The free web hosting service Geocities.com was founded by “Beverly Hills Internet” in July 1995 — exactly at the time when the web left academia and started to be made by all of us.
It soon it became one of the most popular and inhabited places of the WWW and stayed that way throughout the second half of the1990s. In January 1999, at the height of dot.com mania, it was bought by Yahoo!.
The new millennium proved that Geocities was a bad investment. Having a page on there became synonymous for dilettantism and bad taste. Furthermore, the time of personal homepages was ending, being replaced with profiles on social networks.
Ten years later, in April 2009, Yahoo! announced that they were going to shut down the service.
On the 26th of October 2009 Geocities ceased to exist. In between the announcement and the official date of death a group of people calling themselves Archive Team managed to rescue almost a terabyte of Geocities pages. On the 26th of October 2010, the first anniversary of this Digital Holocaust, the Archive Team started to seed geocities.archiveteam.torrent.
On the 17th of January 2011 we are still at 53,54%. Since three weeks nobody is seeding.
Being impatient we started to unzip the first packages and dig into the treasures of Web 1.0.
recto/verso: Could you tell us what is the Geocities Research Institute and tumblr which follows its activity One Terabyte of Kylobyte Age? Is it your way of tracking human beings on the Internet?
Olia Lialina: It’s nice that you put this question this way, because the Institute not only researches the Geocities archive. It didn’t even start with Geocities, but at the moment it is a huge part of the material we work with. Also, shutting down the service was such a symbolic and important event in the history of Internet culture that we decided to keep this name.
We also go through other content that is disappearing from other hosting services. We have our geocities.institute website which we are now trying to make more lively. We have also a blog One Terabyte in Kilobyte Age. There is also the restoration.geocities.institute where restored websites appear and can be viewed. I started to work on it with Dragan Espenschield. Also Gabriele de Seta from Hong Kong joined us and he is going through the Chinese part of the archive and the web. Last year a lot of my students helped us too. We are going to work with musicians who can go through MIDI files. It is important for us that people from different backgrounds are working with this material. They have not only different skills but also tastes, which – when talking about design – is very important.
Why do you think it is important to work with people with different skills?
I know that due to this preference I may ignore some other elements of the archive… For example students who went through the material spotted some elements that for me, initially, seemed to be unimportant and which finally lead us to very interesting conclusions.
Another example is Westhollywood Neighborhood of Geocities. It is where cross dressers had their web pages. It is a very interesting community, but we need someone competent in gender issues or who is aware of gay culture online. Not me, I am more interested in design and esthetics.
Do you also try to evaluate the cultural meaning of users activity in that time?
Yes, this is not only about aesthetics. This is also why recently I wanted to distance myself slightly from our activity. I had already done enough on the look of early web pages.
What is the purpose of your tumblr One Terabyte of Kylobyte Age where you always post screenshots from recovered websites?
We want to give it back, to feed the web with its own early culture. We can’t put recovered websites online, videos are also too heavy. Screenshots were the only possible way – at the beginning of 2013 and in fact till now. There is one screenshot being published every 20 minutes and we have almost 24 000 followers, which for a blog with such a content is a really good amount. People keep reblogging and commenting on our posts, so it is spreading fast. It is interesting too to see what attracts people’s attention.
Sometimes we have have an error on our side and only an empty browser is posted. Despite that screenshots are reblogged and regblogged… People still like how Netscape looks. Browsers are now becoming less visible, they are slowly ‘disappearing’, but our followers admire them.
How would you define Digital Folklore, a notion coined by you and Dragan Espenschied?
I think the best definition is the one formulated in the introduction of the Digital Folklore Reader (2010) : it encompasses the customs, traditions and elements of visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from users’ engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century. But it is not so obvious. It still causes certain confusion. For some it means a hacker’s humor or digitalized folklore – an online archives of folklore.
A similar thing happened in the 1990s with net art. When you looked for it on Internet back then, you would mostly find artist exhibiting their digitalized art online.
How do you work with Digital Folklore elements?
We release enormous amounts of it every day. We have posted up to this moment 59 000 old web pages screenshots and they are now spreading somewhere on the web. You can see them, they are quite different. We want to underline how it is important to create your own web page. It is not sad that this type of web pages disappeared but rather the idea of creating your owns is not there anymore. This is a tragedy.
You once said that to create your web page you need to answer the philosophical question: ‘What do I want to give to the world?’.
In a second part of the 1990s it was normal to explain at the top of a page why particular page was created. I am collecting pages with these explanations. It can be a Backstreet Boys Fan club or some religious stuff, or somebody does a page cause his child is born, etc. Other time it says:
Maybe there is no reason but I still make it.
Everyone has a webpage so why I shouldn’t have one too?
This is my first attempt at this, so don’t expect any stunning effects. There are lots of other places for it if this is what you want. This page is done for me, by me and this is not intended to impress anyone.
I am Josh and I am building this page to have some fun. My life is boring. If it weren’t be for Internet I would die of boredom.
Welcome on my home on the web. It is not much but it’s me.
We have just opened an exhibition in Dortmund in HMKV entitled Digital Folklore where we printed some of these explanations on walls.
Is this a show about the archive or does it consists of your works which use elements of Digital Folklore, like the Pee Man?
The Pee Man is a good example for both, a very dear one to me. I am happy that it’s working so well at HMKV , people are taking photos in front of it. The Pee Man used to play the role of a “dislike” button on the early web. It was animated GIF of a man “peeing” on a symbol of something disliked by a user. Together with students, we went through 800 pages checking on what the Pee Man was peeing on. We couldn’t do it algorithmically, because in the code written at the time, they were not next to each other…
The Pee Man (installation) and Olia Lialina, exhibition view from HMKV in Dortmund, July 2015
And is there in Dortmund a projection of a human sized Pee Man peeing on a screen with what?
On what he was – to our knowledge – peeing on most often: logos of Geocities, Ford, Microsoft, pictures of school mates, Hitler, Stalin, USA flag… everything mixed.
So the exhibition is a homage to Digital Folklore.
Mostly we show or show off what we are able to do with this archive. There is an installation about web page ruins and their restorations. We have collections of artistic projects done with elements from the archive. Like Area 51 – a huge screen where backgrounds, sounds and other elements from Area 51 are mixed up and there is looped show in an X-Files style. There are also installations with other animations, like the Welcome-plane. It is a big projection showing screenshots from pages where a welcome text flew around. Sometimes in pages made by or about pilots, other time it flies in water, etc.
I am particularly happy with an installation where I used my collection of pages where people are promising something and pages where people say goodbye to never come back again. We created a double slides projection where on one side we show ‘promises to be updated soon’ pages juxtaposed with others saying in example: Geocities sucks, you won’t see me anymore here. It works very well together.
Could you list a few customs or traditions of Digital Folklore that have completely disappeared from the web?
There is one very important thing: me, the user responsible for creating links and collecting them. Also the idea of pages being are under construction. It was erased form a web during the .com times (starting in 1997)and it came back in web 2.0. which is continually under construction . For example I’ve just opened up Skype which I hadn’t used for a week and it now has new interface. So the idea of being updated is so clearly back there and I like it. It belongs to the web.
Also animated GIFs are back, but different – as animations using different aesthetics and having different functions.
This modular culture has disappeared. Nobody makes web pages anymore. During opening of the Digital Folklore show I gave a sad introduction. I said that I was proud that we managed to restore so many things and make all these projects presented there; that I am proud that students were motivated to work with us, but what I can’t seem to do at all is to make them to build their own web pages. They just don’t feel this need.
Do you think that without this early Internet culture that today’s web culture would be different?
I am starting to recognize that the web is now made by people who never experienced the web of the 1990s. For a while it was clear that there are people who remember the early web. Maybe they loved it, maybe they hated it –but they certainly knew it. Now we often see that is not a reference at all. Not only for users but also developers. If you are 22 today it is possible that you have never seen a personal web page in your life.
I also think that Facebook, Twitter and Live Journal (very popular in Russia) were not the killers of this culture. I see it in Instagram, it has vhanged everything. Nobody will never come up with the idea of making webpage, because posting on Instagram is so visual and instant.
The Livee Journal was abandoned for Instagram not Facebook. But these are just my observation, not based on any statistics.
In your text Vernacular Web 1 you said that it is important to preserve its beauty of by integrating its elements within contemporary art pieces. Which of these have entered your practice?
I wrote this text in 2004, when I was working with animated GIF – it was before the GIF hype of 2009. I worked with first generation small animated GIFs. Small ones in a perfect loop. For example together with Dragan we collected animated GIFs used for navigation: people made their ‘home’ button, up and down buttons, substituting them in small suns, diamonds or else.. This collection can be seen in our MIDNIGHT project, where we used a Google slide to transform it into a monument of these graphics.
Then of course backgrounds become very important for me. Also ‘under construction’ signs and MIDI sounds.
You offered yourself as the GIF model at some point.
Yes, in 2001 I started use GIF and in 2005 I decided to spread myself, to make myself immortal this way (laughs). I hoped that people would use me when making web pages. For a while I couldn’t find out how to check where my GIFs were being used till Google image search appeared. Some years ago I discovered traces of me, especially the hoola-hoop girl. I appeared on fitness and diet websites.
You have definitely entered collective memory. But when we talk about collectiveness we have to focus on the individuals as well. This seems to be an important questions for you: for a while you talked a lot about users, you preserved this word before it was replaced by ‘people’ that is part of the policy of internet giants like Facebook for example. So, who is the user?
I think we have three problems: ‘experience’, ‘technology’ and ‘people’. They are there to substitute respectively: ‘computer’, ‘interface’ and ‘user’. It is part of this invisible computer paradigm: the software and the machine itself should be small and hidden somewhere, it is invisible unnoticeable. ‘Technology’ goes well with this idea as a much more abstract word. With ‘experience’ they also replace ‘process’, ‘websites’ etc. with rather unnatural results. I have a good example: I saw a screen shot of a website signed with ‘This experience is navigated by scrolling’…
With the changing vocabulary are we seeing the role of users shift?
Computers are becoming increasingly tiny. This it is important to employ the word ‘user’, because you understand that you are using a system, a computer even when it’s hidden. Even if you don’t have a mouse in your hand, you should never forget that you are using a system not programmed by you. This doesn’t mean that the system is evil but you should be aware of it. If we are addressed as ‘people’ and not ‘users’ we won’t fight for anything. And there are some users’ rights that we can only protect by understanding that we play a role in the system, that of the user.
It wouldn’t be so difficult, but the word user was so discredited- by important interface designers like Don Norman or Edward Tufte. They use their eloquence to ridicule this word. In Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), he finds the etymology of culturally important words. He raises a question of the word ‘consumer’. He finds it tragic that we replaced word ‘user’ with it – and this all happened before computers! For him ‘user’ means that we understand how to use things, we are dealing with something we know how it functions. So originally ‘to be a user’ meant taking certain position, which does not happen when we are a ‘consumer’. We should fight for this word!
 Olia Lialina developed the idea of creating your own web pages value in her article My Corner of the Internet. Why do we Make Our Home Pages?
all images courtesy of the artist