Death of a City

In its prime, the ancient neighborhood of Petsburg may have had as many as 10,000 homes. And though they are now abandoned, traces of their inhabitants still hide in the ruins. “I just LOVE attention!,” a resident named Gypsy once wrote in her long-forgotten journal. Another resident named Cosmo confessed, “I don’t mean to be a bad cat, but being good is very difficult.” Names of these neighbors linger on the walls and in guestbooks. There was Fuzzy, Tinker, Nipper, Spice, Boomer, Lady Sustina, Whisky, and countless others too, now scattered, if they’re still anywhere at all.

Petsburg appears to have enjoyed a bustling commercial district during its heyday. There were shops where one could do everything from having their age in dog years calculated to adopting one of the community’s abandoned pets. The neighborhood library recorded the histories of ancient creatures, like, for instance, the Egyptian Mau (“To gaze upon this beautiful and engaging [cat] is an opportunity to view a living relic,” one historian wrote.) Meanwhile, its scientists painstakingly chronicled the stages of gerbil pregnancies (“12/23/98: Moonflash and Chequers could double as gourds! they are both expecting any time now,” a researcher observed.) Visitors traveled the neighborhood on Webrings, leaving their mark in each home’s guestbook. The local newspaper was the Petsburg Post, though no copy has survived the community’s complete collapse.

Petsburg was just one of the 40 neighborhoods that made up the metropolis of Geocities, which, in its 15 years of existence, housed some 38 million online residents. It was arguably the world’s first and last Internet city. Were it a physical place, it would have been by far the largest urban area in the world.

One way to make sense of the change in the way we live online is to consider how the language we use to talk about our digital selves has evolved. Take terms like cybercitizen and netizen, which each play on the metaphor that the Internet is a structured city or community. According to Google Ngrams, these words found their greatest use in the heydey of Geocities and have been in decline ever since. This happened as we began clicking friend buttons instead of writing in the guestbooks of neighborly strangers. It happened as we traded in our HTML editors for the sleek blue layouts and pre-set photo sizes of Facebook. In other words, we stopped being frontiersmen and started being consumers, conceding the role of maker in our Wild West to corporations. And build they did.

In short, we gave up our netizenship.

“The sense that you were given some space on the Internet, and allowed to do anything you wanted to in that space, it’s completely gone from these new social sites,” said Scott. “Like prisoners, or livestock, or anybody locked in institution, I am sure the residents of these new places don’t even notice the walls anymore.”

Clicking through the old Geocity links it was impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of the nearly naïve honesty of the Petsburg netizens with the cynical, cryptic currency of this moment.

How far we have traveled…

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