Back When We Thought the Internet Was Like a City

Once we all built homepages on GeoCities, the "city" turned out to be a poor metaphor for the web.

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Richard Vijgen

In the early days of the Internet – not the DARPA early days, but the dial-up days of AOL chat rooms and Netscape – no one knew what to make of this new thing (which wasn’t even really a thing anyway). And so we did what we often do when confronted by newness: We reached for metaphor. As a cyber “space,” the Internet was something spatial, and like a library it contained stores of information. Primarily, though, many of us thought of the web as a kind of digital city.

It was a place that needed to be populated. The early arrivals were homesteaders. Their homepages – like actual homes – were constantly “under construction.” And the very notion of “Netizens” implied that because the Internet was a kind of community, people inside it needed to learn to live with one another.

A screen grab from eWorld, an online service offered by Apple in the 1990's.

No early web entity embraced this metaphor more literally than GeoCities, the web-hosting service launched in the mid 1990s that became one of the most popular platforms on the Internet. People created more than 35 million homepages there, inside topically themed “cities” like Hollywood (for movie buffs) or Nashville (for country music fans). The free service offered a little plot of virtual land. Users chose a “neighborhood” in which to locate it and identified their lot by a sort of street address. “Community leaders” in GeoCities were some of the original web moderators.

Yahoo! bought GeoCities in 1999 (for $3.5 billion in stock!), and a decade later the whole thing was shut down. In the history of the Internet, GeoCities was one of the first major social networks, and also one of the first to collapse. Internet activists quickly archived this self-contained universe, a cache that still exists to this day.

“I started to think of it as an actual city, like Pompei, the Italian city that was destroyed by a volcano and preserved in a state of how it was at that time,” says Richard Vijgen, an information designer based in the Netherlands. He often works with information about cities, and this archive of some of the Internet’s early life intrigued him as a window into thinking about how digital culture has evolved over the past 15 years.

“This city metaphor for me,” he says, “is part of that.”

We no longer think about the Internet through that lens, for a variety of reasons: because the analogy proved not very accurate, and because we quickly grew so accustomed to the web that it needed no analogy at all. But in an effort to make that GeoCities history more accessible through a kind of “digital archeology,” Vijgen returned to the original metaphor to visualize the 650 Gigabyte bittorrent file that remains of it.

The interactive, digital map he’s built, called The Deleted City, will be on exhibit in Denver later this month. Vijgen designed the map to visually resemble a city in a way that the original GeoCities never actually did.

“It was talked about as if it was a city, but the structure of the information never really had any visible shape,” Vijgen says. “People were trying to represent the Internet spatially and graphically. Then of course it was a complete disappointment when you would finally be able to get online and discover that it looks like a folder structure, and these pages – they were not very spectacular.”

Here was the GeoCities site for the “city” of Athens, the interest group for homepages about teaching, education and philosophy:

Vijgen tried to lay out the data borrowing from the principles of actual cities: by using space efficiently, and putting everything in its place. This video shows what he ultimately came up, with blocks nested within neighborhoods nested within cities, all of it spatially navigable like a Google Map:


The Deleted City 2.0 from deletedcity on Vimeo.

Vijgen has previously exhibited the project on a touch screen, and in Denver he’ll show it through a projection (controlled by a mouse). He’s hoping to create a version that could be navigated on a tablet, although the entire archive in its current form would more or less eat up your whole iPad.

If you built a GeoCities site once, you can actually travel to it on this map – provided, that is, you remember your old address. For Vijgen, the site was one of his first experiences of the Internet, although he hasn’t been able to find any of the homepages he created as a teenager (“The problem,” he laughs, “is that I made a lot of them”). 

He says that people who’ve seen the project so far have often been struck by a wave of early-Internet nostalgia. If you were on the Internet in those years, the Deleted City will likely make you think about how you use the web – and think about it – so much differently today.

“For me, that’s the most interesting part of it,” Vijgen says.

Some snazzy GeoCities homepages via Vigjen.

Ironically, the Internet has now become itself a metaphor that we increasingly use to understand ideas and objects that predated it, including cities. Citizens have become “users” of government services. Top-down urban planning in some places has been replaced by a “networked” perception of people and places. The way we share information on the Internet now even influences how we share assets in the city.

So it is a fitting moment to remember how we once did the reverse, borrowing from cities to grasp the Internet. “I like the idea of revisiting these old metaphors of the Internet,” Vijgen says, “at a time when the Internet as an idea is spreading beyond the communications network that it originated from.”

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.