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In April of 2009, Yahoo! Geocities stopped offering free web-hosting services in the United States, rendering its at least 38 million personal, custom-designed pages frozen in time, accessible albeit unmodifiable. Today, dating as far back as 1994, they exist only as bizarre, digital artifacts, archived on websites such as the Internet Archive, OoCities, and ReoCities. Thanks to a new online art project, however, the ’90s are alive and kicking.
“Cameron’s World,” built by Berlin-based designer Cameron Askin, is a frenetic web-collage created as “a love letter to the internet of old.” Divided into thematic rows of over 700 images Askin sourced from archived pages, the website is a well-organized gallery exploding with decades-old browser detritus composed of blinking texts, animated pictorial cursors, MIDI files, and cheesy GIFs. Meanwhile, music fitting to soundtrack a video game, created by Robin Hughes with only a mouse, loops in the background so scrolling through “Cameron’s World” truly feels like entering a time machine.
Most images in Askins’ collage are clickable, triggering a popup web browser that leads to an actual, mostly functional GeoCities page — dedicated to everything from the Teletubbies to Britney Spears to how much “‘Titanic’ sucks.” In “Cameron’s World,” that browser is “Catscape Navigator 2.0,” a parody of the old-school Netscape Navigator based upon a “Get Catscape Meow!” GIF Askin found while deep in the GeoCities archives. (Clicking a toolbar button that reads “Meow” generates only cat-related GeoCities pages as a nod to today’s obsession with felines on the internet.)
Askin first began the project last October, inspired by “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op,” a Tumblr blog launched by Olia Lillian and Dragan Espenschied in 2013 that posts screenshots of old GeoCities webpages. Creating “Cameron’s World” required months of digging through archived neighborhood directories — how GeoCities topically divided its pages — and culling the most interesting and bizarre GIFs and texts, all the while taking screenshots of the original URLs. After collecting the material from what Askin estimates amounts to thousands of websites, he grouped related images together in Photoshop to capture key themes and trends. The resulting rows reveal the vast variety of image choices that represent the same graphic subject: scrolling through “Cameron’s World” takes one through, for example, diverse sections of planets, hearts and roses, oceanic life, and even “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” signs — which speak to the feelings of complete ownership people had over their pages. Icons depicting guest books, visitor counts, and envelopes that link to personal (mostly hotmail) email accounts also show that users valued others’ feedback to their cobbled together pages.
“The tone of voice was a lot more personal. Rambling conversational content was common,” Askin told Hyperallergic. “The other striking thing was so much of the web was under construction. It was totally acceptable to build just 50% of a *NSYNC fan page and call it quits. I think users were less critical of websites, and creators had a less polished approach.”
Compared to this freeform nature of GeoCities that encouraged users to create highly individualized sites, profiles on today’s most popular social networks have standardized layouts. “Cameron’s World” is a self-described “tribute to the lost days of unrefined self-expression on the internet.”
“I think this was a time when a website really was a ‘site,’” Askin said. “A homepage was thought of as a second ‘home.’ There’s more of a spatial sense to the online world. Users navigated through these pages one-by-one on a linear journey. Navigation menus often changed on every page — it was like the wild west frontier.
“I think a lot of internet has become a mall in terms of our off-the-shelf conformity,” he said. “These days it feels like the most room we have to define ourselves online is our choice of profile and cover pictures on social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. They’re controlled environments that iron out many of the wilder intricacies of personal taste that used to define self-expression on personal home pages.”
GeoCities may appear unrefined to our timeline-accustomed eyes today, but as “Cameron’s World” illustrates, those pages were also quite sweet, representing personal, visually rich dedications to every subject, no matter how seemingly insignificant.