(with a content warning for discussion of suicidal ideation and mental illness)
The first time I lost something precious when a website went down was more than 20 years ago. I'd been hosting a website for my best friend from high school where she posted stories based around dreams she'd had. We'd lost contact when we both went to college, and then a few months later the webhost I was with shut down suddenly, without notice. It didn't take long to find a new host, update my nameservers, and upload my sites again... at which point I realized I didn't have a copy of my friend's site. I tried to reach out to her but I couldn't connect. This last connection I had to her was just. Gone.
It was not the last time something disappeared on me, of course. Since then I've lost things of my own (RIP my geocities site, my perplex.net site, and the stuff on all those 3.5" floppy drives that I misplaced in college). I was thinking about this because I was linked to Wesley's How Websites Die, which in turn linked to Winnie's On Writing to Exist, and Website Graveyards, with both thinking about how fragile our sites can be.
Wesley says: "I think a lot about the lifecycle of websites. I’m frustrated by so much of the short-term thinking I see in the world today, and the way we think about websites is a part of that: it’s “normal” for them to just go up in smoke as soon as their authors stop paying attention. People switch platforms and providers and break links without a second thought. It pains me to see people build websites with no feeling of obligation to them — when you put something out into the world, it is your responsibility to care for it."
On one hand, he's not wrong. On the other, well, even he says it's an impossible standard for his own site, and the urge toward permanence is a lot like the urge toward perfection- if you wait until you've created the ideal that never needs to be reorganized, you'll never finish anything.
I know, I absolutely know why it matters, why it's important to keep links working as much as possible, and yet... here I am, having registered my very first domain in 1998, and by now I've owned dozens. I recently decided to name my business the same thing as my previous personal website, so then I moved my personal things over to this website. It's all a work in progress, the perpetual motion of UnderConstruction.gif.
Part of the reason I don't think more about moving sites, re-organizing sub-pages, or taking things down is because I wonder if people are even reading what I write. Even when I post on my blog, I wonder who's actually going to care about this or that update. It's not really a reasonable thing to get hung up on, because people do comment on my posts, and yet… I suppose it's probably related to the kinds of intrusive thoughts that tell me people would be better off if I wasn't around. Somewhere on the spectrum between rejection sensitive dysphoria and suicidal ideation lies the need to tear everything down, get rid of all of it, to start over or to leave altogether.
One of my favorite things about participating in the "cozyweb" or on a site like DreamWidth is that there is regular feedback from people that I interact with. Like the best interactions I have at work, the best interactions online leave me with the ability to point to something specific and know I helped someone that day. A collection of essays and articles doesn't necessarily do that by itself, but it allows me to remember the times when a single piece of writing on someone else's website helped me make sense of something I was struggling with or a fanfic gave me the emotional catharsis I was needing.
When Bill Willingham released his intellectual property Fables into the public domain, described his ideal form of copyright law:
"In my template for radical reform of those laws I would like it if any IP is owned by its original creator for up to twenty years from the point of first publication, and then goes into the public domain for any and all to use. However, at any time before that twenty year span bleeds out, you the IP owner can sell it to another person or corporate entity, who can have exclusive use of it for up to a maximum of ten years. That’s it. Then it cannot be resold. It goes into the public domain. So then, at the most, any intellectual property can be kept for exclusive use for up to about thirty years, and no longer, without exception."
Leo Babauta says something similar in uncopyright and the minimalist mindset:
"The uncopyright mindset is that of someone who gives without any guarantee of profit, who lets go of ownership and believes the world owns his creation. He hopes to contribute to the world in a small way, and if others benefit from this contribution, that’s a good thing. And if others use his contribution to create something new and beautiful, that’s a wonderful thing."
On her Strangeling Public Domain Project page, Jasmine Beckett-Griffith writes about releasing much of her back catalogue of art into the world:
"By gifting my work to the public, I am wholeheartedly granting permission in advance. It is important for me to add that the impetus for my Public Domain Project is not a reaction to the negativity of IP laws and the headache of perpetual legal arguments. More than anything, I see that much of the public adores my work, and I adore showing it to people. My goal is to share my artwork with as many people as I can, and I think that this is the best path for me at this time to do so."
When I die- or before then, if I can- I'd like to believe that my writing, that something I put out there helped somebody else grow something of their own. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to release work into the public domain. It really is a shame how much information is being lost that was around for years due to the site not being paid for after the creator passed away. I was reminded of it recently when I was thinking about the many resources that had been on Sanguinarius.org, which was online for more than fifteen years when the creator passed away in 2015.
Of course, that sort of thing happens every day, leaving the dead in a sort of twilight existence online. The internet is full of ghosts, as Nya points out. There are memorial livejournals, Tumblrs updated by dutiful sons, and fanfic archive "next of kin" policies. There are dozens of different kinds of ways people live on, and more all the time as people start to plan for the inevitable.
There is an idea that it is worthwhile and powerful to respect the dead by using what they leave behind. In vulture culture, this is the preservation and use of bodies especially in things like jewelry, taxidermy, creating ritual tools and so on. I don't do much of this myself (my OCD doesn't play well with things like cleaning bones) but I am a proponent of reuse in most other areas, including buying secondhand and using broken jewelry in new craft pieces. Especially when I'm buying from estate sales, this feels like its own kind of vulture culture, because I'm able to benefit from what the dead (or retired, or moved, I guess) person no longer has a use for.
Maybe we can respect the loss of old work the same way we would look at a fallen tree or a carcass left to rot in the woods: as an invitation to new growth. Many oldweb fans already use the aesthetic bones of the corpse of Geocities to build anew.
More than just the aesthetic of thousands of individual passion projects, however, watching link after link stop working can feel like being dragged down. It's the same slow erosion that saw businesses shut down because of big box stores, just in a different format. But just as there's been push after push to revitalize small cities and towns, we can turn over the soil and start anew.
A broken link can be a loss but it can also be an opportunity. A taxidermy of blinking gifs alone is not going to make the web what we want it to be by itself. Turning rotting links into mulch that helps the indie web grow is the next step, though.
I became an archival packrat somewhere in the mid-oughts after learning my lesson more than once. I have old sites and old writings saved from almost thirty years ago, a few of them old enough that they have FILENAME.TXT names. Some of the stuff in the Epsilon stories goes back that far. I'm not particularly interested in showing them to anybody, because while I was pretty good for a fifteen year old, I was still a fifteen year old- but I still look at them every once in a while, and obviously I've managed to grow some interesting stuff from that field. I don't want to put all of my old stuff back online, but I've looked through for things worth keeping, things that others might find helpful. The old links are still broken, but the information's out there. And for the ideas I've moved on from our outgrown, looking at the holes left behind sometimes inspires me to create new things to fill them, too.
I can take the corpse of the person I used to be and raise it in the service of who I am now. And if I'm already that kind of necro-technomancer, why not do more? When I find a missing link, or a bookmark gone offline, or an archive I've kept of something that's no longer publicly available... maybe I can find a way to bring it back. I can quote it, or bring it back with credits and annotations, or rewrite it with my own spin on the subject. If it was worth keeping in the first place, it's probably worth putting a little effort into raising it from the dead, right?
I have a vague idea of what I'd do if I was expecting something to happen to me, I suppose: I could put a static version of my site up on NearlyFreeSpeech, pay up my domain for the next ten years, put a couple hundred dollars on my hosting account, and maybe add a note about what my domain's nfshost.com is as a long-term option. NearlyFreeSpeech has been around more than twenty years at this point, so I don't have any reason to think they're going anywhere.
Of course, that plan depends on me knowing. Right now I have most of my stuff hosted elsewhere because it's easier to be somewhere with cpanel. That's a lot more expensive to maintain after the two or three years I've prepaid, and still requires someone to know what they're doing to make changes if the host closes or the billing information needs updating. Wesley's idea to set up something like an insurance collective for website hosting is an interesting idea, as it would mean not only is there money to pay for your site but there are other people involved with the basic technical knowledge to keep it online. Certainly Wesley's proposal is more affordable than WordPress's 100 year plan.