by Jakob Sitter
Before the rise of platform capitalism, before algorithms hijacked elections and before data became more valuable than oil, the web used to be a very different place. In its early heydays a lot of people saw the www as something you could move into and construct your own space– a parallel universe, of sorts. A space where the “real” world’s conventions and norms didn’t apply.
In November 1994 GeoCities was founded– an online platform allowing users to easily set up their own website. It was structured into so-called neighbourhoods, each representing specific topics– Area51 was for science fiction lovers, CapitolHill was politics-related pages while WestHollywood was for the queer community. Throughout the 90s the platform grew extremely popular, and at one point it was the third most-visited website on the web. GeoCities provided its users a convenient and accessible way to create your own website, and in contrast to todays platforms, the user would have total control over their site’s design and content. There was no grid or timeline– just a plain WYSIWYG-editor. Embracing this freedom to the fullest, an average GeoCities site would be covered in flashing GIFs and colourful Comic Sans text. Constructing online identities through reproduced and altered graphics feels almost ancient today. The real catch of GeoCities however, what also lays as the foundation of this project– was the content people shared. Extremely personal diaries, nudes and texts about peoples inner secrets was flooding. Leap forward to 2021, the web has become a very professionalised and official place, this type of content is at best to be found in private chatrooms. One might argue that the internet “grew up”, but it undoubtably lost one of its core initial qualities during puberty.
WestHollywood (2021) is a tribute to the early internet and the infrastructure it provided. All text is generated by a language model (NLP) trained on text extracted from the GeoCities WestHollywood neighbourhood, by many seen as the first major online queer community. While the NLP doesn’t rewrite the original text, it learns how to see lingual connections and characteristics and generates new text based on that. Trained on some 9000 pages by different authors, the language model works as a time capsule filled with data on the respective neighbourhood's narratives and language characteristics. An alternative way of preserving online culture and data, one might also argue. Taking shape as a website, it will shape shift throughout the exhibition period– new content appear and old disappear.