Neocities: Geocities' Optimistic Younger Sibling

Author's note: This post was originally written for the science and technology section of Paper Droids. It can be found in its original form here.

Remember Geocities? That inexhaustible collection of gifs, seizure-inducing backgrounds and clown-vomit-coloured websites has been the subject of some nostalgia lately. Rather than just checking out Wayback Machine and remembering what a hideous place most of Geocities was, someone decided to do something about it.

As much as Geocities was the home to countless affronts to the eyes, it was also the platform where so many of us learned the basics of coding, and where we presented some part of ourselves to the Internet, perhaps for the first time. Geocities is a big piece of Internet history. When Myspace and other social sites stepped into the picture, Geocities faded away, and there has really been nothing like it since. Sites like Facebook, Blogger and WordPress allow you to create a website or an online presence for free, but with heavy restrictions, and usually no need to be familiar with coding or scripting.

Kyle Drake (@kyledrake), the creator of Neocities.org, has set out to create Geocities’ successor. Though some of us may shake our heads and wonder why you would ever want that many gifs in one place, Drake sums up his noble goal in 140 characters or less.

His plan is to take away the comfortable but restrictive WYSIWYG and drag-and-drop layouts of most modern web sites, and allow people to present whatever information they want, in whatever format they see fit. His idea is to create an environment where people can be completely creative, without the hand-holding of guidelines and forms like those of Facebook and WordPress.

In its current state, Neocities provides 10 MB of free hosting, with no content restrictions, as little censorship as can be managed, and complete freedom to put whatever you want on it, ad free. While it does away with the “cities” part, where the sites were divided into sections based on content, you still need to know how to code. The price of creative freedom is that you need to actually understand the HTML and the CSS that goes into your page. A secondary part of Drake’s goal is to create a vehicle for people to learn more about the internet and its building blocks. He feels that it is becoming more and more important to know how to code or program, and he wants to create a place that makes that easy and accessible. Neocities is also working towards having HTML tutorials so that the absolute novice can get started, all at no cost.

Though the service is free to the user, all of the hosting and resources require funding. The site is currently funded by donations, and there are no plans to implement an ad program. The Neocities website states that “[t]he technology has become affordable enough where we can provide this creative space without requiring a business plan that involves selling people out to the marketing industry.” Through donations alone they have secured the funding to host two million sites for two years, according to Drake.

As for the monitoring and censorship issue. The terms on the site make no statement about disallowing any types of content, but it does say that any suspected unlawful activity can be reported to the authorities. If lawful process requires your personal information, they retain the right to give that to the authorities as well. “Uncensored” has to have its boundaries, after all. Luckily, providing any personal information when you register is completely optional. You don’t even need to submit an email address to register.

While this project was started with noble aspirations for a free and unobstructed creative place on the web, there is a lot of potential for mischief here. Like with any anonymous forum, there is a significant chance that the denizens of the murkier places on the web will latch onto this and fill it full of various flavours of vitriol and deception. So far there are people using it to share useful information, introduce themselves, or just straight-up confuse people. (Watch out, that last one is loud.) There are also many sites that should surprise no one.

For those with aspirations of learning HTML and CSS, it is a great way to get started and make something that is completely yours, even if that ends up being a flashing neon scrolling banner declaring your love for banana peppers. If you’ve already got some coding chops, you can make an elegant, stylish place to present yourself. Better yet, find yourself a newbie. Get them started with some basic skills and watch the fireworks.

Whether the platform gets adopted by the creative community, taken over by trolls, filled with auto-playing midis and blinking yellow scrolling banners, or an exciting combination of the three, it will be interesting to see. Who knows? Maybe Geocities was just ahead of its time.
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