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GeoCities' time has expired, Yahoo closing the site today

Geocities We always imagined how this might end: GeoCities would finally take down all of the animated "under construction" signs, and we'd hear one last Midi file to the tune of horns playing taps.

Instead, GeoCities will probably go down with a whimper today.

Time is up for Yahoo Inc.'s scheduled closing of perhaps the most significant virtual museum in recent history. Years ago a central meeting place for a massive chunk of American Web surfers, GeoCities will lock its doors and take millions of pages offline.

GeoCities allowed anyone to build a custom Web page for free and reserved a small amount of virtual storage to keep pictures and documents. It was perhaps the first mainstream example of an open, participatory and personal Internet.

At the turn of the century, GeoCities was nearly ubiquitous. Fathers created websites about their families; kids created sites about Pokemon; teenage girls created sites about the Backstreet Boys. Practically every facet of culture was documented and thanks to search engines, easily accessible.

All of those documents are about to disappear.

GeoCities stopped accepting new registrations earlier this year. Existing users could continue to update their pages and save sites to a personal hard drive in advance of the impending closure. Yahoo is encouraging the relatively few remaining users to transition their accounts to the company's $5-per-month Web hosting service.

The decision to shut down GeoCities rather than keep it around for historical reference and, say, slap ads all over it is curious. Especially when you consider that the network is still among the top 200 most-trafficked sites on the Internet, according to metrics tracker Alexa.

"Yahoo continuously evaluates and prioritizes our products and services in alignment with business goals and our continued commitment to deliver the best consumer and advertiser experiences," according to a company spokeswoman. GeoCities' closing is "part of our ongoing effort to prioritize our portfolio of products and services in order to deliver the best products to consumers."

The company downsized in a different way on Friday when billionaire financer Carl Icahn announced he was resigning as a director.

Yahoo boasts that it has closed nearly 20 services in less than a year, which includes a sort of competitor to GeoCities called Yahoo 360 as well as My Web, which was similar to Delicious, another Yahoo property.

The collapse of GeoCities, though, is perhaps the most epic failure in Yahoo's portfolio. After going public in 1998 during a period when GeoCities rose to unprecedented prominence as a top-five player on the Web, the following years practically embodied the grander burst of the Internet bubble.

Yahoo paid about $3 billion in 1999 for a company that seemed poised to continue its domination of the user-driven Net. Failing to turn any significant profit from all of those pop-ups and banner ads (in fact, there's questions about whether GeoCities was ever cash-flow positive), the purchase -- or perhaps Yahoo's inaction once GeoCities was acquired -- turned out to be one of the company's most costly mistakes.

But Yahoo's folly spelled unimaginable fortunes for two Los Angeles entrepreneurs.

David Bohnett, a tech-savvy businessman from Beverly Hills, took an interest early on in emerging technologies. In 1994, he decided that everyone should be able to have their own website. He purchased a computer server and connected with John Rezner, a friend of a friend with the know-how to build Web applications.

"He unpacked the very first server out of the box," Bohnett said about his colleague.

From the beginning, Bohnett's idea was focused on bringing the real world to the Web -- be it who people are, what they're doing or what they're interested in.

GeoCities was originally called Beverly Hills Internet (and, for a short while, GeoPages). Its initial feature focused on two cameras situated in different parts of Los Angeles -- one at their headquarters near Rodeo Drive and another at a friend's office at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street -- capturing video 24/7 and broadcasting it to the Web.

Before banner ads, EBay, Google, Friendster, MySpace or Facebook, there was GeoCities and its concept of site neighborhoods.

The neighborhood analogy required users to self-categorize based on what they would write about. Choose Beverly Hills for a site about shopping, Capitol Hill for politics or Hollywood for entertainment.

"People were very selective about where they wanted to live," Rezner said. "They wanted to live next to people with good pages or ones that were similar to theirs."

Geocities3 As the site grew, the neighborhood system had some trouble scaling. They created more addresses, new neighborhoods based on more selective areas of interest and things like sub-neighborhoods. Real estate boomed, and in order to keep residents happy, they began evicting bad neighbors.

Eventually, after Yahoo got a hold of GeoCities, it killed the entire concept and let people pick their own unique names. "It's a shame," Rezner said. "There's nothing like that in the 2D world."

"The Yahoo sale was sort of bittersweet -- obviously, financially, it was great," Rezner said. "Nothing ever happened. GeoCities stagnated from Day One."

"We could have gone into search because we had all of this data. At that time, we had a huge portion of the Web on our servers," Rezner said. "I was screwing around with algorithms, trying to do search, that were remarkably similar to what Google was doing."

Other ideas Rezner was kicking around in 1999 included profiles similar to Facebook's and an open API for developers -- a system that has worked extremely well for Twitter. But by that time, his co-founder and former GeoCities chief executive was gone. And Rezner's involvement within day-to-day operations were beginning to diminish.

"Social networking sites are very fadish," Rezner said. "They constantly have to evolve. I think GeoCities had to do that."

Bohnett echoes those sentiments. "It's not uncommon that a larger company isn't able to focus on doing a lot of different things well," he said. (Both Bohnett and Rezner agreed on one thing: Facebook won't be on top forever.)

Likewise, Jonathan Linner, an outsider working as chief executive on a location-based social network called Brightkite, suggests Yahoo spin off GeoCities to a start-up team or shop it around, rather than pull the plug.

But unlike Skype's co-founders, Bohnett and Rezner don't appear to be interested in reacquiring their baby. They now spend their time and fortunes investing in start-ups.

Bohnett with Baroda Ventures has funded companies that include NetZero and Maps.com. Rezner has invested in numerous companies, none of which have really taken off.

The Bohnett Foundation was founded in 1999 and provides funds to social activism groups in gun safety, voter registration, transportation, language research and support for the gay and lesbian communities. "It is in fact consistent with my personal philosophy of giving people a voice, ensuring that the Internet is accessible to everybody," Bohnett said.

GeoCities was a cornerstone of today's young Internet entrepreneurs. Many say they got started on the Web using GeoCities' site builder.

"I lost my 'HTML virginity' with GeoCities," wrote Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian in an e-mail. "Somewhere in SiliconValley/Grid. ... I wish I could find it."

Geocities DianaSome GeoCities pages appear to have been lost over the years. But an independent group called Archiveteam, headed by Jason Scott, has been trying to save everything left before Yahoo closes the building.

The group of dedicated digital historians have been pointing about a hundred computers at the GeoCities domain 24 hours a day for months. First, the machines crawled the neighborhoods, duplicating copies of everything in sight.

"The hard part was going through and trying to find random user names," Scott said about the obstacle Yahoo introduced later in GeoCities' life. "Basically, we're hitting Google and crawling in every direction."

So far, Archiveteam has captured about a terabyte of data, or about a thousand gigabytes, in its mission of mirroring the entire site.

"That's a lot of data," Rezner said when we told him about Scott's project.

You have no idea. Neither do any of Archiveteam's dozens of volunteers. Yahoo won't tell them how big GeoCities really is. The amount of allotted storage fluctuated over the years, making it even harder to estimate, Scott said.

"We're running blind," Scott said.

Scott, an unemployed systems administrator looking to transition into a career as a historian, has found a lot of history in his quest. He's dug up countless family trees, computer software directories and a document on Romania that he believes was compiled over years.

Even the endless "Saved by the Bell" fan sites -- these are history. Scott put together a page populated with a bunch of the "under construction" Gif files that were synonymous with the early Web. The spiritual successor is the "beta" tag, Scott notes.

"I was trying to illustrate quickly the things that could be lost," Scott said. "All of these discussions are happening at the function of having these artifacts laying around."

Scott is also working with Archive.org, the group behind the Wayback Machine, to hit the project from two sides. But only a few grains of sand are left atop the hourglass, and scores of pages are sure to be lost.

The story of GeoCities this decade is one of a skydive from the clouds without a parachute or supervision and a sack of missed opportunities.

"Yahoo never knew the value of GeoCities," Rezner said.

-- Mark Milian

Twitter: @markmilian

Images credit: GeoCities

 
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