The Founder of GeoCities on What Killed the ‘Old’ Internet

Gif: Gizmodo/Internet Archive

Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.

In the early aughts, my wheezing dialup connection often operated as if it were perpetually out of breath. Thus, unlike my childhood friends, it was near to impossible for me to watch videos, TV shows, or listen to music. Far from feeling limited, I felt like I was lucky, for I had access to an encyclopedia of lovingly curated pages about anything I wanted to know—which in those days was anime—the majority of which was conveniently located on GeoCities.

For all the zoomers scrunching up their brows, here’s a primer. Back in the 1990s, before the birth of modern web hosting household names like GoDaddy and WP Engine, it wasn’t exactly easy or cheap to publish a personal website. This all changed when GeoCities came on the scene in 1994.

The company gave anyone their own little space of the web if they wanted it, providing users with roughly 2 MB of space for free to create a website on any topic they wished. Millions took GeoCities up on its offer, creating their own homemade websites with web counters, flashing text, floating banners, auto-playing sound files, and Comic Sans.

Unlike today’s Wild Wild Internet, websites on GeoCities were organized into virtual neighborhoods, or communities, built around themes. “HotSprings” was dedicated to health and fitness, while “Area 51” was for sci-fi and fantasy nerds. There was a bottom-up focus on users and the content they created, a mirror of what the public internet was like in its infancy. Overall, at least 38 million webpages were built on GeoCities. At one point, it was the third most-visited domain online.

Yahoo acquired GeoCities in 1999 for $3.6 billion. The company lived on for a decade more until Yahoo shut it down in 2009, deleting millions of sites.

Nearly two decades have passed since GeoCities, founded by David Bohnett, made its debut, and there is no doubt that the internet is a very different place than it was then. No longer filled with webpages on random subjects made by passionate folks, it now feels like we live in a cyberspace dominated by skyscrapers—named Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and so on—instead of neighborhoods.

Proponents of Web3, like Andreessen Horowitz general partner Chris Dixon, argue that we need to get back to what we had in the days of GeoCities—while also not giving up the advances of the Web2 years—and allow creators and businesses to form a relationship with their audiences that is not governed by algorithms and advertising. It’s yet to be seen if the version of Web3 backed by Dixon will ever materialize but it’s not looking good.

We can, however, ask GeoCities’ founder what he thinks of the internet of today, subsumed by social media networks, hate speech, and more corporate than ever. Bohnett now focuses on funding entrepreneurs through Baroda Ventures, an early-stage tech fund he founded, and on philanthropy with the David Bohnett Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to social justice and social activism that he chairs.

Right off the bat, Bohnett says something that strikes me. It may, in fact, be the sentence that summarizes the key distinction between the internet of the ‘90s-early 2000s and the internet we have today.

“GeoCities was not about self-promotion,” Bohnett told Gizmodo in an interview. “It was about sharing your interest and your knowledge.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

screenshot of old GeoCities page in japanese with anime characters

Screenshot: Gizmodo/Wayback Machine

Gizmodo: When I think about the hallmarks of the internet over the last 20 years, one of the first things that comes to mind is GeoCities. Frankly, the sites were some of the only things I could load up with my dialup connection and I loved them. Obviously, the internet has changed a lot since then and we really wanted to talk to you and get your thoughts on the internet of today.

DB: I think you’ve written half the article already in terms of what GeoCities was like. If you think back to that point, you were probably excited because the internet was very new and you had a place where you could create your own web page. We gave you the tools to create your own web page, and you could browse other web pages and meet people of similar interests. And it was exciting.

It really was a forerunner of the social networks to come, as you learn. One of the things that has surprised me is how far away we’ve gotten from [that time]. The heart of GeoCities was sharing your knowledge and passions about subjects with other people. It really wasn’t about what you had to eat and where you’ve traveled. There was a travel section, but it was really more about tapping into your personal passion and giving you a format to join a like-minded community and share that with other people. It wasn’t anything about your face.

Facebook is called Facebook for a reason, because it was all about people’s faces. So, what has surprised me is how far away we’ve gotten from that original intent and how difficult it is [now]. It’s so fractured these days for people to find individual communities. There’s various sites, of course, like Reddit and others. And so, you know, maybe it’s because it was early, maybe it’s because of the time. But I’ve been surprised at sort of the evolution away from self-generated content and more toward centralized programing and more toward sort of the self-promotion that we’ve seen on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. And GeoCities was not about self-promotion. It was about sharing your interest and your knowledge. That’s something that frankly surprised me.

Gizmodo: Can you tell me a bit about what you’re doing now?

DB: Just about the time after GeoCities went public and about the time we sold to Yahoo [1999], I was getting approached by other entrepreneurs starting their own internet companies way back in the day, like and WireImage and NetZero and Gamesville. And so, I started my own early-stage tech fund way back at the end of the GeoCities days, and I’ve done that for the last 20 plus years, [which] is invest in early-stage tech startups, and it’s still something that I do today. I’ve really enjoyed a long professional career helping entrepreneurs build their business primarily on the internet. Separate from that but somewhat related is that at the time GeoCities was sold, I set up my own nonprofit foundation, the David Bohnett Foundation, focused on social justice and social activism. For the last 20 plus years, I’ve also been focused on philanthropy and nonprofit work in the social justice and social service arena.

Gizmodo: What made you decide to focus on social justice and social service?

DB: Well, part of it is also the spirit of GeoCities, which is empowering people. It’s just in my nature, whether it’s through my venture capital work, investing in young entrepreneurs, whether it was GeoCities, empowering people to meet others and share their interests, or whether it’s in philanthropy to empower organizations to help people achieve their full potential and deal with critical social issues like gun violence and civil rights, etc. It’s a theme that is consistent in my personal and professional life about empowering people and empowering communities.

Gizmodo: It’s been almost two decades since you founded GeoCities and the internet has changed a lot since then. And you answered this a bit earlier, but I wanted to ask if you had any more impressions on how the internet of today has changed since the nineties when GeoCities was all the rage.

Image for article titled The Founder of GeoCities on What Killed the 'Old Internet'

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

DB: I think it’s important to remind ourselves that the pace of innovation on the internet continues to accelerate, meaning we’re not near done. In the early days when you had dial up and it was the desktop, how could you possibly envision an Uber? You know, [the idea that] you’d have this mobile phone in your hand, and it’s connected wirelessly to the internet all the time, and you can order a car and it shows up. Look at all the things that had to happen between the time you were on GeoCities and [the time of] Uber, all the technological advance, etc. We’re still in that trajectory where there’s going to be various technologies and ways of communicating with each other, [as well as] wearable devices, blockchain technology, virtual reality, that will be as astounding as Uber seemed in the early days of GeoCities. I’m very, very excited about the future, which is why I continue to invest in early-stage startups because as I say, the pace of innovation accelerates and builds on top of itself. It’s so exciting to see where we might go.

Gizmodo: Historically, GeoCities has been described as a Facebook and MySpace prototype. Have you ever thought that? Do you still agree?

DB: Well, what I’ve always thought about was a continuum of whether people want to call it online communities or a continuum of social networks. There were online communities before GeoCities, notably places called The Well. There were proprietary bulletin board systems. There was AOL, there was CompuServe, there was Prodigy. You can plot a continuum of either online communities and or social networks. And there’s just a progression of them going forward. We occupied a big chunk in the early days of the internet and then Friendster came along and MySpace and Facebook. There are, of course, other social networks now besides Facebook. And there will continue to be a continued fragmentation going forward for all this.

screenshot of geocities site for The Dark Army with satanic symbols.

Screenshot: Gizmodo/Wayback Machine

Gizmodo: Do you see anything on the internet today that resembles GeoCities?

DB: There are pieces of it. There are pieces where you can find niche communities about almost anything, but I don’t see anything that really is solely focused on aggregating communities of interest. Certainly, Facebook has all sorts of special interest groups and forums and pages, but there’s all the other stuff, too. I don’t see any one place that is a community of special interests.

Gizmodo: And do you think the internet needs that? Do you think that we’re all worse off because we don’t have a version of GeoCities nowadays?

DB: What we really need is an awareness, and this just sounds simplistic, but we need an awareness of the importance of sharing offline. I’m also sort of discouraged by how much time we all spend online versus traditionally spend with our families and our communities. I’m not sure I wish there was a place like that on the internet now versus I wish there were more and more ways for people to interact in person.

Gizmodo: There are now a lot more social media networks besides Facebook. Are you active on any of the social media networks? What do you think about them?

DB: That’s a very good question. I have been active on almost all of them. I’m not an active contributor. I’ll just say I’m an active participant. I’ll watch TikTok videos. I’ll look at Instagram. I’m not a contributor, but I’m a participant.

Gizmodo: What do you think about Instagram and TikTok? 

DB: I think that particularly TikTok, [there’s an] astounding amount of creativity that TikTok has unleashed that you really don’t see on Instagram. It’s encouraging to see that there’s a forum for people to do really, really funny, clever, interesting things. I think that’s actually very positive.

Gizmodo: Some of the biggest challenges that social media networks face nowadays are related to content moderation, curtailing hate, and stopping misinformation. What do you think about these challenges and did you face anything similar in the days of GeoCities?

DB: We faced exactly the same challenges companies are facing today, and the only way we could deal with those was to continue to enhance our content guidelines and be very, very deliberate—very, very strict. We just banned all sorts of speech that is allowed today. We wouldn’t allow it on the platform. And the way we did that was within each community we would give actual users the tools to browse their neighborhoods and browse their particular subject matter and kick people off [when they] were inconsistent with the content guidelines. I think it was easier for us because we were organized based on specific subject matter. We didn’t have an open forum for hate speech, for example. If you were creating a country music page in one of our communities, if it wasn’t about country music, you got kicked out. We were a very curated community that leveraged the power of the community to monitor and maintain the integrity of the subjects.

Now, the much larger question about something like Twitter or Facebook—I don’t know. I mean, that’s a problem that no one has really been able to solve and I think many of these platforms have abdicated their responsibility for dealing with hate speech. It could be a role for government in terms of [creating] content guidelines. I mean, you can’t go on broadcast television to say the things that people say online. You just can’t, there are standards. There are broadcast standards that prevent stations from airing that kind of content. There’s certainly a model for having standards and content. People forget that. They think, “Oh, you know, it can never be done.” You can’t tune into any broadcast channel and see anywhere near the hate speech we’re seeing online. So why can’t that be regulated the same way it is on broadcast?

Image for article titled The Founder of GeoCities on What Killed the 'Old Internet'

Screenshot: Gizmodo/Wayback Machine

Gizmodo: Yeah, I don’t remember hate speech being that much of a problem on GeoCities.

DB: We had no community for it. The communities were about particular subjects and subject matter. So that was sort of kept consistent and clean.

Gizmodo: And did you all have content moderators?

DB: We did. As I say, we deputized users to be content moderators and we gave them the tools to moderate the content.

Gizmodo: But as far as company-hired moderators, did you all have that?

DB: No. We had company-hired people that set the guidelines, then we would rely on our users to moderate the content. There were customer service people and if they saw extremely egregious content, they would just take it down, but that wasn’t their primary responsibility.

Gizmodo: I’ve heard some people say that GeoCities was an example of how you could have websites that were super popular and just didn’t make any money. And that was okay. What are your thoughts on this?

DB: Well, we did make money because we had advertisers that had advertising banners across a lot of the user pages because they were very specific. Just like I talked about earlier, the regulatory environment, and I’m not in favor of restrictive regulation, but the regulatory environment has not kept up with the growth of the Internet. That’s the simple answer for that.

Gizmodo: Do you see the same type of creativity in the internet today that you saw back in the GeoCities days?

DB: [As] with TikTok, it’s very, very fragmented. It’s there, people are creating very innovative and creative content. But again, it’s become much more top-down. It’s become much more about streaming with the streaming platforms than it ever was. The streaming platforms have come to dominate in a way that I hoped wasn’t going to happen, but it has. But there’s still an awful lot of very innovative stuff being created.

Gizmodo: And besides TikTok, do you have any other examples?

DB: Some of the Reddit stuff is really interesting that I’ve seen. I just look at different forums and people contributing their knowledge in different ways based on their subject matter. Reddit would be the other one I would talk about.

Gizmodo: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the Internet today?

DB: The fact that there’s not one Internet anymore, the fact that there’s censorship in different parts of the [world] that block off the Internet. We’re really not one Internet. There’s China, there’s the Middle East, there’s Russia. And it’s become very what I call “balkanized.” I think that’s the biggest challenge.

Gizmodo: What is your biggest hope for the Internet going forward?

DB: I guess my biggest hope is that it reaches all the people that it hasn’t reached yet. I’m still very optimistic about the power of information exchange and my biggest hope is that broadband continues to be deployed worldwide. Because with all the challenges we’ve talked about, there’s still a great advantage and a great upside for people that are connected and the people that aren’t connected are falling farther and farther behind. So that’s my hope, that more and more people get connected so they don’t fall farther and farther behind.

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