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The early internet is breaking—meet the people saving it

By Meghan McDonough, Marcie LaCerte
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The design of the page you’re looking at right now is clean. Neutral. Coherent. Probably not too different from the last website you visited—and the one before that.

That’s because it’s 2019, and today’s internet looks completely different from the World Wide Web of 1999. Back then, the online community GeoCities was the third most popular website in the world, and web page design was a free-for-all. Within GeoCities’ 40 “neighborhoods” like “WestHollywood” and “Area51,” users adorned home pages with “under construction” gifs, guestbooks, and, of course, Comic Sans.

In 1999, Olia Lialina taught web design in Germany. In class, she’d use amateur sites as examples of what not to do. But then, Lialina realized that those pages were disappearing. So she began to collect, and, eventually, study them to understand the values embedded within the early web’s ever-present starry night backgrounds, Mail Me buttons, and welcome signs.

Ten years ago, GeoCities shut down permanently. Tens of millions of personal pages were about to be lost forever. That’s when a collective of archivists and programmers stepped in and saved the data, enabling several artists to make the content accessible to people online today.

Preserving this history isn’t just nostalgia for the internet of the 90s. For Lialina and others, these pages offer lessons for today’s users. Enter their world in this video.

Next step: save a website, using a tool called Webrecorder that allows anyone to preserve any website.

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