Exploring the Frontiers of Neocities: Reviews and Lessons

Cyberpunk cityscape
Photo by Francois Hoang / Unsplash

During the 90s, I had a Geocities site. I wrote the HTML entirely by hand with neither CSS nor JavaScript. It took me a long time, but after weeks of learning everything I could about web development, I had my nice little corner of the web that hosted photos, poetry, tables, and other goodies.

But then Geocities became lame – an example of "everything wrong with the Internet". I remember a web designer friend of mine tsk tsking at my Geocities site. It was primitive, he said. Real designers used Macromedia Flash.

Geocities was eventually bought by Yahoo! Like almost everything bought by that company, its destiny was to wither on the vine until it was shut down in 2009.

"Good riddance!" many thought as we migrated to WordPress, Facebook, Twitter – and a host of services that increasingly removed any personalization from the web.

Yet an equal amount of people thought something important to our collective culture was lost. Sure, Geocities may have been ugly at times and lacked sophistication, but it was also a place where anyone could literally do anything provided that they had a little knowledge of web development. Thus, in 2013, a spiritual successor to Geocities was made: Neocities.

So what is it like to browse a Neocities site nowadays? Today, we're going to look at five sites hosted on Neocities – and what they imply for the web going forward.

Lainzine homepage

Lainzine

Lainzine is a zine for late 90s cyberpunk anime Serial Experiments Lain. Personally, I've never seen this anime – there's just too many animes for me to see, and I don't even remember all the ones I've already seen. However, according to the site, the anime has interesting themes related to programming and opsec, pseudo-religious technobabble, and "digital life".

Aesthetically, the site is meant to mimic the experience of staring into a CRT monitor with copious amounts of neon. That said, the function of the site is to deliver some PDF newsletters. Each newsletter contains fan fiction, art, musings on technology and modern living.

Apart from the newsletter, there's a radio, links to a Redbubble store, and announcements of new developments.

Lainzine does a decent job of delivering a cyberpunk aesthetic. This isn't a site that updates often, but it is a decent archive for a passion project.

Welcome By Edz homepage

Welcome By Edz

In the background, we have an animated vaporwave-style sun. The foreground has two animated Walkmens and a Motorola flip phone. The icons represent three different sections:

  1. Art
  2. Contact
  3. Utilities

Art takes you to vaporwave-style images of Emma Goldman, Jeremy Corbyn and Vladimir Lenin respectively. Contact gives you the email, Neocities profile, and landline phone number of the eponymous Eds. Surprisingly, Utilities has nothing to do with any kind of software but is instead an art gallery for different animations reminiscent of YTMND.

Again, this is a simple website but does a good job of building curiosity and intrigue.

What can 10kB do? homepage

What can 10kB do?

This is a gallery of images with a size limitation of 10kB.

The art in the gallery ranges from impressively photorealistic to cutely cartoonish. Each image is accompanied by humourous multi paragraph write-ups, concluding with the image's size, colours, and pixel dimensions.

All images are licensed via CC0 1.0 Universal, and there's an affirmation that "copying is an act of love".

As one who group up with all manner of 8-bit and 16-bit computers and game consoles, it certainly doesn't surprise me that intricate art can be created with these size limitations. Hell, some old games were able to contain text, sound, and graphical animations in even smaller sizes.

Still, in an age where 48MP cameras come installed on midrange smartphones, it's nice to think about what's possible.

Emilie M. Reed homepage

Emilie M. Reed

Emilie M. Reed is a Scottish writer and art curator with an interest in gaming. Her site functions as a general hub for her web presence, but she also does some blogging.

I largely agree with all her points about the death of handheld gaming. She also has a fun little post about a Dark Matter Reading List.

Over all, I quite like Emilie. She's witty, fun, and teaches me quite a bit about gaming history. I also enjoy her aesthetic choices.

This is where Neocities shines above the typical blog because, in building her site, it seems that Emilie was not quite satisfied with just using a template. Each page is a new discovery – and makes me remember what "surfing" the web really meant.

cepheus homepage

cepheus

It's at this site where all the worst aspects of web 1.0 rear their ugly head. Animated backgrounds are headache-inducing, and make text difficult to read. I also don't like the fact this site is "best viewed in chrome".

Once you get past the splash page, you're brought to another page with an animated background, widgets, more GIFs, and more hard-to-read text that scrunched up into iframes.

Web 1.0 was fun but there's also a good reason for much that we take for granted in UI/UX design. Solid colour background, flat iconography, and standardized web fonts have been a boon for usability.

Here I admit that surfing around Neocities has been a blast but also a cause for concern.

Neocities is fun but not a way forward

Much of the appeal of Neocities has been nostalgia, and they've done much to provide new web developers a space to experiment without too many rules. They've also done much to preserve a culture that had once been viewed with contempt.

Neocities has no ads even at the free tier. It is open source. You can download any site or migrate it to another. Their mission is commendable, and they're a success as far as their parameters are concerned.

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, though. On many corners of the Internet, there's a call to return back to a Web 1.0 framework. This was a time before Big Tech took over, before grandma was radicalized by a meme, before everything you did was tracked and analyzed.

Yet as kind and simple as that era was, it had its clear flaws. Mainly, Web 1.0 lead to Web 2.0 – and Web 2.0 happened for a good reason.

Creating a Better Internet

The original Geocities died because Yahoo! bought it up, failed to develop it further, then shut it down. People grew tired of static pages and demanded more interactions, space where it felt like they really were talking to friends. Hence why MySpace and, later, Facebook took over their niche.

This change came at a price.

One thing I can't stand about the current Internet is that (what some exceptions) it seems impossible to talk about things I actually care about. On Facebook, nobody cares about your favourite bands – the algorithm instead rewards "big" life events like a birthday or a new job. Twitter is likewise not a place to discuss interests unless it's a spicy hot take about a problematic celebrity. The likes and comments are aplenty but where's the joy and passion?

Sure, what we lost for in imagination we made back with a greater sense of engagement. But why do we need to choose between imagination and engagement? Why can't we build an Internet where the two values can co-exist?

Here's where development of the ActivityPub protocol and peer-to-peer social networking can learn lessons from Neocities. So far, development has largely been about replicating currently popular social media platforms. That doesn't go far enough.

For the Fediverse to take root, it must pique the imagination of new web developers much like Neocities does.