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.

QVC's Strangest Gift Item: The Poopin' Moose

lemonmmermaid via YouTube
lemonmmermaid via YouTube

The official name of woodworker Darryl Fenton’s novelty item was the Wooden Moose Candy Dispenser. Handcrafted in his Wasilla, Alaska workshop, the unfinished, sanded animal carving had a rectangular opening in the back that could be stuffed with candy pieces. When the moose’s head was lifted, it dispensed the candy in a way that resembled a bowel movement. 

QVC sold 30,000 of them in 10 minutes.

Colloquially known as the Poopin' Moose, the wooden gift was discovered during the shopping network’s 50 state tour in 1997. Arriving in Alaska, buyers were presented with the moose by Glenn Munro of Unique Concepts, which had licensed the moose from Denton. The carving had been sold at regional fairs; QVC, knowing a demonstrable item when they saw one, agreed to put it on the air, leaving the sales pitch to its team of accomplished hosts.

"What better way to dispense your candy than through the butt of a moose?" wondered host Pat Bastia. Others stuffed brown M&Ms into the moose; host Steve Bryant pondered whether or not putting a Hershey chocolate bar in the item would result in diarrhea. When the moose became clogged with peanut candies, Bryant declared it "constipated" and inserted a finger to remove the blockage.

Denton, who had patented the device in 1995, couldn’t handcraft enough to meet demand. He outsourced production to several other plants; via Unique and other outlets, he sold over 100,000 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the moose’s profile grew, Denton added animals that could defecate treats on demand: buffalo, mules, bunnies, and alpacas. He produced a premium Millennium Pooper—a walnut-carved moose with ivory eyes—and sold it for $150. A Pocket Pooper that miniaturized the moose was available for a brief time.

Unfortunately, Denton’s commitment to his craft would prove to be his undoing. In 2004, a rival poop gift named Mr. Moose was released. Offering a similar experience to the Poopin’ Moose, it was made in China and retailed for just $25, a fraction of the $100 handmade version. Suffering from neck problems and a financial crunch, Denton decided to discontinue further production. It never again appeared on QVC’s airwaves, a fact that disappointed onetime host Bryant, who spoke to author David Hofstede in 2004.

"It was handcrafted, provided jobs for people in Alaska, and it pooped M&Ms," he said. "How cool is that?"

Udder Success: The 'Got Milk?' Campaign Turns 25

Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?

Shortly after he was hired as the executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, Jeff Manning had an epiphany. It was 1993. Sales of milk were sagging both in California and nationwide. Milk industry advocates had spent much of the 1980s promising that “Milk Does a Body Good,” with an ad campaign focused on its calcium and protein benefits. Consumers knew milk was good for them. But Manning realized they just didn’t care.

Instead, the ad agency Manning hired to revamp milk’s reputation focused on the complete opposite. Rather than dwell on everything milk could do for them, they decided that television spots should highlight the consequences of going without milk. Maybe it meant having trouble chewing a dry peanut butter sandwich or cookie. Or not being able to enjoy a bowl of cereal. During a brainstorming session, ad partner Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners jotted down a tagline: “got milk.” Then he added a question mark. And for the next two decades, the Got Milk campaign, and its slogan, became as ubiquitous as Nike’s declaration that athletes “Just Do It.”

As recognizable as the ads were, sales figures told a slightly different story. While more people may have been thinking about milk than ever before, that didn’t necessarily mean they were drinking it.

 

As a result of public education and private health care, milk was a staple of kitchens everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. Early 20th-century studies of questionable veracity fed milk to rats and marveled at their shiny fur. (Rats that got vegetable oil were scrawny.) Children lined up in front of steel milk containers at schools to get their daily serving; pregnant women were told copious amounts would be good for their baby. For many people, mornings were marked by the sound of clinking bottles of milk left on doorsteps, as common as mail delivery.

In the 1970s, a shift began. Milk, while still considered a fundamental part of diets, was seeing increased competition from soft drinks. Aggressive marketing campaigns from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi positioned soda as fun to consume, offering caffeinated energy and enticing packaging that sometimes promised prizes. Milk, in contrast, was plodding along in plastic or cardboard containers. If there was any carton design at all, it was typically a simple illustration of a cow. Drinking it became almost perfunctory.

By the 1990s, milk was under siege by soft drinks, sports drinks, and Snapple, which cloaked some of its sugary offerings in an all-natural aesthetic. Milk was on the ropes: Continuing to insist it was a healthier option was no longer effective, nor was it enough.

Research by Goodby Silverstein & Partners revealed an alternative. When discussing milk consumption, consumers kept returning to the idea that running out was a source of frustration. While they may not have longed for milk as a rule, the times they could have used it—in coffee, for cookies, for cereal—and didn’t have it gave them a fresh appreciation for the beverage. When the agency put a hidden camera in their own offices to capture their staff's reaction to running out of milk, they noted it was one of disappointment. (And sometimes expletives.)

With Manning’s consent, the ad agency decided to focus on a “Milk and …” campaign, highlighting all the ways milk and food go together. That was ground down further, with Goodby and his partners making an open-ended question of a milk-deprived scenario. “Got Milk?” would present a worst-case scenario, letting consumers ruminate on the consequences of finding an empty carton. The ads would be funded California's major milk processors, with three cents from each gallon of milk sold going toward the campaign—which amounted to approximately $23 million annually.

The first televised spot for “Got Milk?” is probably still the best-known. It features a radio listener eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich while following along with an on-air trivia contest. When the host wants to know who shot Alexander Hamilton, the man knows it’s Aaron Burr. But without milk to wash down his food, it comes out as “Anon Blurrg.”

The spot, which was directed by future Transformers filmmaker Michael Bay, was an immediate sensation when it premiered in October 1993. More than 70 spots followed, many presenting a similar doomsday scenario. In a Twilight Zone premise, a man arrives in what he believes to be heaven only to find he has an endless supply of cookies but only empty cartons of milk. In another spot, a newly-married woman expresses disappointment in her choice of a spouse. He thinks it's because he bought her a fake diamond; she's upset because he emptied a carton. Time after time, a lack of milk proves uncomfortable at best or life-altering at worst.

If the milk industry had stuck with “Got Milk?” and nothing else, it probably would have remained a cultural touchstone. But in 1995, the campaign got an additional boost when the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, another pro-milk lobbying group, licensed the slogan to use with their own growing milk mustache print ad campaign spearheaded by the Bozell Worldwide ad agency. Celebrities like Harrison Ford, Kermit the Frog, and dozens of others appeared with a strip of milk across their upper lip. Manning also agreed to license the tagline to third parties like Nabisco—which printed it on their Oreos—and Mattel, which issued a milk-mustached Barbie. Cookie Monster endorsed the campaign. At one point, 90 percent of consumers in California were familiar with the “Got Milk?” effort, an astounding level of awareness.

Being amused by the spots was one thing. But was anyone actually drinking more milk because of them?

 

Milk lobbyists in California pointed out that the ads arrested the decline of milk consumption that had plagued the industry for decades. In 1994, for example, 755 million gallons were sold in the state, up from 740 million gallons in 1993. Manning also cited figures that indicated "Got Milk?" helped halt a slide that could have cost the industry $255 million annually in California alone—a drop-off that was stopped by that $23 million in ad spending.

But overall, it was tough for milk to regain some of the lost loyalty it had enjoyed in the 1950s. Between 1970 and 2011, average consumption went from 0.96 cups daily to 0.59 cups. With so many beverage options, consumers were often pushing the milk carton aside and reaching for Gatorade or soda instead. Changes in food habits didn’t help, either. Fewer people were eating cereal for breakfast, instead looking for yogurt or other low-calorie options.

“Got Milk?” was informally retired in 2014, replaced by a “Milk Life” campaign that once again brought nutrition back to the forefront.

Today, the average American drinks roughly 18 gallons of milk per year. (Unless, of course, they’re lactose-intolerant.) In 1970, it was 30 gallons. But there is hope: Plant-based milk made from almonds and other less-conventional sources are growing in the marketplace. “Got Coconut Milk?” may not be as catchy, but it might soon be more relevant than the alternative.

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