Trying to save GeoCities time capsules





We always imagined how this might end: GeoCities would finally take down all of the animated "under construction" signs, and we'd hear one last Midi file to the tune of horns playing taps.

Instead, GeoCities will probably go down with a whimper today.

Time is up for Yahoo Inc.'s scheduled closing of perhaps the most significant virtual museum in recent history. Years ago a central meeting place for a massive chunk of American Web surfers, GeoCities will lock its doors and take millions of pages offline.

GeoCities allowed anyone to build a custom Web page for free and reserved a small amount of virtual storage to keep pictures and documents. It was perhaps the first mainstream example of an open, participatory and personal Internet.

At the turn of the century, GeoCities was nearly ubiquitous. Fathers created websites about their families; kids created sites about Pokemon; teenage girls created sites about the Backstreet Boys. Practically every facet of culture was documented and thanks to search engines, easily accessible.

All of those documents are about to disappear...

... Some GeoCities pages appear to have been lost over the years. But an independent group called Archiveteam, headed by Jason Scott, has been trying to save everything left before Yahoo closes the building.

The group of dedicated digital historians have been pointing about a hundred computers at the GeoCities domain 24 hours a day for months. First, the machines crawled the neighborhoods, duplicating copies of everything in sight.

"The hard part was going through and trying to find random user names," Scott said about the obstacle Yahoo introduced later in GeoCities' life. "Basically, we're hitting Google and crawling in every direction."

So far, Archiveteam has captured about a terabyte of data, or about a thousand gigabytes, in its mission of mirroring the entire site.

"That's a lot of data," Rezner said when we told him about Scott's project.

You have no idea. Neither do any of Archiveteam's dozens of volunteers. Yahoo won't tell them how big GeoCities really is. The amount of allotted storage fluctuated over the years, making it even harder to estimate, Scott said.

"We're running blind," Scott said.

Scott, an unemployed systems administrator looking to transition into a career as a historian, has found a lot of history in his quest. He's dug up countless family trees, computer software directories and a document on Romania that he believes was compiled over years.

Even the endless "Saved by the Bell" fan sites -- these are history. Scott put together a page populated with a bunch of the "under construction" Gif files that were synonymous with the early Web. The spiritual successor is the "beta" tag, Scott notes.

"I was trying to illustrate quickly the things that could be lost," Scott said. "All of these discussions are happening at the function of having these artifacts laying around."

Scott is also working with Archive.org, the group behind the Wayback Machine, to hit the project from two sides. But only a few grains of sand are left atop the hourglass, and scores of pages are sure to be lost.

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