In Memoriam GeoCities (1994-2009)
The passing of this iconic Internet site is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, GeoCities (and its competitors like Tripod and Angelfire) were an important catalyst for the development of a World Wide Web with massive user-generated content. Secondly, Yahoo!’s incompetent handling of the GeoCities franchise gives interesting pointers about how online consumers will vote with their feet and abandon a once popular site when its terms of service are no longer to their liking.
In the 1990s, everybody wanted to be on the Internet, but buying a domain name and server space was relatively expensive. Sites like GeoCities offered free server space for web sites to large amounts of users. When Yahoo! purchased GeoCities, the latter had 3.4 million members, who together had created roughly 29 million pages. 3.4 Million members, that is about the number of people living in Albania or Panama. If portals like GeoCities and Tripod had not existed, many of these people would not have been able to create web sites. And it is those personal websites, that user-created content, that has characterised the Internet as a many-to-many communication medium: online you don’t just consume one-way communication, you publish you own stuff as well.
Yahoo! purchased GeoCities in January 1999 and soon the portal entered a downwards trajectory. Yahoo! imposed restrictive Terms of Service, and learnt the hard way how easily online consumers vote with their feet. Yahoo! learnt that a three-billion dollar brand name like GeoCities means nothing to users if they feel that the site no longer takes care of their needs. If GeoCities users had no problems switching to a new provider when the former defaulted, how easy should it then be for users of other sites to take their business elsewhere when the terms of service change? What if it suddenly comes out tomorrow that Facebook is monitoring all private communication of its users? We consider Facebook a very strong Internet brand name today, but it has in no way a monopoly on social networking. Like GeoCities, Facebook renders a service that is replaceable.
GeoCities died because the service it offered was non-exclusive. Brand names suddenly become worthless if users feel that competing services have more respect for them. For this reason, sites like Facebook are vulnerable to competitors if they mess something up their service. That the lesson of the short life of GeoCities. Maybe the only really secure web site services are those that are not replaceable, like Google, because they possess valuable intellectual property of their own: in this case, a search algorithm that cannot be replicated by others. In the survival of the fittest that is the web economy, Yahoo! GeoCities has been marked for extinction. It ought to be placed in a museum of Internet history to remind us what happens when web sites screw up.