [00:27:02] They’re going to see this boundless joy of people who are unfettered by feeling that they have to sell themselves to present their best faces. And they’ll see a lot of lies, a lot of truth, a lot of honesty. But it’s going to come from a person talking to you because GeoCities made it easy to work in the code of the web, but it didn’t teach you to be a performer. So that’s what they’re going to find. And they’re not going to believe it. They’re going to assume this was all a trick. Nobody could be this nice. Nobody could be this forward. No one could be this personal. But they were.
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Jeff Guo [00:31:20] What is actually going on with the economy nowadays? The price of gas. Inflation. Are we in a recession? I’m Jeff Guo, co-host of NPR’s Planet Money. Come along with our super team of econ experts as we delve into the stories that show you how the world really works. That’s Planet Money, from NPR.
Roman Mars [00:31:43] So we’re back with Vivian, who brought us that story about GeoCities. Hey, Viv.
Vivian Le [00:31:47] Hello. How are you?
Roman Mars [00:31:48] I’m good. I’m good. So, one of the reasons why we do these codas is we have all this stuff that’s on the cutting room floor that doesn’t quite fit into the story but is so good that we just want to talk about it. So, let’s talk about it.
Vivian Le [00:32:00] So something that we kind of alluded to in the main piece but didn’t really spend a lot of time getting into was the afterlife of the GeoCities data that was saved by Archive Team. So, we kind of focused on, like, the life, death, and preservations of GeoCities. But we didn’t really dip into what people have done with it afterwards because the story kind of felt complete on its own. But there’s a lot there.
Roman Mars [00:32:21] Right, right. So, what are people making with this GeoCities data?
Vivian Le [00:32:24] Probably one of my favorite projects is this website called cameronsworld.net, which was created by this web designer named Cameron Askin. And I don’t really know how to describe it other than saying it’s like everything that the Space Jam website wishes it was like. I really don’t know how to explain it, but it’s just a really cool way to kind of click through and view old GeoCities pages. And, like, there’s this theme song that loops around that’s been playing in my head for, like, the last two months. It’s great, so you should definitely look at it. Mm hmm. Another website that’s worth checking out is called deletedcity.net, which is this awesome interactive map created by a designer named Richard Vijgen, where you could browse through the GeoCities neighborhoods as if they were neighborhoods on a city grid. So, it’s really cool to be able to zoom in and see it–if it were an actual city, this is what it would look like.
Roman Mars [00:33:13] That’s cool. That’s cool.
Vivian Le [00:33:14] But one project that I really want to talk about is called One Terabyte of the Kilobyte Age. And it was created by two people named Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied. And it’s an archive of almost 400,000 GeoCities pages.
Roman Mars [00:33:28] Wow.
Vivian Le [00:33:28] And I originally spoke with Olia for the piece because she had this really interesting relationship with GeoCities in the old web because she was a webmaster and web design professor back in the mid-’90s. And she told me that she used to save web pages like the ones in GeoCities so she could show her students examples of, like, how not to build a good web page.
Roman Mars [00:33:49] Like, don’t use twinkling star backgrounds or a million different colors or those under-construction signs that are never taken off.
Vivian Le [00:33:57] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, “Don’t do this.” But, you know, she said that she was noticing the shift from, you know, Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 in real time towards the end of late ’90s and the beginning of the early 2000s because it was getting a lot harder for her to find the twinkling star backgrounds or the “welcome to my home page” gifs.
Roman Mars [00:34:17] You mean home page gifs.
Vivian Le [00:34:21] Gifs. Gifs. We’re not going to start this right now.
Roman Mars [00:34:24] Okay, keep going.
Vivian Le [00:34:26] You know, because she started seeing that they’re, like, disappearing, she really started to study these things and, like, really love the design of the early web because of what it represented.
Olia Lialina [00:34:35] Because of very pragmatic reasons, I started to collect them–just, you know, save graphics. And it was not because I thought at the time that you should archive the web, or it can have some historic significance. But then I realized that it’s not just that some funny websites are disappearing, but visions of how the World Wide Web should be–they are getting changed.
Vivian Le [00:35:03] So when the GeoCities torrent got released on the Pirate Bay, Olia and Dragan immediately downloaded it and have been studying it ever since. But what I really like about the work that they’re doing is that this is not a nostalgic exercise. They’re really looking at what these early web elements can teach us about our relationship with the web in the ’90s and early 2000s. Like, if you look at something like the under-construction sign, for example.
Olia Lialina [00:35:28] Under-construction sign–it’s not just a funny picture, it’s not just a symbol for the old website. But I tried to explain what does it mean exactly? Why is it important?
Vivian Le [00:35:38] So basically the under-construction sign was a symbol for this moment when the web was being hand-built by amateur users. And there was this general acceptance that a website could be a work in progress. Like, you could take your time, and it was okay for people to get a glimpse of the building process before it was finished. But that all changed with the introduction of Web 2.0 because more professional web designers were taking over, and big social networking sites were taking over.
Olia Lialina [00:36:04] Under-construction sign was really the first one that professional designers started to remove from the websites because how can it be that something is not ready?
Roman Mars [00:36:16] I never thought about that before. Like, the disappearance of the under-construction sign really signaled this move towards a kind of corporate version of the internet.
Vivian Le [00:36:24] Yeah, that’s what Olia believes. And, like, this is just one aspect of how GeoCities is being studied. But I thought this was cool because projects like this basically show that it’s possible to apply some sort of, like, archeological lens to this website that a lot of people wrote off as useless.
Roman Mars [00:36:41] Yeah. I mean, it really makes sense to me. I mean, they would tell us what we were thinking at the time–that you needed to put up a site so badly, like within 10 minutes, that you had to put an under-construction sign on there. But you might take with it, or you might just leave it, you know? Like, why not?
Vivian Le [00:36:58] Yeah, exactly. At this time, who cared?
Roman Mars [00:36:59] Yeah, why not? So, tell me her project’s name again.
Vivian Le [00:37:03] So it’s called One Terabyte of the Kilobyte Age.
Roman Mars [00:37:06] That’s such a good name. I mean, people should definitely check that out because it’s like they’ll have a whole new appreciation for under-construction signs and what we think of as ugly graphics that really made the web what it is today.
Vivian Le [00:37:20] Yes, exactly.
Roman Mars [00:37:22] The whole time that we were putting this piece together, I was reminded of this story that I did originally for Snap Judgment–but we played it online 99PI before–about, you know, the destruction of an online community, which was also, you know, a really sad story in many ways. And so, I wanted to just, like, attach it here to play it for you.
Vivian Le [00:37:44] Yay. I love this story.
Roman Mars [00:37:45] Here it is. A few months before the end of the world, Paul Monaco posted this message on YouTube.
Paul Monaco [00:37:54] Hello, everyone. Paul Monaco here–Buddha Paul as most of you know me as. You probably all heard the news–EA-Land/The Sims Online closing down.
Roman Mars [00:38:07] The world that was ending was called The Sims Online. It was an online version of one of the most popular computer games ever made.
Paul Monaco [00:38:14] You’ve all been wonderful. You’ve helped me through a hard time in my life when I first got online.
Roman Mars [00:38:20] But ironically, the online version of The Sims was not very popular. They ended up losing tons of subscribers and changing the name to EA-Land, and then they finally pulled the plug.
Paul Monaco [00:38:31] Thank you. And please, let’s just try to stay in touch. And if not, good luck with whatever you choose to do and move on to.
Roman Mars [00:38:45] As you can probably hear, EA-Land was not a normal video game. There were no monsters and no killing. And although it had some competitive elements, for many players, competition wasn’t the point at all.
Robert Ashley [00:38:57] Unlike a lot of other games where you might be shooting people or slaying dragons or something, this is a game about socializing.
Roman Mars [00:39:04] That’s Robert Ashley.
Robert Ashley [00:39:05] I’m Robert Ashley.
Roman Mars [00:39:06] He produces a very popular and fantastic internet radio show that’s been on a very long hiatus.
Robert Ashley [00:39:12] I’m the creator of A Life Well Wasted.
Roman Mars [00:39:14] A Life Well wasted.
Robert Ashley [00:39:15] It’s about video games and the people who love them.
Roman Mars [00:39:18] And EA-Land was a video game that a dedicated few absolutely loved.
Robert Ashley [00:39:23] The crowd that it attracted, I think, were people who just wanted to get together and sort of chat–meet strangers.
Roman Mars [00:39:29] It was a nice place.
Robert Ashley [00:39:31] Over time, it became a kind of intimate, almost bar–the Cheers of video games.
Roman Mars [00:39:37] Where everyone knows your name. And at the moment that Paul Monaco–a.k.a. Buddha Paul–found EA-Land, it was exactly what he needed most.
Paul Monaco [00:39:50] My wife had a long-term illness. She had blood transfusions. She had hepatitis C. And the last three years or so of her life were pretty much a challenge for her–well, for both of us. And after she passed away, I had absolutely no function other than to wake up, go to work, and go to sleep again. With her illness, I didn’t get out and socialize much. We weren’t able to, you know, go out to the bars, meet up with friends, and have dinner. I totally dissocialized myself. And this game was kind of a way for me to just kind of get back into living again. It was pretty amazing.
Roman Mars [00:40:31] And Paul began to live for EA-Land. He would play it for hours and hours. It was the first thing he did when he got home from work.
Paul Monaco [00:40:37] You’re treated to a big, warm greeting. Everyone would say “hi,” your IMs would be beeping along, and you’d be taken with them. It made you feel really good.
Roman Mars [00:40:49] It wasn’t the real world, but his friends were real friends. And virtual worlds do have an upside.
Paul Monaco [00:40:56] Your race, your color, your religion–all that can be totally masked, and you’re truly judged on who you really are and how you present yourself. There’s no prejudices, no preconceived anything. It’s just you’re really taken at face value.
Robert Ashley [00:41:12] People could really, like, break loose, be themselves, and have some fun.
Paul Monaco [00:41:16] It just feels really good.
Roman Mars [00:41:21] But Paul’s utopia didn’t last because EA-Land started hemorrhaging money. The writing was on the wall. The server was about to go dark. And this event–this virtual apocalypse–might only exist in the memory of the players if it weren’t for Dr. Henry Lowood.
Robert Ashley [00:41:37] I had just stumbled across this project by Henry Lowood
Henry Lowood [00:41:42] My name is Henry Lowood.
Robert Ashley [00:41:43] Who is this archival researcher at Stanford.
Henry Lowood [00:41:46] And I had a project called How They Got Game, which is on the history of digital games and simulations.
Robert Ashley [00:41:53] Saving video games for future generations.
Henry Lowood [00:41:56] You know, 50, 100, 200 years from now–how are we going to save that history?
Robert Ashley [00:41:59] You know, like, we’ve got to save the video games.
Roman Mars [00:42:02] So Dr. Lowood and his colleagues preserve what happens inside video games. Now, for a single player game–like Pac-Man, for example–this is easy. You effectively take out the Atari cartridge and put it on the shelf. But saving multiplayer online games is not so simple.
Henry Lowood [00:42:19] Saving the software alone is kind of a barren exercise.
Roman Mars [00:42:22] If you save the code for a game and turn it on 100 years from now, you enter a world, and nothing would be there. All the things that Paul Monaco and his friends love would be impossible to find.
Henry Lowood [00:42:33] You need to document what people are doing in these spaces. That situation is much more like what a historian or an archivist would do when faced with the problem of documenting the real world.
Roman Mars [00:42:45] So when Dr. Lowood caught wind of EA-Land shutting down, he had the opportunity to record something a historian or archeologist would die to witness firsthand in the real world.
Robert Ashley [00:42:56] See what it would be like when an online world came to an end.
Henry Lowood [00:43:01] What happens when a virtual world closes?
Roman Mars [00:43:03] The end of a culture.
Henry Lowood [00:43:05] What is it like to be there in the last minute and when it shuts down?
Roman Mars [00:43:09] So the tape is rolling, and the last few hours of EA-Land are being recorded. And the most dedicated die-hard users are there, exchanging virtual hugs and reminiscing. The players are typing messages that appear like comic book word bubbles. You hear all these avatars crying. And you also hear all the coos, moans, and the gibberish language of the game known as Simlish.
Robert Ashley [00:43:31] And, you know, they sound like they’re going to be bombed and everything, but it’s not like a big pity party. But then toward the end of the night, there’s this radio station that you can listen to in the game called Charmed Radio. And they had this deejay there named Spike. He is sort of the only voice that you end up hearing at the end of the world.
Roman Mars [00:43:52] And as soon as he starts talking, you understand what is being lost.
Spike [00:43:59] Hey, guys. This is the last time that you’re going to hear me speak. Well, the last time before TSI goes down. I just want to thank you all. It’s been an amazing experience, it really has. I told myself that I won’t make myself cry but I can’t stress enough how much you guys have meant to me over the past how many years it’s been. It has really been awesome and [cries] some people don’t get attached to things, but now when you make friends with the people loving this game, it’s actually really hard. So, I’m going to play the last song. It’s Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli, ‘Time to Say Goodbye.’ Hopefully, you guys will keep in touch, my Yahoo ID is [beep]. Good luck in life everybody and best wishes. I love you all and it has been great knowing you. Take care guys, and I just also want to have a little drink, let’s propose a toast. To Parizad who’s been absolutely amazing. Parizad, we couldn’t have done this without you. Thank you.
Paul Monaco [00:45:20] You get this feeling like being on the deck of the Titanic.
Henry Lowood [00:45:24] Anyone who actually stayed to the end is very much invested in the game on an emotional level.
Roman Mars [00:45:31] When they pulled the plug on the server, bits and pieces of the world started disappearing. The environment began to disintegrate. The texture on the trees flickered. And all the people froze and blinked out of existence.
Henry Lowood [00:45:46] The actual ending was, you know, not with a bang, with a whimper.
Robert Ashley [00:45:51] And the last thing that they saw was basically just an error message–a server disconnect message.
Roman Mars [00:46:06] And then… the world ended. That story was originally produced for the great public radio show Snap Judgment in 2010, based off a story from the podcast A Life Well Wasted, which, after a nine-year hiatus, released a new episode at the end of 2022. It was marvelous to have it back. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Vivian Le. Original episode mixed by Bryson Barnes. Remixed by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Kelly Prime, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Olia Lialina. You can find a link to her project One Terabyte of the Kilobyte Age on our website. James Crawford’s book is called Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings. GeoCities is just one small section of that book. There are a ton of other fascinating stories about lost and ruined buildings. We’ll have a link to that as well. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org. Stitcher! If you like getting the best of everything, then check out T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is bigger than AT&T and Verizon’s combined. So, it’s no wonder they have the most National 5G Network Awards ever. Not only does T-Mobile have a great network, but their plans are packed full of incredible extras. Customers can get a value of over $225 in benefits every single month on their MAX family plans. Benefits like travel perks and your favorite streaming services all included, which is very, very nice. Who says you can’t have it all? With T-Mobile, you don’t have to choose between a great network or great value. Find out more at t-mobile.com/seewhy. That’s seewhy. Qualifying service and capable device required. $225 is based on the retail value of available monthly benefits with MAX.
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