The State of Neocities
the sad reality of something with great potential

When I left Neocities, I wrote at the very end of the article:

"... my goal isn't to convince people to leave, but to inform people of my decision".

Well, this piece of writing may flip that statement right on its head.

This article is mainly addressing the condition that Neocities is in, after observing the platform for the past few years. A mix of criticism, lamentation, realizations, acceptance, and contempt.

This will likely be the last time I'll write about Neocities, since there's only so much to talk about before it devolves into covering pointless drama that seemingly appears every couple of years, so consider this all of my remaining thoughts about the platform before I can finally lay the topic to rest.

Eternal Stagnation

The amount of sites being hosted on Neocities has been growing rapidly in the past few years. When I first joined in 2019, it was at around 250K sites, but at the time of writing this, the site is nearly at 550K—more than double the population.

It would be natural to assume then that the active userbase has been also growing at a similar pace. But sadly, from what I've observed, this has not been the case. Not in the slightest.

User turnover for the platform is a massive problem. Every year there is a completely different group of active users on the site, with people from the previous year completely disappearing. When I was first on the site in 2019, there were hundreds of sites that I would consistently see in the Last Updated section for a period of time. But when 2020 came along, all of those people were gone, and were completely replaced.

And this is a trend that is still going. 2021 came, and nearly everyone from 2020 was gone. 2022—the same exact thing; and I don't expect 2023 and the future to be any better either. Only a very small amount of sites will last more than a generation of users.

Newcomers to the site are often very enthusiastic to see a platform full of seemingly-active creative people, updating their websites, when in reality a good portion of the Most Followed sites haven't updated in years. The Last Updated section may give a glimmer of hope, but in a year's time these people that they first saw won't be there any longer.

You can usually tell what era someone joined Neocities by simply looking at either who they're following, who follows them, or the button wall on their site linking to their neighbours. Inspect a site from 2018-2019 and compare that to a site made in 2021 and it's almost a guarantee that they're linking to a completely different set of users. It's actually rare to find sites who have a mixed audience spanning multiple years, because people often jump ship way before it gets to that point.

But why exactly is this the case? Why does no one ever stay, and even if they do, it's an extremely small minority?

Barrier of Entry

One possible reason why people don't stick around is not that hard to conclude: HTML and CSS is daunting. It's not the most difficult thing, per se, but the learning curve is just enough to deter the majority of people who liked the idea of making a site.

I take it for granted now, since it's been a while since I first started writing HTML, but people really do struggle when first starting out. We can talk all about the satisfaction of creating your own website and all of that ideological stuff, but it's not going to change some fundamental roadblocks.

One thing is that some people, at most, just want to share things with others. They can make a site to do that, but at its core a website is simply a medium of communication. If people can achieve their goal of sharing what they want to share with as little work as possible, they will do it. And that's what largely resulted in the massive boom of social media: convenience.

Making websites, from what I've seen on Neocities, is treated as the hobby itself. People making cool designs, neat layouts, and things of that sort. Website creation is the art, not merely the place where you hold it. The site as a repository for one's creations has become sort of a side dish as opposed to the main course.

I believe this is why there's a large amount of sites on Neocities that are devoid of anything meaningful. There may be a few sections filled out (an about page, an ancient blog post or two), but everywhere else is completely barren—oh, but except a page linking to all of their active social media accounts.

Social media is where all the people are. You can try to coax a mass exodus to Neocities, but the fact that you can't share anything unless you get a grasp on how to use HTML and CSS means that plenty of people will not migrate, no matter how many resources are available, no matter how many tutorials there are. The idea of having to learn new skills to do something that you were able to do already (i.e. sharing your stuff) is not going to appeal to everyone. People may take a step into the unknown, only to take it back since their friends weren't willing to take the leap with them.

At least with places like Tumblr it's optional to style your page, but with Neocities it's mandatory. That isn’t bad, necessarily—it's what defines the platform after all. But this makes it hard to not only attract people, but also to retain them. Kickstarting a website is one hurdle, but maintaining and improving the site is something else that people have a hard time doing.

A Movement with No Movement

Another thing which didn't occur to me until I thought about it some more is that for many people, the inherent permanency of anything on a website doesn't necessarily fit how they share their stuff.

I talked about the problem of content longevity in this article, and while social media indeed has a significant problem with things not lasting, I didn't talk about the fact that there are some types of work that fit better in that model.

Random doodles and memes, as an example, fit perfectly well in a fast-paced feed. They're meant to be temporary. It'd be weird to have a gallery of memes permanently plastered on one's website (outside of archival/documentational purposes) as their relevancy is typically in the short-term, and they would immediately date your site if any substantial amount of time passes.

Quick threads of discussion, polls, random back-and-forths—these all thrive in social media. The depth which these things cover is extremely shallow, but that doesn't deter people from actively participating in it. If anything, it's the shallowness that makes it so easy to partake in. Where would people go to consume that sort of stuff? Not in someone’s personal website, that's for sure.

For myself, since all of my work tends to be long-form writing, or is meant to be permanently displayed (like my artwork), how I work didn't line up with social media, which is why I acclimated to having a site so quickly, and why I’m still so attached to it. A personal website, for me, was a perfect fit.

But for others? Maybe they've gotten used to posting their work in such a way that it fits social media. Or maybe they're actively trying to earn a living from their work, which necessitates an audience. Maybe they don't really create anything to begin with and just want to socialize with people, or to consume their daily dose of me-mes.

In that case, why would there be a need to create a website, if a large majority of your operation is done on social media? These people are better off just finding better social platforms to interact with others instead of making their own site. Some people on Neocities use their site merely as an advertisement for their social media accounts, instead of the other way around. In that case, the site is nothing more than a personal Linktree or a Carrd. A valid website, sure, but a city populated with sites like these isn’t a “web revival” by any stretch of the imagination. How can it be? One foot is in their websites, but their hearts are still in social media.

For others, they may buy into the idea of having a personal website, but they have no clear purpose for it. They make one just because they were told that social media was bad, but social media being bad doesn't mean that having a personal website will fix it, nor will it necessarily fit their needs. Telling your grandma to make a website just because Facebook is heading straight for the dumpster is an outrageous leap of logic. She doesn't need a website—she simply needs to find a better method of communication with her peers, which a personal website will do nothing to alleviate. Now apply this to a larger spectrum of social media users and the point becomes clear.

Heck, this problem was prevalent even in GeoCities. I spent some time browsing through, an archive of the old GeoCities neighbourhoods, and I found dead websites aplenty. Even at the height of the "Old Web" these people keep deifying, there was such a thing as people having no purpose for their sites, leading to vast website graveyards. There's a reason why chatrooms and instant messaging became more popular than having to create a website to communicate in a way that many people found unnecessary for their needs.

For the majority of people, a website on Neocities is a crafts project. Something small to mess around with. People may stay there for a week, maybe even a few months, but the novelty inevitably wears off and they go back to where their friends and followers are. Despite this, people go on and on about "bringing back the Old Web", despite lacking the commitment it needs from the general populace to actually go anywhere.

People's identities can also get so locked into this Old Web shenanigans that they forget to actually put something personal on their own site. All these sites are sounding boards pushing for something that they're not even actively participating in. Stop going on these evangelistic crusades convincing people to make their own websites, if you can't even be bothered doing something with your own. Inspire people to make their own websites by actually making your site good, brimming with passion and with actual purpose, not just regurgitating what someone has said over and over again. So much for a push for individualism when people's sites are like carbon copies of each other, saying the same things ad nauseam.

Personal websites have their place, but with the amount of dead sites on Neocities it's clear that many people simply don't have a use for them, no matter how much "Old Web Movement" stuff gets touted. No matter how good it is to create a personal website, the conclusion is simple: not everyone needs one, wants one, or even should have one. Their needs can be—and are often fulfilled—elsewhere. It's more of a sad fact than something to be bitter about.

A large-scale movement with such a premise eventually collapsed with the fall of GeoCities, and I doubt it'll shape up in the way that we expect it to, even if it does "succeed"—not with all these dead sites being littered everywhere. You can't expect to maintain a revival if all it is founded upon are weekend projects that get dropped in a matter of days and left to collect dust.

On Life Support

I mentioned in the Leaving Neocities article how the platform has barely improved since its conception years ago.

And really, there are more things broken with this website that I didn't cover in that piece of writing.

One gripe that I've had since the beginning is the visitor count. There were always huge discrepancies between the native hit counter on Neocities and any other analytics tracker. I recall visiting a Neocities profile a few years ago and found that the person was complaining that Google Analytics and the Neocities visitor counts were not lining up. On Neocities they were getting hundreds of visitors a day, whereas on the analytics it was only getting 1-2 visits a day—sometimes even none.

What gives? Why is there even such a massive gap? Is Neocities arbitrarily inflating webpage views? Or is it so lenient that it's also counting crazy amounts of bot traffic? Look at sites that have third-party hit counters (Cinni's site is a good example) and you'll find that the numbers in their hit counters are miniscule compared to their Neocities views.

This is one of the reasons why I never celebrate hits or unique visitor "milestones". There are places like buttonwall whose hits completely dwarf over their unique visitor count, and there are other sites whose hits are almost always equal with their unique visitor count, no matter how inactive they are, or how little they seem to be linked anywhere. How are people even finding these sites outside (or even inside) of Neocities? These metrics make absolutely no sense, and are so inconsistent that I cannot trust them in any capacity.

The follow system, too, is broken on the platform. I don't know how many people noticed this, but plenty of sites in the front page of the Most Followed section actually don't have a lot of followers, and yet they rank up really high. Why is that?

Well, it's actually quite simple: Neocities doesn't rank solely based on absolute follower counts, but rather favours the ratio of followers to the amount of people that you follow. So if you have a lot of followers, and barely follow anyone, you're likely to rank higher compared to a site who follows a substantial amount of people, even if you have equal follower counts.

I recall doing periodic sweeps of my follows list when I eventually lost interest in sites (and cleaned up completely inactive ones) and I found that every time I did that, my site would shoot up immediately in the rankings; me, at around 250+ followers, would surpass sites hitting close to 400 or more. It was legitimately stupid.

I suppose this is something that people could use to get to the front page faster to get popularity or clout or whatever. I don't care at this point, since I'm not a part of that space anymore, so consider this as a Neocities hack for those who want to take advantage of the broken platform. You're welcome.

Other things which are telltale signs that this platform isn't maintained well is the recent Twitter dumpster fire and Kyle Drake memeing on it by changing the supporter badge to a blue checkmark for a small period of time in November 2022.

Some people found it funny, but I found it entirely tone-deaf. The fact that this "joke" had priority over actually making the platform any better, and implementing features and fixes which were requested for years is aggravating. I'm usually indifferent to this sort of stuff, but this is just ridiculous.

Advertise your site to potential users, sure, but actually making it a better place for those who are already using it? Making it better for those who want the platform to actually succeed? Making it better for those who are literally giving their hard-earned money to support the site?

"Nah, I'll just throw a petty jab at the Internet's certified punching bag instead, like everyone else. Because that's funny, right?"

Yeah, sure. Fantastic job, mate. You're really making a difference out there in the battlefield, while your platform—being pushed as an alternative—is back at homebase hemorrhaging its most active userbase due to how broken it is.

Neocities is a platform that's on life support: it's kept alive, but nothing more. It's not obvious to those who recently joined, but it becomes incredibly apparent once you've been on there for more than a couple of years.

Concluding Thoughts

All of these points that I mentioned, for most people, actually doesn't matter. Neocities still hosts your site for free. It's a decent option if you want to get started and not want to get involved in the community. If that's all you want, then no real issues there. Pick it up, learn HTML & CSS, move out when you want to do more ambitious things with your site—done deal.

But for those who were anticipating a great web revival—a new replacement to social media—an Internet Renaissance: I'm here to tell you that this place is not as glamorous as people make it out to be. With user-retention being abysmal, to the platform being largely abandoned by its creators, I don't think this is the idyllic Internet that people were being sold on. It may seem like it's finally gaining traction, but given that this has been going on for years now, I'm highly skeptical that it'll get any better.

If anything, I want to be proven wrong in these things. I want the site to improve and grow. I don’t want Neocities to become a gigantic web-cemetery, where people's sites die on arrival, or die within a year. But at this point I am completely disillusioned by the platform. It’s a place that had a lot of promise, but has been giving flaccid results for years now. If things do change for the better, then great, but as it stands things are heading in a dire direction.

With the large influx of new users coming from different platforms, there will be a clear overturning of the old culture which used to define the space and it'll start adopting the bad parts of social media, except people now have ~websites~. Wow! As if that was the limiting factor that was stopping us from creating the coveted "Web Utopia" that these people keep going on about. If anything, the massive increase in users will simply highlight the problems of Neocities even more—more people will come and abandon their sites, and the already atrocious user turnover will be accelerated to ridiculous rates.

Because of all of this, we'll start seeing more and more cases of toxic platform association creeping in. Just like how mentioning Twitter immediately brings up images of people having heated squabbles and witch-hunting, Neocities may be a place where people are assumed to be in a massively misplaced nostalgia circlejerk, or have sites which don't really have anything to offer.

It's not to say that there aren't good sites to see on Neocities—plenty of my favourite sites still reside on the platform, and are still active. But there are so many things which people say about it that ignore a lot of underlying problems—problems which enthusiastic, yet naïve newcomers are left to find out for themselves.

And these problems are not anything new, either. A blog post from an old Neocities user talks about some issues with the platform, mainly that the developers have been inactive. That was written in 2018, mind you. It's been almost 5 years since then as of writing this and nothing has changed. Nothing. If anything, the place actually got worse.

So you're telling me that I was giving $60 USD a year to a site that has done literally nothing to improve itself for 5 years straight? Maybe even longer? That's just stupid. A waste of money. A literal waste of money.

This is why we should make an effort to reduce platform dependency. Websites are already independent on their own, without needing to be connected onto another site. Create RSS feeds, implement webmentions, add things which will make your site independent from something which may collapse outside of your control, no matter how promising it may be, because in the end it may culminate into one massive disappointment, and you'll be caught in the crossfire.

Adios, Neocities. My own naïveté made you seem better than you really were.

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