The Life and Death of Online Communities

When Yahoo announced earlier this year that it was shuttering GeoCities, an online community of user-created Web pages from the early days of the Internet, the response was more mocking than mournful. "So Long GeoCities: We Forgot You Still Existed" read one PC World headline. When it's remembered at all these days, GeoCities is an Internet punch line, with its amateur code and garish color schemes (one programmer friend termed it "an animated-gif-athon"). But it was a hot startup in the mid-1990s. With its user profiles and pages organized by topic, the service was a precursor to online networks like Facebook, MySpace, and accessible blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress. And, much like those sites, it is owned by a private corporation that has ultimate say over what happens to information, photographs, conversations, and interaction that occurred within that space.

GeoCities began in 1994 as Beverly Hills Internet (BHI), a California company that offered free Web hosting and development tools. Users could claim space for their Web pages in a variety of thematically organized "neighborhoods," (including "Sunset Strip" for rock and punk music, "Wall Street" for personal finance and investing, and "Area 51" for science fiction). These neighborhoods were run by volunteers known as community leaders who helped patrol for inappropriate content and, according to a 1999 CNET article, offered new users "suggestions to jazz up their pages." BHI renamed itself GeoCities in 1995 and sold the idea that when you joined the service, you weren't just getting a Web page; you were joining a community of users.

The geographic nomenclature of GeoCities gave those new to the Internet a familiar shorthand for how social interaction could unfold. Sure, the tools might be different, but the concept of neighbors and like-minded groups of people, would, GeoCities promised, operate the same online as in the real world. Our desire for community is an insight key to many successful online ventures that have come after. Facebook lets users "become a fan" of bands, magazines, and businesses, join groups that petition for health-care reform, and organize high school reunions. Blogs organize themselves into like-minded groups known as rings, even holding "carnivals" where all bloggers involved publish entries on a set theme.

The demise of GeoCities is not just the disappearance of a gif-riddled online ghost town--it's the death of a pioneering online community. And it's a reminder that we should think critically about who owns online spaces, how they are managed, and what happens when they are razed.

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GeoCities pages were proto-blogs. "People updated them very frequently," says Alice Marwick, a doctoral candidate at New York University who studies social media. "I think you'll find that personal homepagers of yesteryear are bloggers now." GeoCities was packaged for inexperienced Internet users, and by 1998 it was the third most-visited site on the Web. Jason Scott, who along with a group of around 15 volunteers called the Archive Team is working to archive GeoCities, says the selling point was ease of use: "Users were offered a worldwide audience, and the ability to say things any way they wanted to."

Other online platforms began to spring up, and soon GeoCities became a fond memory for most users. Blogger was introduced in 1999 (and purchased by Google in 2003), making it easy for anyone to start a blog. MetaFilter, a community blog, was launched in 1999. The social networking site My-Space was founded in 2003. These services also marked the entrance of a very public form of socializing--where, unlike email or listservs, the conversation, and content, was accessible to those not part of the conversation. In offering a platform for creating online identities, GeoCities started a trend that has been replicated by companies ever since.

But once those online identities are created, are they the property of the users or the corporations that host them? David Bollier, author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, calls corporate-controlled spaces like GeoCities and Facebook, "faux commons." For him, true online community spaces are defined by users having control over the terms of their interaction and owning the software or infrastructure. Corporate spaces come with "terms of service" agreements that lay out the rules users must abide by and what control they agree to surrender in exchange for using the product. "Oftentimes corporate-controlled communities are benign, functional, and perfectly OK," Bollier says. "It's just that the terms of services those companies have or the competitive pressures of business may compel them to take steps that are not in the interest of the community."

Consider the case of Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University. Ludlow ran a newspaper for the virtual community The Sims Online and was kicked out of the community by the owner, Electronic Arts, for publishing accounts of theft, prostitution, and money laundering that (virtually) occurred there. Because it happened in a corporate-controlled online space, his speech wasn't protected. As Ludlow told an interviewer, "The platform owners have responsibilities to care for those communities and see that they are not harmed."

Bollier agrees. "At the point where the business model becomes tethered to a happy community, you have to reach an agreement about how you are going to interact. If you piss people off too much, they are just going to flee the site." When GeoCities was purchased by Yahoo in January 1999, the new corporate overlord immediately began to clash with users. That June, Yahoo changed the terms of service for the site, claiming the right to full ownership of anything users posted to their pages. By December, Yahoo announced it would disband the popular community-leader program. The changes should sound familiar to anyone who has followed recent tempests over privately controlled social-networking sites. Facebook made a similar change to its terms of service this past February, causing uproar among users already annoyed with a redesign and a short-lived feature that broadcast users' purchasing habits. Under pressure, Facebook reversed the decision within weeks.

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The decay of an online social space cannot always be pinned on corporate ownership. Online communities tend to mirror the shortcomings of the real world--racism, exclusivity, and class privilege. In a presentation at this year's Personal Democracy Forum conference, social media researcher danah boyd asked what really separated users of the older My-Space from the newer Facebook. MySpace, started by the advertising company eUniverse as a rival to Friendster, has always had a low bar for entry, allows users to remain anonymous, and enables more customization of profile pages. Facebook, by contrast, was born at Harvard as an online version of freshman--orientation "facebooks." It slowly opened admission to other Ivy League universities, then most colleges, and finally to the public at large. While both sites enjoy about 70 million unique visitors, in recent years wealthier, more educated users "were more likely to leave [MySpace] or choose Facebook," boyd said. "Those who deserted MySpace did so by 'choice' but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic." She continued, "What happened was modern day 'white flight.'"

In other words, despite some declarations that MySpace has gone the way of GeoCities, it isn't really dead. Not yet, anyway. But because MySpace, like the vast majority of social-networking sites and blogs, exists in corporate-owned space, it is vulnerable to being shut down if it is perceived as no longer having a profitable or attractive user base. Given that we are stuck with much of our digital commons existing on corporate-controlled sites, what then happens when the corporation decides to close its doors? If these are our new commons, what does it say that we abandon spaces once they are clearly marked as unsophisticated?

Scott says the Archive Team's efforts have proved to him the worth of Geo-Cities. "A lot of people see GeoCities as this sea of amateurish, poorly written Web sites. I understand that thinking; I certainly don't want people to think that I'm saying GeoCities is an example of the best the Web could be, but I do think it's an example of what the Web was." Scott says while he's pulled up plenty of pop-culture fan sites, he's also found meticulously detailed outlines of Roma history and documentation for products and software manufactured during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The better-known Internet Archive has announced it, too, is working to archive GeoCities. (Yahoo got in touch with it about preserving the pages.) Still, it's a stark reminder that just because something is published on the Internet doesn't mean it will last forever.

Yahoo has now set an official date for the closing of GeoCities--October 26, 2009--but the question of how we protect and archive the history of our interaction in the digital commons is still unanswered. As the Internet continues to evolve, we will be forced to decide which left-behind digital communities to preserve. "There is a very real chance of this digital culture just disappearing from our lives, and there's not really any formal mechanisms in place to store or aggregate this knowledge, which is really a shame," says Marwick. "There need to be more public efforts to store and archive."

In a keynote address at a 2001 conference on preserving digital media, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling observed, "Bits have no archival medium. We haven't invented one yet. If you print something on acid-free paper with stable ink, and you put it in a dry, dark closet, you can read it in 200 years. We have no way to archive bits that we know will be readable in even 50 years."

He added, "Tape demagnetizes. CDs delaminate. Networks go down."

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