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A Happy Neighborhood
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 1999

  The Navigator

This article contains links which take you outside

Eddie T. Chavis Jr., a postal worker in Fayetteville, N.C., is fascinated by African American history. His youngest son, Kenyon, is in medical school at the University of North Carolina.

Brian Barnes of Texas is the lead singer in a country band called Whiskey Creek. For relaxation he and his friends practice team roping, a competitive sport in which two cowboys lasso a steer.

Scott and Amy McConaghie, who live in the Washington area, enjoy jet skis and off-road trucks. Scott works for Andersen Consulting; Amy is a financial analyst. They have cats named Oscar Julius and Savannah Jane.

What do all of these people have in common? They are members of GeoCities, one of the most fascinating online communities on the Internet.

To be sure, the Well in San Francisco, the Meta Network in Washington and Echo in New York are all viable, vital online communities that have been around since electrons. They are smaller than GeoCities and mostly text-based – the messages often resembling the graffiti in university bars. Doo be doo be doo – Sinatra.

America Online, impressive in scope and size, is questionable as a community. It's a good, old-fashioned online service – the kind your grandmother logged on to.

GeoCities, on the other hand, is an imaginative, visually alluring conglomeration of some 3.5 million people all over the world who build home pages, join one of 40 theme neighborhoods and pal around with other like-minded folks. You don't have to be a techno-genius to put down roots in GeoCities, and it shows. GeoCities takes all kinds. And because GeoCities makes it pie-simple to craft your own Web page – for free – the site has the feeling of the online frontier. Skilled and unskilled settlers are building pages in different ways, with different styles of architecture, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. GeoCities even calls its members "homesteaders."

The good news: The site is able to offer free Web pages and e-mail to its members because it sells lots of advertising. The bad news: lots of advertising – pesky pop-up and banner ads. Still, GeoCities is doing so well it was announced last week that the site is being acquired by Yahoo! in a $3.6 billion stock swap.

You can choose for your page to reside in one of many neighborhoods with names like Area 51 for science fiction fans, College Park for academics, Colosseum for sports lovers, Paris for romantics and Vienna for classical-music aficionados.

Something is gained by all of the jazzy, snazzy graphics. Spend a few minutes with someone's Web site and you do get a sense of that person. But something also is lost. True online communities, such as the Well, are based on conversation.

One GeoCities member I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Hilary Johnson – mother of Taryn who was born in January 1998 – tried to tie members together with a Web ring. But she and other January '98 Moms who have pages on GeoCities gather elsewhere to chat.

Not everyone is happy with GeoCities. Someone named Farin, for instance, created a tribute page to stage actress Vicki Clark. The page was found in the 1821 Alley suburb of the Broadway neighborhood. "ALL RIGHT!!!!! I'VE HAD IT!" wrote Farin. "Geocities has taken it TOO far! Ads at the bottom of our pages?! It's enough we've had to deal with watermarks and pop up ads! So, I'm moving."

It will be interesting to watch exactly where Farin, and others, go next.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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