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Making the web fun again (2013)

Ever since I visited my first web site (via a slow modem to a library BBS running a text-based web browser), I have been ceaselessly pondering the nature of the web. I knew from my first experience visiting a site as a young child, that the web (and the internet in general) was going to profoundly re-architect our culture. A re-architecting that would be so radical, so complicated, and so fast paced, that we would likely evolve alongside those changes in a way that none of us would really predict or understand. And I knew that we would make some big mistakes along the way.. because we had no idea what the hell we were doing.

One of those big mistakes we made was the Dot-Com Bubble, where novel ideas for web startups were turned into trumped-up card bets. There were some great ideas and companies that came out of that period. But there were also companies that got too greedy, overvalued their companies to raise easy bubble money, and expanded beyond their ability to sustain themselves (a playbook that, hauntingly to me, seems quite at home with the current startup climate). Massive web corporations flush with stock market cash acquired startups for billions of dollars, like rich brats that wanted a cool new toy, but then quickly got tired of it and threw it away. And in the end, we lost a lot of great ideas, companies, and user content that would have otherwise prospered.

This is essentially what happened to GeoCities.

A lot of people have mistakenly told me that GeoCities was shut down because it was a bad idea, or because it was “too old”, or because people didn’t want to make and visit web sites anymore. The problem is that it ignores the internal problems that would be the real cause of its demise. Yahoo! acquired GeoCities in 1999 for $3.57 billion in bubble stock, and at the time (and perhaps still today) had a toxic approach to acquisitions that would effectively ruin the startups they acquired. Everyone is holding their breath on the Tumblr acquisition to see if they learned their lessons from the previous failures. Hopefully they did.

When Yahoo shut down GeoCities, they did much more than delete a bunch of obnoxious dancing baby GIFs and Limp Bizkit MIDI files. They deleted the ability for people (both old and new to the web) to easily create web sites, and be in complete control of the content and presentation they provide to their audience.

Sure, some of the old sites weren’t “great”. But they were fun, and quirky, and interesting. We used to call it “surfing” the web, and that was actually a good way to describe it. There was a certain adventure to the activity – a fun and excitement in exploring the unknown.

Go to a Facebook profile, and ponder what we have now. Instead of having adventures into the great unknowns of the web, we instead now spend most of our time on social networks: boring, suburban gated communities, where everybody’s “profile” looks exactly the same, and presents exactly the same content, in the same arrangement. Rarely do we create things on these networks; Instead, we consume, and report on our consumption. The uniformity and blandness rival something out of a Soviet bloc residential apartments corridor. And now adding to that analogy, we’ve found out that our government is actually spying on us while we’re doing it, in ways the Stasi could only dream of. The web we have today is a sad, pathetic, consumption-oriented digital iron curtain, and we need to change that.

This is why my goal with NeoCities is not to turn it into a GeoCities parody site, though I don’t really care if people use it that way. The purpose of this project is not to inspire nostalgia. It’s to rebuild the platform for us to be able to be creative again. To have sites that we can do whatever we want with. This is not nostalgia speaking. We really did lose our platforms for creativity and rich self expression online, and I want to help bring them back.

None of the technology we have developed has obsoleted what made the old web magical. It did not take away the joy of creation. It’s still fun to make web pages, you can still share it with every internet user in the world 24/7. And when you don’t have to attach your real identity to everything you do, it still doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, or what your social class is. If you have a library card and a few hours, you can make a web site on NeoCities.

In fact, the technology has made it better. We now have incredible tools for making web pages that don’t look like crap, and don’t randomly break on different web browsers. Now we have HTML5, which enables very powerful web sites. Like this amazing site, an interactive episode guide to the show My Little Pony, which looks fantastic and uses your browser database for storage (I dare you to make it half as good with your over-engineered, poorly scalable LAMP stack). And we have great CSS frameworks like Bootstrap and a new, even simpler one that Scott O’Hara is working on called Ground Floor, that makes web sites look pretty good even if the designer doesn’t use or understand CSS at all.

After just one week of NeoCities, there are already over 1,600 sites, and even with that short time frame, a lot of them are really good. And there are more sites being generated every day. And there are people using the site to learn HTML (something Victoria Wang is working to improve, while also working on building a really great design for the site with Scott). If that much creativity can happen with one week (and with the site editing code in early stages), how much more creativity will come out of the next year?

Nothing scales like static HTML. It’s easy and affordable for NeoCities to host millions of web sites without having to worry about making a profit. Even the current 10 Megabyte limit on accounts is just a conservative start. We will be raising the limit to 20 Megabytes soon, and probably will be raising it much higher later as we learn what our scaling needs are. Part of the reason we will be able to do this is that I’m building some better servers that can handle 2+ million NeoCities accounts. I’m paying for the servers out of pocket, which is tough for me because I currently don’t have a large income, but NeoCities needs and deserves it. The web needs and deserves it. If we are to break free from the consumption-oriented web we have today, we need more creative spaces like this.

My goal is to pay for the site through donations from contributors and through supporter accounts. I will not be taking any money with dangerous strings attached to it, and I will not be turning it into a VC-backed startup. We need to maintain this as a sustainable resource, the same way that sites like the Internet Archive are. The source code to NeoCities is available, for anyone that wants to help. If you like this idea, any and all help is welcome!

With your help (and your creativity), I know NeoCities can be an amazing site. Thank you for making the web fun again, and for rekindling my love for it.

What are you waiting for? Go make your web site!


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