Living and Dying on Geocities

Recently, Geocities announced that they would be shutting down their services later in 2009. In my history on the Web (I’m graduating college this May, if that provides perspective), this is a significant event for Digital Natives.

At least, for the older Digital Natives. Growing up on the Internet in middle school, many of my peers had little if any digital skills. I was lucky enough to grow up with a Macintosh in my house, so I was introduced to programs like kid-targeted graphic tools (in my case, it was Kid Pix, the Photoshop for primary school students) from an early stage. Eventually, I was helping my father navigate financial programs, until we bought a 56k modem while I was in middle school, putting me on the Web through AOL. Most of my time was spent on instant messengers (specifically, AIM) speaking to friends or in AOL chat rooms speaking to strangers (but in fervent discussions about daily minutiae). However, at school, my friends and my homeroom teacher together would browse websites during our morning free period, sharing things that we probably had found in the mailing lists piled up in our inboxes (such as the epic and wonderfully celebrated Hamster Dance).

That sharing introduced me to website creation tools. A couple of my friends had already made their own webpages, and the idea intrigued me to such an extent that I had to copy them. A few of my friends had free webpages hosted by Geocities; because I owned a Mac, and the Geocities software didn’t work on my operating system, I had to settle for‘s services. The key for us middle-schoolers, though, was that we could click a button and suddenly own a webpage, for free. For kids without credits cards, free web services provided the first step toward something other than only consuming information on the Web. My first page attempted to chronicle every possible emoticon I could imagine; ultimately, I failed, but it was a starting point that would propel me to own a number of domains (eg.,, my personal website, or Department of Alchemy, my blog) today.

The importance of websites like Geocities, though, was that it provided Digital Natives — like me — with an outlet for creative expression. I had no Internet skills at that age beyond the ability to use a chat client and browse the Web, so domains, hosting, and even basic coding were initially foreign to me. Still, it’s not that these services provided the outlet; it’s more that Geocities, Homestead, Tripod and many others provided a system for creation. That system had two sides: on one hand, it provided knowledgeable kids with enough space to code a few webpages with basic HTML; on the other hand, if the user wasn’t acquainted with code, a simple and easy-to-use navigator let him or her move around a few objects and text to throw together a page. I had not learned to code until joining Neopets in 2001, through which I taught myself HTML to update my user profile and other personal pages on the site. Once I developed a knowledge of basic Web code, I brought that over to the free webpage services. Copying and pasting existing website’s code into new HTML documents, I tweaked and edited them into my own styles, out of which I continued to build a collection of websites. I’ve tried to find the first webpage I ever created, but it seems that Homestead also threw out its collection of free pages; however, I was able to stumble upon a Geocities website I created at the beginning of high school.

I’ve heard a lot of people online — both adults and fellow Digital Natives — say that they don’t mind the demise of Geocities, because it will eradicate a number of long-forgotten webpages (aka. potential embarrassment). But particularly for Digital Natives around my age, Geocities is one of a number of web services with which we grew up and into which we poured our time. But many new services have come to replace Geocities and similar services. For instance, it’s common for a kid online today to own a blog, probably provided by a free service like WordPress or Tumblr. In the same vein, most younger users of the web maintain presences on Facebook, MySpace, and other websites that specifically foster communities.

My thought, then, is what kind of digital literacy younger Digital Natives possess nowadays. I had to teach myself HTML; perhaps more kids in the past year have been using Dreamweaver. It might even be more possible that kids see HTML as a prerequisite to living on the Web. A number of teens probably don’t even care about webpages, instead focusing on Facebook and similar services, where page customization depends on no previous knowledge of code. There are clear positives and negatives to how the Internet has evolved: less creation in some places, more opportunities for creativity in others (such as YouTube, where a kid can easily record a video on software and the webcam provided on his or her computer and then simply upload the video by making a few clicks). The benefits, of course, have been that services and software have developed quickly, and the diversity of free programs available for modern Digital Natives provides them with much more occasion to think and create.