The Lost Cities of Geo

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[DIAL-UP MODEM TONE]

Roman Mars:
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 and 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:
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:
That’s millennial producer Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
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 or Twitter or 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:
I first heard about the internet-

Vivian Le:
This is David Bohnett.

David Bohnett:
I was reading a magazine, I think PC World or something like that. And I just thought, “Oh, this just sounds amazing.”

Vivian Le:
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:
David and his business partner, a guy named John Rezner, decided in order to be a part of this digital revolution, they would found any 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 webpage. And the company would host those pages on its servers.

Vivian Le:
And because their office was based in Beverly Hills, the name of their company: Beverly Hills Internet.

David Bohnett:
It will go down as having one of the worst names in history.

Vivian Le:
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.

[TODAY SHOW ARCHIVE CLIP]

BRYANT GUMBLE: What is internet anyway?

KATIE COURIC: Internet is that massive computer network. The one that’s becoming really big now.

BRYANT GUMBLE: What do you mean that’s big? What? Do you write to it like mail?

KATIE COURIC: Alison, can you explain what internet is?

Roman Mars:
A lot of people didn’t really get what internet was.

David Bohnett:
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, both trying to explain to my friends what I was trying to do and the wider world at the same time.

Vivian Le:
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:
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:
We need to develop… we need to come up with something more.

Roman Mars:
He needed a hook.

Vivian Le:
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:
You would go through what was a two-dimensional representation of a neighborhood where you would see streets and blocks and 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:
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, 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:
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:
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:
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:
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 can then be a netizen of somewhere like GeoCities.

Roman Mars:
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:
As soon as David established this 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 anytime someone registered for a new account.

David Bohnett:
So I’d be sitting in my office and it would go ding. [DING] And someone would say, “What’s that?” And I would say, “Well, somebody just registered for their own page at GeoCities.” And they said, “Oh, that’s cool.” Then it would go ding. [DING]

Roman Mars:
And then it really started to take off.

David Bohnett:
Ultimately it would be just nonstop. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. It was really, really exciting. I would start to hear like… [DING DING DING DING DING]. This is happening a lot and so of course I turned it off because it was too disruptive.

Vivian Le:
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:
I think a lot of that comes from my own experiences as a gay man and coming out and meeting other lesbian and gay people and understanding the power of meeting others of your own identity.

James Crawford:
I think people came to it with more open minds and less desire to be performative in how they were interacting online.

Roman Mars:
It was this fleeting moment when users seem 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:
I was looking to give everybody the tools to create their own content and celebrate the terrific diversity and richness and tapestry of content created by users.

Vivian Le:
There were, of course, some limitations to user-generated content. GeoCities was a website that was built by amateurs and it showed.

Roman Mars:
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:
There were under construction signs, twinkling star backgrounds, grainy low-res family photos, “Welcome to my Homepage” gifs…

Roman Mars:
Or gifs of dancing babies.

David Bohnett:
It was the wild west, just different styles and different page layouts and different menu bars. And even, experimenting with menus and pages that were only menus.

James Crawford:
There was an absolute obsession with comic-sans font. You know, all these kinds of things. Flashing gifs, all these things that almost feel like a kind of early vomiters of the internet.

Roman Mars:
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:
It’s this beginning of the creation of web culture. And that’s what’s so interesting. It’s the beginning of personal websiteS. It’s translating your life, who you are, and putting it online.

Roman Mars:
By 1998, GeoCities was the third most visited website on the internet, just after Yahoo! [YAHOO!] In fact, Yahoo! was so impressed with GeoCities’ rapid ascent that they bought the company from David.

Vivian Le:
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:
Users had legitimate concerns that GeoCities will lose its independence and its identity, which is ultimately what happened.

Vivian Le:
After the purchase, GeoCities users woke up to a notice saying they had to re-register granting Yahoo! the rights to…

Roman Mars:
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:
Meaning all of the content on the website would now be owned by Yahoo! [YAHOO!]

James Crawford:
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:
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.

Vivian Le:
By the year 2001, the bubble had burst and corporations like Yahoo! were losing their footing.

Roman Mars:
The internet was starting to change fast. Up until this point, a lot of users had been working in 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:
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 and tag and comment. GeoCities had created this great spatial metaphor to help people understand the web, but users were outgrowing that metaphor.

Roman Mars:
Having a GeoCities page began to feel embarrassing to a lot of users, which is basically a death sentence for any platform.

[TONIGHT SHOW ARCHIVE TAPE: I GOT TO CHECK OUT MY GEOCITIES ACCOUNT. HOLD ON. LET ME CRANK UP THE COMPUTER.]

James Crawford:
I suppose, because we’re so close to it and we know the people who created these, maybe they’re our parents, maybe they’re our older brothers or sisters and we don’t necessarily respect it.

Vivian Le:
Yahoo! Stock started to plummet shortly after it bought GeoCities. And year after year, the site was losing more users. From a business perspective, GeoCities seem like dead weight.

James Crawford:
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:
GeoCities was about to be completely wiped out as if it had never existed.

James Crawford:
Even if you look at something like the dropping of a nuclear bomb, that still leaves ruins, it still leaves people. Those people can then grow something from the ashes. This is an absolute existential deletion of existence. It is just taken and it’s gone.

Vivian Le:
This was the wholesale destruction of a website that changed the way that people looked at the internet. A lot of people believed that these pages deserved to be saved.

Roman Mars:
And a handful of people decided to actually do something about it.

Jason Scott:
There’s this sense always that the web is permanent. 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. I’m here to tell you that, no, it’ll probably all go away.

Vivian Le:
This is Jason Scott. Jason actually has a few roles. He’s a digital archivist, historian, software curator… Angel of Death.

Jason Scott:
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:
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:
Back in 2009, before he became the go-to savior of the old 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:
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 candle gif and a little midi song playing in the background. This was her story.

Roman Mars:
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:
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’re Archive Team, we’re going to rescue your (bleep) and that was our slogan: We’re going to rescue your (bleep).

Vivian Le:
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. And their first project, GeoCities.

Jason Scott:
For us, it was worth it because we hate Yahoo!

Vivian Le:
But it wasn’t solely about saying up yours to Yahoo! [YAHOO!] Okay, well that was a very big part of it, but it was also about something bigger.

Jason Scott:
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:
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:
They have no idea that it can literally, literally disappear in a week or a day and it’s just… come to it, there’s an error and it’s gone. 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:
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:
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:
They had their computers crawling Yahoo! servers to pull out any piece of public GeoCities data they could get.

Jason Scott:
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.” And then try to compile them into a unique set and then assign it to people to download.

Vivian Le:
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:
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:
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:
We were 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. That’s pretty much the ending of every one of these stories is us packing up the boxes, putting them on the pallets. So there’s 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 20 minutes later. Like, “Yep, we are good piano movers.”

Roman Mars:
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:
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:
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. Like, “Why am I doing this? It’s telling me I have 19 months to download. Surely it’s some sort of top-secret allocation of information of the darkest parts of the web.” 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:
Jason wasn’t sure of 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:
I long ago got out of the argument of what good is this.

Vivian Le:
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:
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:
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 we’re 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:
If the internet’s history were sketched to look like “The March of Progress,” that 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, a little hairy and a little clumsy, but definitely an important link that made us what we are today.

James Crawford:
It’s not necessarily art, but it’s absolutely culture.

Vivian Le:
James Crawford again.

James Crawford:
This is what we’ve always done as humans, 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 a number of people have made this comparison between the 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 a new technology and how to represent their humanity in that space.

Vivian Le:
You can imagine thousands of years from now, past the boundary of the cringy 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:
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. 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, 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 homepage and then an animated gif with three frames of a waving care bear right next to your description of “Love for Jesus.”

Vivian Le:
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 or garish or hopeful.

Jason Scott:
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.

Roman Mars:
We have another story about a different virtual apocalypse after the break.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So, we’re back with Vivian, who brought us that story about GeoCities. Hey, Viv.

Vivian Le:
Hello. How are you?

Roman Mars:
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 it’s so good that we just want to talk about it. So, well, let’s talk about it.

Vivian Le:
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.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Vivian Le:
So, we kind of focused on the life, death, and preservations of GeoCities, but we didn’t really dip into what people have done with it afterward because the story kind of felt complete on its own, but there’s a lot there.

Roman Mars:
Right, right. So, what are people making with this GeoCities data?

Vivian Le:
So, 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. I don’t even know, 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 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.

Vivian Le:
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 can 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, like if it were an actual city, this is what it would look like.

Roman Mars:
That’s cool. That’s cool.

Vivian Le:
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:
Wow.

Vivian Le:
I originally spoke with Olia for the piece because she had this really interesting relationship with GeoCities and the old web because she was a webmaster and web design professor back in like the mid-’90s. And she told me that she used to save webpages, like the ones in GeoCities, so she could show her students examples of how not to build a good webpage.

Roman Mars:
Like, don’t use twinkling star backgrounds or a million different colors, or those Under Construction signs that are never taken off?

Vivian Le:
Yeah. Like, don’t do this.

Roman Mars:
I see.

Vivian Le:
But she said that she was noticing the shift from web 1.0 to web 2.0 in real-time, towards the end of the 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 Homepage” gifs.

Roman Mars:
You mean homepage gifs?

Vivian Le:
Gifs. Homepage gifs, like do not start this right now.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Keep going.

Vivian Le:
But because she started seeing that they’re disappearing, she really started to study these things, and really love the design of the early web because of what it represented.

Olia Lialina:
Because of very pragmatic reasons, I started to collect them, just 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:
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. If you look at something like the Under Construction sign, for example.

Olia Lialina:
On the 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:
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. 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:
On the construction sign, was really the first one that professional designers started to remove from the website. Because, oh, how can it be that it’s something that’s not ready?

Roman Mars:
Huh? I never thought about that before. The disappearance of the Under Construction sign really signaled this move towards a kind of corporate version of the internet.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. That’s what Olia believes. And 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 archeological lens to this website that a lot of people wrote off as useless.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, it totally makes sense to me. I mean, that it 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 tinker with it or you might just leave it. Why not?

Vivian Le:
Yeah, exactly. Who cares? This time, who cared?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Why not? So, tell me her project’s name again.

Vivian Le:
So, it’s called One Terabyte of the Kilobyte Age.

Roman Mars:
That’s such a good name.

Vivian Le:
I love it.

Roman Mars:
I mean, people should definitely check that out because I mean, 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:
Yes, exactly.

Roman Mars:
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 on 99PI before, about the destruction of an online community, which was also a really sad story, in many ways. And so, I wanted to just attach it here, to play it for you, so you can hear it.

Vivian Le:
Yay. I love this story.

Roman Mars:
Here it is.

Roman Mars:
A few months before the end of the world, Paul Monaco posted this message on YouTube.

Paul Monaco:
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:
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:
You’ve all been wonderful. You helped me through a hard time in my life when I first got online.

Roman Mars:
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:
Thank you. And please, let’s try to stay in touch. And if not, good luck with whatever you choose to do and move on to.

Roman Mars:
As you can probably hear, EA-Land was not a normal video game. There were no monsters, no killing. And although it had some competitive elements, for many players, competition wasn’t the point at all.

Robert Ashley:
Unlike a lot of other games where you might be shooting people or slaying dragons or something, this was a game about socializing.

Roman Mars:
That’s Robert Ashley.

Robert Ashley:
I’m Robert Ashley.

Roman Mars:
He produces a very popular and fantastic internet radio show that’s been on a very long hiatus.

Robert Ashley:
I’m the creator of A Life Well Wasted.

Roman Mars:
A Life Well Wasted.

Robert Ashley:
It’s about video games and the people who love them.

Roman Mars:
And EA-Land was a video game that a dedicated few absolutely loved.

Robert Ashley:
The crowd that it attracted, I think, were people who just wanted to get together and sort of chat, meet strangers.

Roman Mars:
It was a nice place.

Robert Ashley:
Over time, it became a kind of intimate almost bar, like the Cheers of video games.

Roman Mars:
Where everyone knows your name. And at the moment that Paul Monaco, aka Buddha Paul, found EA-Land, it was exactly what he needed most.

Paul Monaco:
My wife had a long-term illness, from a blood transfusion, 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 go out to the bars and meet up with friends and have dinner. I totally de-socialized 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:
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:
You’re treated to a big warm greeting. Everyone would say hi, and your IMs would be beeping along and you’d be inundated with that. It made you feel really good.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t the real world, but his friends were real friends, and virtual worlds do have an upside.

Paul Monaco:
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 prejudice. There’s no preconceived anything. It’s just, you’re really taken at face value.

Robert Ashley:
People could really break loose and be themselves and have some fun.

Paul Monaco:
It just feels really good.

Roman Mars:
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:
I had just stumbled across this project by Henry Lowood.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
My name is Henry Lowood.

Robert Ashley:
Who was this archival researcher at Stanford.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
And I head a project called How They Got Game, which is on the history of digital games and simulations.

Robert Ashley:
Saving video games for future generations.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
50, 100, 200 years from now, how are we going to save that history?

Robert Ashley:
We’ve got to save the video games.

Roman Mars:
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.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
Saving the software alone is kind of a barren exercise.

Roman Mars:
If you save the code for EA-Land and turn it on a hundred years from now, you’d enter a world and nothing would be there. All the things that Paul Monaco and his friends love would be impossible to find.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
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:
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:
And to see what it would be like when an online world came to an end.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
What happens when a virtual world closes?

Roman Mars:
The end of a culture.

Dr. Henry Lowood:
What is it like to be there in the last minute, and when it shuts down?

Roman Mars:
So, the tape is rolling and the last few hours of EA-Land are being recorded, and the most dedicated diehard 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 and moans and the jibberish language of the game known as Simlish.

Robert Ashley:
And they sound like they’re going to be bummed 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 you in the game called Charmed Radio. And they had this DJ there named Spike. He is the sort of the only voice that you end up hearing at the end of the world.

Roman Mars:
And as soon as he starts talking, you understand what is being lost.

Spike:
Hey, guys. It’s the last time 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. And I told myself I wouldn’t make myself cry, but I can’t stress enough how much you guys have meant to me over the past however many years it’s been. It really has been awesome, and (chokes up) 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) 12345 (beep). 12345. Good luck in life, everybody, and best wishes. I love you all, and that it’s been great knowing you. Take care, guys. And I just want to, even if you haven’t got a drink, just propose a toast to Parizad, who’s been absolutely amazing. Parizad, we couldn’t have done this without you. Thank you.

Paul Monaco:
You get this feeling like being on the deck of the Titanic, and anyone who actually stayed to the end was very much invested in the game on an emotional level.

Roman Mars:
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.

Paul Monaco:
The actual ending was not with a bang but with a whimper.

Robert Ashley:
And the last thing that they saw was basically just an error message, a server disconnect message.

Roman Mars:
And then, the world ended.

Roman Mars:
That story was originally produced for the great public radio show Snap Judgment in 2010.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Vivian Le, mixed by Bryson Barnes, music by Sean Real. Our senior producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
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.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which lives at various places all over North America, but it’s centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can now order the New York Times bestseller, The 99% Invisible City at 99pi.org/book. We’ll have links to purchase it everywhere that you get books, including signed additions from Barnes & Noble, and at various indie bookstores around the country, links to the audiobook. And if you got the book and enjoyed it, review it somewhere. It’s a huge boost to us. Oh, also, if you see it out on display at your local bookstore, tweet me a picture. I usually retweet those, because it’s fun to see them out in the world. For all your other 99PI needs, look no further than 99pi.org

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le spoke with David Bohnett, Founder and CEO of GeoCities, James Crawford, author of Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings; Jason Scott, Free Range Archivist at The Internet Archive, Olia Lialina, internet artist, archivist, and historian.

  1. Denise Schmigelski

    On good thing about all that comic-sans is that it brought sans (without) into use again. I just told my phisiotherapist I got out of bed in the morning sans-stumble. ❤️
    I sort of miss the days of ugly old webpages and feeling like we were sharing for free without fear.

  2. Stacy

    So… does this mean that there might be a backup of my old Geocities site somewhere? How would I find it? It was in the Athens Academy….

  3. Szabi

    Well, not to try to look smart, but I found that 2D spatial analogy really pointless, forced and limiting. I went there in spite of that, not for that. Oh, and because it was free. It was just about the only OK free hosting option for our random garbage at the time.

  4. Seth

    My brother had a website and I remember him showing it to me in like 1998. It didn’t really say anything much but I recalled him being so jazzed that when it (finally) loaded up, it played House of Fun by Madness (Roman knows the song for sure). I actually could not tell it was that song because it was 1998 and music on websites sounded terrible.
    Anyway, he was so proud.

    Save for the Barney the Dinosaur protest webpage, I recall the internet being a far kinder and certainly more forgiving place than it is today.

    Thank you again 99% PI for adding a sliver of positivity back.

  5. Steven

    Is there any consideration about what is now considered private personal data existing in these archives and being shared via the archives? With current technology I’d imagine it would be quite easy to extract email addresses, dates of birth and other forms of identification and potentially use it for online fraud. Back in the day people were not so savvy about keeping this information safe.

  6. Bron

    Great episode, but I just don’t understand why it isn’t called ‘Jason and the Archonauts’.

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