14 May 2009

Goodbye Geocities

If you go to Geocities web site, this is what you will see: Yahoo! GeoCities: Get a free web site with easy-to-use site building tools:
After careful consideration, we have decided to close GeoCities later this year. We'll share more details this summer. For now, please sign in or visit the help center for more information.

The implications of this are quite serious, because Geocities web sites have hosted a great deal of material and information that has accumulated over the last 14-15 years or so, and which is not available elsewhere. If it is just deleted, some of it may never be available elsewhere.

It also raises more indirect concerns, because some of the other Yahoo services may come under threat as well.

One of the things that is of immediate concern to me is that I maintain several web sites on Geocities. I started my own personal web site there in 1996, nearly 13 years ago.

A couple of years later I started one for the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS). In August 2007 SAMS opened its own web site under its own host, and so the Geocities site became less important. I nevertheless kept it open because many other sites linked to it, and if it were closed, those links would no longer work. There were also articles from previous issues of Missionalia that have not yet been transferred to the new site, though I suppose it might be possible to find a way to transfer them. I also continued to maintain the section on African Independent Churches at the Geocities site, which continues to be used frequently by people looking for information about AICs, many of whom have contacted me by e-mail.

Geocities was one of the very early attempts at social networking on the web. It was also one of the first attempts at free webhosting, supported by advertising. It was divided into "cities", each associated with a particular theme. Most of my pages were hosted at "Athens", where the themes were philosophy, metaphysics, and I thought theology could be fitted in there too, in spite of Tertullian's protest, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" There were other cities too, with themes for literature, music, entertainment, travel and so on.

It was as much about community as about free web hosting. You could go surfing in a city and find similarly themed blogs just by looking at those adjacent to yours. There were city coordinators who encouraged interaction between the webmasters of the various sites.

Geocities flourished, and all kinds of web pages were posted there. Quality varied. You could look at a list of the sites -- my personal one was http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7734 and you could look at the eddresses 7700-7799. Some had icons showing cobwebs, indicating that they hadn't been updated for some time. Others, if you went to them, had icons saying "Under Construction" -- someone had discovered Geocities, thought it would be cool to start a web page, posted the equivalent of a "Hello World" message, and an "Under construction image" and that was it.

But others were amazing sources of information. There were interesting literary essays, histories of towns, schools and other institutions, stories of churches, missions and missionaries, articles and papers on mathematics, history, geology, you name it. There were family trees, often in considerable detail.

Perhaps some of that material will be preserved. The webmasters will find another host, and move it elsewhere, and within a year or two search engines will direct you to the new site. But some of it has been abandoned. The webmasters and the authors of the articles may have died, and it will be tossed on to the scrap heap, never to be seen again.

When Geocities was taken over by Yahoo! it began to deteriorate. The "city" themes were de-emphasised, and eventually dropped altogether. Geocities-Yahoo just became another free webhosting site. Yahoo! (like Google) started as a web search site, and gradually bought up other things that had been started by other people and had worked well. Many of them, when taken over by Yahoo, began to work badly.

One of those was Webrings -- a way of linking web sites with similar themes, as Geocities did, only they did not have to be on the same server. It was working well when Yahoo took it over, and they proceeded to wreck it. Eventually they sold it, or gave it away, to someone who promised to work it properly, but it never really recovered.

They took over eGroups, a public mailing list server, which became YahooGroups. They didn't manage that too badly, and actually made a few improvements. But the closing of Geocities makes one wonder how long YahooGroups will last, because Yahoo has proved increasingly unreliable. They lose things. Sometimes they intend to lose things, like Geocities. But sometimes they just lose them, with no rhyme or reason.

Three years ago yesterday they lost all my personal web pages on Geocities. No warning -- one day they were there, the next they were gone. I blogged about that at the time. When they hadn't reappeared after a couple of days, I moved my personal pages to Bravenet. Moving them was easy -- they're all on my hard disk and I just had to upload them. But getting people to find them was something else. Search engines still showed the Geocities ones, even through they were no longer accessible, and people who had links to the old pages could no longer find them. Two months later, they were back, inexplicably. But I did not update them except to provide links to the new site.

Then my Yahoo login stopped working. I couldn't update the web pages even if I wanted to, and I could not moderate the YagooGroups mailing lists I was moderator of, so spammers started posting spam there, and I was unable to block them. Some of them were academic research forums, like the African Independent Churches and the New Religious mMovements ones, and the spam was a nuisance, but there was nothing I could do about it. Eventually after six months I was able to log into my Yahoo mail again, and kick the spammers off the mailing lists, but all my archived mail on Yahoo! had disappeared, several years' worth.

So I don't trust Yahoo, not at all.

No doubt they are closing down Geocities because it takes up resources and isn't making much money, and times are hard, and Yahoo has probably taken a cut in profits. But in part that is their own fault. They have mismanaged a lot of things, particularly things like Webrings, but others as well, some of which I have described above.

But another problem is the users. I block pop-up ads, but I've never blocked banner ads, and have been quite happy to have them and occasionally look at them, because that is how free webhosting sites like Geocities are able to continue. But for advertising to pay, people must be able to see the ads, so it is in Yahoo's interest to encourage people to visit those sites, and people who use sites on free web hosts also attract the people who will look at the ads.

Google, however, does it better. They target the advertising based on the content of the site. Some have complained, and said it raises privacy issues, but I don't mind. I've had more problems with inappropriate ads. I've had very rude letters from secretaries of the CEOs of Christian organisations, berating me for allowing certain advertisements. It's always been the secretaries, never the CEOs themselves. They demand that I move to another site, even if it means paying extra. I tell them, Hey, I'm a pensioner, and I'm not making money out of this, I'm providing this information out of the goodness of my heart, and they go off in a huff. One got so nasty that I had to contact the CEO in person to ask him to call his rottweiler off.

So if Google tries to coordinate ads with content, more power to their elbow, I say, though sometimes it gives rather amusing results. There are lots of priests' web sites with ads for things for dads, and child rearing and father's day, because they have "Father" in the site title.

A few months ago AOL did something similar to what is about to happen to Geocities. They stopped their free web hosting, and a relation of ours who had put up a lot of interesting family history lost it all. She wasn't all that computer savvy, and didn't know how to retrieve or move it.

Beware, all you publishers of scholarly journals who think e-journals is the way to go. You can think that that is cheaper, is more accessible and saves trees, but if you entrust it to someone like Yahoo it isn't safe, not at all. Put not your trust in Googledocs either, because they can easily vanish the moment someone decides they aren't making enough money and pulls the plug.


Check these as well:

Adactio: Journal—The Death and Life of Geocities: "They’re trying to keep it quiet but Yahoo are planning to destroy their Geocities property. All those URLs, all that content, all those memories will be lost …like tears in the rain."

And here's someone who wants to do something about it

ASCII by Jason Scott / Geocities: "Many pages are amateurish. A lot have broken links, even internally. The content is tiny on a given page. And there are many sites which have been dead for over a decade. But please recall, if you will, that for hundreds of thousands of people, this was their first website. This was where you went to get the chance to publish your ideas to the largest audience you might ever have dreamed of having. Your pet subject or conspiracy theory or collection of writings left the safe confines of your Windows 3.1 box and became something you could walk up to any internet-connected user, hand them the URL, and know they would be able to see your stuff. In full color. Right now. In a world where we get pissed because the little GIF throbber stays for 4 seconds instead of the usual 1, this is all quaint. But it’s history. It’s culture. It’s something I want to save for future generations."


Sue said...

Yes, it's the end of another era. But as you say, Geocities has gone downhill since yahoo took over. The stats don't seem to have worked for a long time. I'm glad I moved my home education site to its own domain when I did (nearly three years ago now) and turned my book site on Geocities into a blog. Now all I have left on Geocities is our family site.. and without stats working I have no idea if anyone ever visits it. I have it all on my hard drive, of course, and am currently thinking about redesigning and putting it somewhere else, just for personal interest. I think yahoo will try and persuade people to take out their paid hosting, and make the transfer easy for people who don't have other solutions, perhaps even with redirection in place from the old links. So I hope Geocities sites won't just vanish one day.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, some may move to paid hosting, but the last place I'd look for that is Yahoo! They have proved unreliable, and cartainly I wouldn't want to trust them with my data.

James Higham said...

Looks like they're gone to me.


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