Excavating A Preserved Digital Metropolis
When GeoCities was shuttered by its parent company Yahoo in 2009, it was the end of an era. Before social networking, websites such as GeoCities allowed individuals to develop identities within the context of a digitally networked city of personal homepages. Pages were regionalized and demarcated based on user interests rather than generalized associations and relationships.
Thus, it created a network of identifiable ‘cities’ that were constructed out of site-specific real estate, each characteristic of the individual who designed it, within the context of the chosen subject matter. The websites had a looser infrastructure that were more customizable than social media today because they placed a stricter emphasis on connected communities rather than connected individuals. Contemporary social network profiles are more ambiguous and homogenized and merely act as placeholders for people’s information and photos. The trend towards the profile as opposed to the website does not represent a denigration of networking, however, merely a shift of emphasis from community to the individual.
Being aware of the importance of GeoCities’ place in internet history, the Internet Archive decided to backup the entirety of its contents before it was deleted for good in 2009. Every one of its websites over ten years of collaboration among 35 million people was saved so future generations could understand the evolution of social interaction and identity on the web. The result was an almost incomprehensible 65 million gigabyte file that they offered as a Torrent file for anyone to download. Efforts have been made to approach the data from the perspective of a digital archeologist in a number of ways. The website One Terabyte of a Kilobyte Age culls from the file individual sites and discusses their content via blog posts.
Most recently, The Deleted City has transformed the massive data store into an interactive installation that provides visual touchscreen access to all of the websites. Like an enormous cyberpunk metroplex seen from above, the websites are visualized as a series of variously sized and shaded green boxes. The city can be explored on a number of levels including by neighborhood or individual websites. The multi-tiered construction of the space shows a much more complex system of relations that fostered community and membership rather than simply the individual. Clusters here are more defined than the circles or lists of Google Plus and Twitter. The experience is as if one was peering directly into the preserved homes of 90s netizens captured in time. As The Deleted City states, the GeoCities cache is akin to a digital Pompeii—the result of a city consumed by disaster yet almost-perfectly preserved by that disaster all the same.
The metaphor of the internet as a city populated by people inhabiting digital homes seems to have, ironically, fallen by the wayside with the advent of social media. The enhanced and proliferated connectedness of popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, among others, have developed more towards a flattening of the landscape that more resembles a suburban sprawl of compartmentalized individuals than any great network of cities. We are less defined by our membership to larger infrastructures and more by shared information on an individual level. As kitschy or gaudy as many GeoCities sites could be, they were at least much more expressive and contextualized than social media. Today, we are less netizens than we are users. GeoCities called their members homesteaders, yet with Twitter or Facebook there is no moniker by which to declare our association.
The Deleted City, as well as other archaeological projects, provide insight into what the current state of the internet is predicated upon historically. It reminds us how far we have come and how much of a different place the internet and the web used to be. It also shows how pervasive ubiquitous social platforms can be and how much they can transform individual identity and relationships. As technology continues to advance, how we related to each other and the digital space continues to evolve. To track those changes and to understand them we will have to preserve in some way the digital space of the bygone era.