A few days ago, Yahoo! announced that they would be shuttering the venerable GeoCities this year. “So what?” you might well ask - GeoCities is after all an ageing service from a bygone era, and apart from some nostalgia and perhaps some data that some people might have had parked there for a while, most people won’t really notice it’s passing.
But nevertheless, it’s important, and people who get carried away with putting a dollar value on the current favourite websites of the day (e.g. Facebook) should take careful note. GeoCities was huge, really a sensation at the time, before many of the people raving over Facebook now were online, or perhaps even born (scary). It was easily as big culturally as Facebook at the time, which is why Yahoo bought it for almost $3 billion. I bet they regret that, because what happened was exactly what will continue to happen in this sort of space - things changed. New technology comes along, new techniques, new fashions, and the old sites are abandoned like burning ships incredibly quickly, until as happened this week (perhaps a little overdue in fact), the charred, lonely hulk sinks beneath the waves.
The issue is that these sites are not really ‘sticky’ on an individual basis. There’s really very little investment needed to use them, so getting up and moving somewhere else really isn’t much of an issue. Sure, with social networks the main ‘index of stickyness’ is your friends list, so people tend to stick where their friends are, but really, I don’t see this being a major barrier in practice, because by nature most of the stuff on there is non-critical and for fun, and these things are often follow generational ‘clusters’ - the students in the 90s were all on GeoCities, now they’re all on Facebook. Where will the next set be? I wouldn’t for a second assume they’d stay in the same place; they’ll want sites for their own generation, not the last one.
The eventual destiny of GeoCities should be a significant warning to anyone thinking of paying top-dollar for web companies that have no business model beyond casual eyeballs, and rely on fashion to drive that attention. Fashion changes, and you really don’t want to be stuck with $3bn worth of brown corduroy flares (assuming that they’re not fashionable right now - I can’t keep up! 😉 )