Welcome to my home at GeoCities. I live at 9258 Fashion Avenue, in a neighborhood appropriately called Salon. I moved in here earlier last week because I was told that "Design, Beauty and Glamour are the toast of Fashion Avenue," but so far there's not a whiff of glamour to be seen -- my neighborhood is a ghost town of hundreds of empty pages, half-started Web sites and vacant lots; only a handful of the members seem to be at all interested in fashion. I suppose my bare-bones Web page is no better.
GeoCities may call itself the "largest and fastest growing community of personal Web sites on the Internet," but there's no community to be found in my neighborhood.
"Community" is quite possibly the most over-used word in the Net industry. True community -- the ability to connect with people who have similar interests -- may well be the key to the digital world, but the term has been diluted and debased to describe even the most tenuous connections, the most minimal interactivity. The presence of a bulletin board with a few posts, or a chat room with some teens swapping age/sex information, or a home page with an e-mail address, does not mean that people are forming anything worthy of the name community.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the free Web page services -- sites like GeoCities or theglobe.com that give away free Web space and then sell ad space based on the traffic that "user-generated content" attracts. Such companies have been the darlings of Wall Street over the past year. But it remains to be seen if they can preserve the cozy promises of community that they've made to their constituency with the lavish promises of profits that they've had to make to their investors and shareholders.
Free Web page services are one of the fastest growing sectors of the Web industry, enabling any person with Net access to slap up a Web site using simple tools. You can choose from scores of services: Not only the granddaddies like GeoCities, Angelfire, Tripod, theglobe.com and Xoom, but smaller services like FreeYellow, FortuneCity, Nettaxi and Homestead. You can even create a home page at your favorite portal; all they ask is that they be allowed to put ads on your page.
Undoubtedly, you've visited one of these services at some point -- whether you are a member of one of them yourself (together, the top seven services boast more than 20 million members) or have simply stopped by one of the member pages (GeoCities' member pages alone claim 8 percent of the content on the Web). If you haven't visited one, perhaps you've invested in them instead: Xoom, GeoCities and theglobe.com had three of the hottest initial public stock offerings of 1998, and Lycos picked up Tripod for $58 million, which it now runs along with the previously acquired Angelfire.
These companies have ambitiously promoted their "communities," boasting of their astronomical numbers of members and interactive interest groups. But there's a breakdown between what's being hyped and what's actually happening at these sites: Few of the members actually seem to be communicating with one another. Most people, it seems, just want a place to slap up a picture of their cat.
"Community" is the refrain of executives at nearly every free-page site:
"We're trying to make the world a better place ... a place where people felt safe, a place with a real sense of community -- because this seems to be really lacking in the world today."
-- Lady Kythera Ann, community director at FortuneCity
"Community is such a hot topic, everyone is claiming that they have community on their site, but it is the first and only reason for GeoCities. That's the reason why people come to GeoCities."
-- Tom Evans, GeoCities CEO
"A lot of people think community is places where you have home pages. But we define it as a place where you can read content, look up stocks, shop, as well as get together in an interactive environment -- of which home pages is a subset."
--Stephan Paternot, co-founder of theglobe.com
"There are a lot of ways in which these sites are totally the same -- they are all a place to build your home page with easy tools. But beyond that, Tripod members like to belong to a community, and on [other services] they don't have that option."
-- Scott Walker, vice president of marketing at Tripod
From the outside, most of these free Web page services appear interchangeable. Sure, some offer more server space, others offer gimmicks like personal chat rooms or shorter Web addresses, some have more ads and others have more "community leaders." But with few exceptions, they all provide the essentials: server space, editing tools, themed content areas and chat rooms or forums.
These sites -- which boast anywhere from a few hundred thousand members to millions -- are all growing fast. GeoCities has laid claim to 3.3 million members; Xoom claims 5.6 million; theglobe.com claims 2 million, Tripod 2.7 million and WBS 3.5 million. The cumulative visitors that stop by member pages put the free-page sites consistently at the top of the most-trafficked lists from Media Metrix.
What, though, is a "member"? This is the mysterious question at the root of community-site hype. For while many sites, like Xoom and Tripod and theglobe.com, feel that anyone who has ever submitted their e-mail address (say, someone who used a chat room once in 1997) is a member, others, like GeoCities and FortuneCity, count only those people who have active pages. And there's even disagreement on what "active" is -- while GeoCities says that it removes 3,000 or so "inactive" or "inappropriate" (porn, spam or illegal "warez") sites a day, and will take down a site that doesn't have a "dynamic element" within three months, a quick stroll through many of the GeoCities pages turns up stale pages, pages that consist of only one picture, pages that promote pornography. (Because of the spotty nature of many member pages, some of the free Web page services say that getting them listed at search engines is difficult,
although GeoCities officials say that they have "great relationships" with
the search sites.)
And there's nothing exclusive about "membership." A member of GeoCities will often also have pages at theglobe.com or Xoom or Tripod -- often nearly identical clone sites that link back and forth to each other. Tripod, in fact, estimates that at least 15 percent of its users maintain pages at other free Web page services.
Take, for example, 40-year-old computer consultant Israel Rodriguez, who has pages on seven different services. He first built pages at FreeYellow and GeoCities and theglobe.com in the hopes that one of these services would be easier to use; then he added a page on FortuneCity for his personal photography hobby, a page on Nettaxi for a free e-mail account and an account at Tripod so that he could get involved in a wrestling newsgroup he spied there. Although he says he likes GeoCities and theglobe.com best because their servers are the most reliable, he still migrates from one service to another. "I experimented," he explains. "There are maybe 100 Web page providers out there -- if you have a problem with one, then switch to another."
Apparently, there's an itinerant group of home-page builders -- people who will go wherever the best deals are. At sites like Free Index, where free Web-page veterans swap notes on the various services, you find a plethora of users who have hopped from service to service based on what's being offered.
"There seems to be a portion that moves from GeoCities to us to Tripod to Angelfire -- whomever has the newest and best tech toys of the moment. That's what they're interested in, not idealistic things [like community]. Which is fine," says Lady Kythera Ann of FortuneCity. "People are always going to migrate. Some will shop all the time, some will stick."
Not surprisingly, this didn't sit well with the GeoCities members -- community leaders (volunteers who patrol member sites on GeoCities' behalf) were angry that GeoCities didn't consult them before implementing the watermark, and some members felt that the company was putting its hunger for profits ahead of their welfare. A number of betrayed-feeling community leaders have left the service or posted diatribes on their pages, and members have put up protest Web rings on other free-page services.
"Visitors to a GeoCities page want to see the page, not a bunch of advertisements. Watermarks and pop-up ads deflect the viewers' attention from a page," says a bitter former GeoCities member, Beth P., who has moved her site to Angelfire. "Within the past year, GeoCities has become just like all the other big, heartless corporations. They no longer want to be 'your home on the Web,' they just want money from their advertisers and members with 'enhanced' pages."
GeoCities CEO Tom Evans insists that the protests were merely "a few people being very vocal." Still, FortuneCity claims that it had a "significant increase" in its membership after GeoCities implemented the watermark. To differentiate itself, says founder Richard Jones, FortuneCity has decided not to use watermarks or pop-up ads -- a choice it made after putting the issue up for a vote with FortuneCity members. The revenue it makes off each member page may be slightly lower, he explains, but he believes the company's long-term satisfaction and retention rate will be higher.
GeoCities executives say they aren't losing any sleep over scaring off customers by being too commercial. "The Web is very Darwinian," explains Evans. "People come because they like what you're offering, and they leave if they think something is better. The way you compete is by providing the best tools, the best community, the best access -- and we're pretty comfortable with what we're doing."
And the number of people who migrate from one free Web page service to another is probably a minority of the sites' membership. Many users may not be tech-savvy enough to attempt the move, don't care enough about their pages to notice the ads or are afraid that a move would make it hard for visitors to find them. Eighteen-year-old Eric Stremming explains: "I'm tired of GeoCities' pop-up windows, and Xoom won't let me post my pictures on other sites, so I compromised and I'm using Xoom for my documents and GeoCities for my images. They both have features I don't like, but I haven't found any better ones that have everything that I like. Also, I'm not willing to have to change my address again."