There goes the neighborhood

Are companies like GeoCities truly "building communities" -- or just plastering ads on incomplete, out-of-date Web pages?


Janelle Brown
December 31, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

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.

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"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.

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"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.)

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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.

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"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."

One of the most vivid examples of this occurred last summer, when GeoCities launched a "watermark" system that superimposes a ghostly "GeoCities" icon and link over the bottom corner of every member home page. The watermark was, and still is, glitchy -- it causes Javascript errors and makes it difficult to read anything in the bottom corner of the host's Web page. GeoCities has also increased its ad density -- so that every time you click on a link within a GeoCities member home page, a new pop-up ad window will open.

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.

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"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."

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What kind of community is there for members who do stick to one company's service? Most of these services, to be sure, have bulletin boards, chat rooms, scheduled events, thematic interest areas -- and of course millions of "members." But the vast majority of the people who come and build their homes are not doing much interacting with the others in their community.

Pay a visit to the forums of GeoCities and you'll find a couple thousand posts -- nothing compared to the millions of members the service boasts. The posts are sporadic and repeat visitors are rare. On one recent evening, I was the sole person logged on to the entire Tripod chat server; although there were also member chat rooms, hosted on Web sites, only 30 or so people were chatting in less than a dozen active rooms.

"Publishing to each other could be part of community, but it isn't sufficient," explains Howard Rheingold, a veteran community-builder on the Web and author of "The Virtual Community." "And putting up message boards and chat rooms is a step towards community, but online community does not automatically happen just by throwing the tools at people. It requires thought." And that's not all, he adds: It also requires talented hosts, log-in requirements that reduce anonymity and shared interests that will engage members and keep them coming back.

And, of course, members have to actually want to get involved -- and many don't. Amy Jo Kim, author of the upcoming book "Community Building on the Web," spent much of this year researching community at GeoCities. "Lots and lots of people at GeoCities couldn't give a shit about community," she says. "I interviewed hundreds of members, and most said, 'I don't know why you're contacting me. I just have a home page there because I want a Web space.'"

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There are, of course, some members who are interested in community and actively participate in chats. Richard Jones of FortuneCity estimates that a quarter of his members actively participate in member areas. Theglobe.com has hopping chat rooms, especially in the Romance area (the member home pages, on the other hand, are mostly empty -- the company is still best known for chat). And in the member chat rooms at Tripod, it's easy to find assorted teens and older Net novices who are perfectly thrilled to be participating in the incoherent conversations.

The community that does exist in the free Web page services, explains Kim, usually emerges from "community leader" programs. Community leaders, sometimes called liaisons, are essentially enthusiastic volunteers who patrol their designated "neighborhoods" on behalf of the company. Their duties are typically to watch for inappropriate content, eliminate sites that have not been updated, e-mail new members and encourage them to build out their Web sites and invite members to participate in planned events like chats or contests.

Certainly, these volunteers form a genuine community of sorts, with a shared sense of responsibility and regular interactions with other community leaders. They even serve as mutual support groups -- witness the heartfelt memorials that the GeoCities community leaders put up last year when another leader, Bev Crowley, died.

But how well can these volunteers serve as catalysts for real community? There are, for example, 1,600 community leaders at GeoCities, who are collectively responsible for 3 million Web sites. Do the math: Each leader has to keep on top of nearly 2,000 members. At theglobe.com, 400 leaders serve more than 2 million members. Their task is nearly futile -- although many sites insist that the community leaders track non-participating members and take down outdated sites, it's still easy to find ancient unfinished home pages, and it's obvious that there are a lot more people who don't participate than there are those who do. And most hosts don't receive any training from their companies.

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Says Rheingold, "These companies that have gone public have the resources to do it right. It doesn't cost that much to get the right kind of software and training programs for hosts, whether you pay them or not, compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in capitalization these companies have. One can only conclude that they're interested in the eyeballs and using the word community, but that they're not really interested in fostering community."

Some of the services, of course, come closer than others to the community ideal. And some services make no bones about their lack of interest in community-building: Angelfire promotes the fact that "We won't blather you to death ... cause you just wanna make pages." And Xoom's founders say they are more interested in direct marketing to the site's members than in fostering communication between them. Explains CEO Laurent Massa, "If you think about community and affinity groups, there is a limiting factor down the road for this concept, because you are gathering a core of purists ... We're not in the business of building art colonies."

As Massa rightly observes, there will always be a tension between the needs of a "community" and the desire of a big Internet company to reap profits. The market enthusiasm for sites like GeoCities or Xoom or theglobe.com is directly tied to the number of members they can boast and the number of ads they can serve to those members. Communities, on the other hand, tend to be strongest when they are small and tightly focused.

So it's little surprise that business needs are often coming ahead of community visions. Tripod, for example, stopped producing its magazine-style content after the site was purchased by Lycos: The special-interest features and polls that used to give members a meeting point have now been replaced by forbidding lists of topical home pages. GeoCities also reorganized its site last year, forcing its metaphorically named "Neighborhoods" to fit 14 generically labeled "Avenues" -- a decision that may have made the site more appealing to advertisers, but that also created a strange categorization system (the "Area 51" paranormal area is now filed under Entertainment), longer member site addresses and utterly confusing navigation.

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GeoCities press releases said the redesign was intended to "ease site navigation and improve access to user-published content." Author Kim explains it differently: "GeoCities really backed off from the neighborhood thing, and did the topic thing instead. That's all about business model -- topics and avenues."

The increasingly commercial nature of the "Web community" companies is most evident on the home and top-level pages of their sites. To become a member of many of these services, you have to click through page after page of commercial solicitations. The GeoCities site is particularly crammed with ads -- from the pop-up windows on the top of member pages to similar pop-up ads on the main site to the astounding array of animated ads in all sizes that fill every square inch of the main site. The front door to Fashion Avenue, for example, is so chockablock with solicitations and banner ads and co-branded links that it's nearly impossible to find the two tiny text links and one pull-down toolbar that will lead you to the neighborhood chat rooms, forums and home pages.

GeoCities has always led the field of the free Web page companies -- it's arguably the oldest and biggest and has the best performance on the stock market. It's also consistently the most commercial. If what you find at GeoCities is what's commercially viable for this kind of site, the future of free Web page services may not offer much hope for the ideal of community.

Micro-communities can exist within an enormous, profitable service -- just look at some of the successful interest groups at AOL -- but they require baby-sitting and attention, which in turn require staffing and training and hosting.

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That's not as easy as it looks. Will the commercialism of free Web page companies stifle their community-building aspirations? Describing FortuneCity's strategy, Lady Kythera Ann lays out the alternatives: "It's the difference between the feeling you get in a small town when you go the grocery store and everyone knows you, or when you go into the masses of suburbia -- you can live there for 10 years and never know your neighbor. Both are called communities, but which one really is?"


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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