Courtesy Geocities Research Institute

Looking at broken Geocities pages is deeply frustrating. They’re often either almost entirely indecipherable (i.e. a page full of broken images) or missing some crucial element, like an elaborate background with a missing image or vanished text.

Courtesy Geocities Research Institute

Olia Lialina, a net artist, has spent the part of past few years trying to restore some of these sites. In a 2012 essay Lialina dubbed these sorts of pages, overrun with empty borders, red Xs, and missing images, as "ruins."

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Over email, Lialina told Fusion that she’s not particularly frustrated by the ruins; there are so many of them, in fact, that to her the incomplete webpages seem routine. She even enjoys “guess[ing] the reason for a missing image without looking into the code.”

But when she can, she tracks down files that correspond to broken images and links and restores the sites to their intended appearance. It's an incredible process to watch unfold, from ruins to restoration.

When Lialina and her collaborators are able restore ruins it’s as exciting to watch as the broken pages are frustrating to look at. Seeing the images and broken links restored is like watching a flower bursting suddenly into bloom. The flower just happens to be a stranger’s album of wedding photos.

Courtesy Geocities Research Institute

The ruins exist because, in October 2009, Yahoo announced that it was going to shut down the once-popular web hosting service Geocities, which it had owned since 1999. The plan called to do so without archiving the millions of sites hosted on the service. Users, archivists, and web historians immediately set out to rescue and save as many sites as they could.

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After Geocities was shut down, digital preservationists at the Archive Team (and others) were able to salvage a terabyte of data from millions of Geocities sites. Since January 2011 Liilana and her collaborator, Dragan Espenschied, have been trawling through that massive file, a project they chronicle on the blog One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age.

Courtesy Geocities Research Institute

The Geocities archive is vast, but it’s also incomplete. Many sites are lost for good, and those that were archived are full of ruins. Many broken images and files correspond to directories that aren’t there anymore, or which were kept on other hosting services which can be difficult to find or were eventually shut down as well.

Courtesy Geocities Research Institute

Monique Baier, a student who’s been working with the archive, recently created a series of videos of the restored sites for an exhibit based on the Geocities archive. Baier was able to track down the image files for a number of ruined pages and restore them. She described the experience as “like finding a treasure’,” adding that, “Often it was also a surprise, because many homepages existed just only of pictures and this made the entire impression and statement of the homepage and about the person who designed the website.”

Courtesy Geocities Research Institute

Nostalgia for the earlier internet is fine, but it's good to be cautious about it, especially since we're still in what Kyle Chayka described last year as the "Web 1.0 Revival." But what's great about these restored ruins, aside from the emotional effect of watching them restored, is they actually push back against rosy-eyed nostalgia. We're confronted with both the ghosts of internet past we'd rather not confront, as well as the ones we refresh the page eager to see.

Correction: This post originally referred to net artist "Olia Lialana." her name is Olia Lialina, not Lialana.

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net