15 Megabytes of Fame: The GeoCities Story

iStock/GeoCities
iStock/GeoCities

The 1990s were exciting times for booting up personal computers. Dial-up modems connected millions of homes to the internet, often trying to corral its borderless stream of information with sanitized interfaces like CompuServe and Prodigy. More ambitious users browsed Usenet discussion groups or directed themselves to URLs for web pages.

The majority of web users were content to consume, not create—as the latter required knowledge of HTML, a coding language spoken by only a handful of people.

But David Bohnett saw things a little differently. To the software marketing expert and USC grad, the web was like a new frontier—a landscape where people would want to claim virtual real estate and settle in. He wanted to offer it to them for free, creating “neighborhoods” of sites that would be linked up to one another and categorized by subject. He even wanted to give them templates that made learning basic HTML easy.

In 1994, Bohnett’s virtual world—which he called GeoCities—debuted. For the next 15 years, users would spend incalculable hours building and tending to more than 38 million pages, most of which featured an eye-searing blend of primitive graphics, pre-loaded music files, and flashing fonts. There were a lot of toys to play with, and most users didn’t concern themselves with whether one component of HTML coding complemented another.

A GeoCities screen capture
GeoCities

Bohnett, who originally began his online ambitions with Beverly Hills Internet, a storage server enterprise, believed that people would embrace the idea of GeoCities as a kind of virtual scrapbook that could be shared with others. There were pages on pets, politics, movies, television, regions, and memorials to deceased relatives; tributes to actors, support pages for illnesses, and non-specific personal pages that acted as an introduction to the user. It was as though someone’s stickered, decorated Trapper Keeper had been digitized and made available for mass consumption.

“You may surf the net via access utilities or online services but you'll live in BHI's GeoCities,” Bohnett said in 1995. “There, on the street or in the city of your choice, you'll dwell in a home that reflects the context of your life, become part of the fabric of the community, and establish your own net culture.”

The “homesteaders,” as GeoCities referred to its users, were linked to other pages with similar content. If you enjoyed a person’s Persian cat tribute site or the hearse collectors of New Zealand, GeoCities could guide you to several other pages that you might like. Before search engines were a fully integrated part of the internet experience, this circle of links helped users navigate what seemed like a vast web space.

More importantly, GeoCities was self-reporting. Instead of “Likes,” users had a page counter where they could check to see how many people had been by to view their content. Most webmasters had email addresses on the site and were excited to receive correspondence from around the world. The internet was new (and novel) enough that getting a message from a stranger in Brazil or Iceland came with an endorphin rush.

By 1998, GeoCities had signed up 2 million members, giving each one of them 15 megabytes of storage space for their pages, photos, and tinny MIDI music files. In an era of paid web hosting, it was an attractive offer, and GeoCities tried to monetize the exchange by selling advertising on the sites. With 19 million unique visitors per month, it trailed only behind Yahoo! and America Online.

But not all content creators were satisfied with the arrangement. Rich Brown, who maintained an early and highly popular Monty Python fan site, protested GeoCities’s watermark that appeared on the bottom of his page that offered links to other Python sites. It slowed down load times, which frustrated dial-up users. Other creators felt GeoCities owning their material but placing responsibility for the content on the site administrator was an odd approach.

A GeoCities screen capture
GeoCities

By the time GeoCities was absorbed by Yahoo! for $3.6 billion in 1999, the site’s advertising profits weren’t as substantial as Bohnett had hoped. While Yahoo! looked to integrate the GeoCities community into their business, the purchase came at a time when social networking was on the rise. With the advent of Myspace, which launched in 2003, thoughts could be shared with a ready audience. With GeoCities, you had to hope someone would come across it.

Yahoo! kept GeoCities active through 2009, at which point they decided to sink the proverbial ship. All member accounts were scheduled for deletion. On the surface, terabytes of data containing shirtless Vanilla Ice photos didn't seem like a great loss. But internet archivists argued that GeoCities as a whole was an important snapshot of both our culture and how early internet surfers expressed themselves. They were able to salvage most pages before Yahoo! wiped them from their servers.

Today, GeoCities lives on in archives like the GeoCities Institute, which present captures of these site relics without judgment—their curators sifting through old pages to gauge what people wrote about, from Harry Potter fan fiction sites to the pervasive “Under Construction” pages. Bohnett’s virtual neighborhoods may have been razed, but his foundation for an interconnected social infrastructure lives on.

The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Fanny Pack

Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella
Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella

Back in 1954, Sports Illustrated ran an advertisement for a leather pouch that was touted as an ideal accessory for cross-country skiers who wanted to hold their lunch and ski wax. Hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists could also benefit from this waist-mounted sack, which was a bit like a backpack situated on the hips.

The “fanny pack” sold for $10 ($95 today). For the next several decades, it remained popular among recreational enthusiasts traveling by bike, on foot, or across trails where hands could be kept free and a large piece of travel luggage was unnecessary. From there, it morphed into a fashion statement, marketed by Gucci and Nike for decorative and utilitarian purposes in the 1980s and '90s, before becoming an ironic hipster joke. Even the name—fanny pack—suggests mirth. But the concept of carrying goods on top of your buttocks was never meant to be a joking matter.

A man sports a ski outfit with a fanny pack in 1969
McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mankind has looked to belt-mounted storage solutions for centuries. Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy found preserved in a glacier in 1991, had a leather satchel that held a sharpened piece of bone and flint-stone tools. Subsequent civilizations adopted the premise, with Victorian and Edwardian women toting chatelaine purses made of silk or velvet.

The 20th-century obsession with the fanny pack seemingly began on the ski slopes in Europe in the 1960s and '70s. Known as bauchtasche, or stomach bags, in Switzerland, skiers traveling away from the base lodge who wanted to keep certain items—food, money, a map, flares, and occasionally alcohol—within arm's reach wore them proudly. Photographers also found them useful when hiking or traveling outdoors and climbing through obstacles, as they reduced the risk of an expensive camera or lens being dropped or damaged.

Their migration into fashion and the general public happened in the 1980s, due to what Fashion Fads Through American History author Jennifer Grayer Moore dubbed the rise of “athleisure.” This trend saw apparel and accessories typically relegated to sports or exercise—think leggings, track suits, and gym shorts—entering day-to-day use. With them came the fanny pack, a useful depository for keys, wallets, drinks, and other items. They were especially popular among tourists, who could stash travel accessories like cameras and souvenirs without burdening themselves with luggage.

In the late 1980s, fashion took notice. High-end labels like Chanel manufactured premium fanny packs, often with the more dignified name of belt bag. Sporting one was considered cool, as evidenced by their presence in popular culture. The Fresh Prince, Will Smith, wore one. Members of New Kids on the Block were seen with them. Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade people from feeling pragmatic and hip by sporting an oversized pocket on their waist, which they typically pulled to the front.

A model sports a fanny pack, also known as a belt bag, across her shoulder
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Like most trends, overexposure proved fatal. Fanny packs were everywhere, given out by marketing departments of major brands like Miller Beer and at sports arenas and stadiums. Plastered with corporate logos, they became too crassly commercial for style purposes and too pervasive. By the end of the 1990s, wearing a fanny pack was no longer cool. It was an act that invited mockery and disdain.

The pack, of course, has retained its appeal among outdoor enthusiasts, and lately has been experiencing a resurgence in style circles, with designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Valentino offering high-end pouches. Many are now being modified or worn across the torso like a bandolier (like so), an adaptation prized by skateboarders who want something to hold their goods without hindering movement.

In 2018, fanny packs were credited with a surge in overall accessories sales, posting double-digit gains in merchandise. The fanny pack may have had its day as an accessory of mass appeal, but it’s not likely to completely disappear anytime soon.

A Fad to Dye For: The Brief Life of Hypercolor Clothing

Shadow Shifter, YouTube
Shadow Shifter, YouTube

There's something counterintuitive about a clothing line for young adults that could exhibit outward signs of embarrassment. A shirt, for example, that changes color as a person sweats would seem like something no teenager would want to wear. Yet apparel company Generra struck gold with Hypercolor, their line of thermochromic apparel dyed with a patented process that allowed the cotton fabric to react to spikes in the wearer's body temperature.

It wasn’t just sweat. If someone placed their hand on the shirt, they would leave a handprint that looked almost irradiated. Hugs would deposit lines of color across backs. Even breathing on the fabric caused it to change color. It was interactive “mood” clothing, and for a brief period of time in 1991, it was one of the hottest trends in apparel.

Products that respond to the wearer's emotions or behavior are not a new concept. In 1975, a “mood ring” was introduced that purportedly changed color based on the user’s temperament using a heat-sensitive liquid crystal. Soon after, mood lipsticks began appearing in cosmetics aisles. Freezy Freakies, a line of winter gloves with images that materialized in cold weather, gripped the nation in the 1980s.

Freezy Freakies used thermochromic ink, a methodology that was similar to how Hypercolor clothing managed to change appearance. Generra, which was founded by former executives of the Brittania clothing label in 1980, struck upon the idea after coming across a process developed by Japan's Matsui Shikiso chemical company. First, a permanent dye would be used on a cotton garment—blue, for example. Then a thermochromatic dye would be added, with microcapsules bonding to the fabric. That dye would typically be made of leuco dye, which can appear colorless, along with acid and dissociable salt dissolved in a fatty alcohol named 1-Dodecanol.

The 1-Dodecanol is solid at temperatures below 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 75.2 degrees, it reacts with the salt, causing the previously colorless leuco dye to take on a new color based on light absorption and reflection in the fabric. If the leuco dye is yellow and the shirt is blue, the warmed spot will appear to be green.

Naturally, few kids cared much about the science behind it—they just knew their T-shirt could change colors. Generra became the exclusive licensee of the Hypercolor technology in the United States and began a heavy promotional campaign in late 1990, blanketing MTV and teen magazines like Seventeen and Thrasher with print ads for the color-shifting apparel that read: “Hypercolor, hypercool.”

The marketing assault created heavy anticipation for the official debut of Hypercolor in January 1991. Available at retail locations, the clothing typically bore the Hypercolor insignia or no logo at all. Prospective buyers could sample the thermochromatic action in stores. Even better, they could do it in schools, where kids who had bought the shirts walked the hallways and acted as living billboards for the line.

“Everybody was touching it and breathing on it and stuff and trying to get it to change colors,” Courtney Signorella, a 12-year-old customer and student at Fort Myers Middle School in Fort Myers, Florida, told the News-Press in July 1991 of her classmates' reaction to her Hypercolor gear. The clothes also changed color in air conditioning, under the sun, and during exercise.

Steve Miska, Generra's chairman at the time, dismissed concerns the clothing could be a potential neon sign of nervousness. After testing the garments on his own employees, he felt the color changes in armpits were blotchy and not terribly noticeable. Even though they made shorts and jeans, there was no apparent issue with any kind of discoloration in groin areas. For a potentially controversial piece of apparel, Hypercolor got by without a scratch.

The only problem? Generra underestimated just how enthralled people would be. The company projected $20 million in sales for 1991. By April of that year, they had sold $50 million in Hypercolor items, from shirts ($24) to tank tops ($15) to shorts ($34). A spin-off line, Hypergrafix, used images that would appear with a temperature spike. All told, the company did $105 million in wholesale revenue for that year, over five times what they had anticipated.

But Hypercolor's success came at a price. There was a shortage of the dyes used, and a backlog of orders that needed to be filled. Generra added employees and new manufacturing facilities in their home base of Seattle but wound up meeting only half of the demand. By the time production ramped back up, consumer enthusiasm for Hypercolor was beginning to wane.

A Hypercolor t-shirt with a handprint is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After the initial novelty of seeing handprints or color changes wore off, the shirts weren’t much different from other apparel in closets. And if the fascination for the clothing didn’t fade, the dye soon did. Repeated washings or drying in machines (which wasn’t recommended) frequently diluted the reaction, turning the clothing into a purple-brown oddity. Younger buyers were also gravitating toward licensed sports apparel, like NBA shirts, as well as fashion trends offered by outlets like the Gap.

“There’s nothing trendy about Hypercolor,” Miska told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, at the height of the product's popularity. Little did he know how true those words would soon become.

By 1992, the fad was over and Generra declared bankruptcy, selling off its screen-printing plant and licensing a company named Seattle T-Shirt to make Hypercolor apparel for an increasingly shrinking consumer base.

Heat-reactive clothing has never disappeared entirely. In 2008, a number of manufacturers, including American Apparel and Puma, tried to resurrect the style with shirts, dresses, and sneakers. Currently, a line of clothing under the brand name Shadow Shifter has taken up the baton, offering shirts and other products that react to both temperature and water. Hypercolor was a thermochromatic flash in the pan, despite Generra’s optimism.

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