My entire three-year archive of writing from my first paid gig has vanished. This includes my first time covering the NYFF, and ND/NF, the years 2010-2013, the whole period is gone. I just happened to check one of the links today, because i often reference back to them, to find a Page not found. (Before you say it: Yes, I know about the Wayback Machine. Give me some credit. But as everyone should know, who goes to the trouble of looking for the article if the link is dead? This has real impact for writers, if your links are included on IMDB or other sites. Go to IMDB or Wikipedia: lots of dead links. You’ve been erased.)
The site I wrote for was eventually bought by a much larger site, which is still around, and somehow my archive (around 150 pieces) remained on the site (for ten years) even though I stopped writing for them. The new site’s focus is solely politics. In fact, “politic” is part of the site’s name. Not hard to guess which site it is.) So maybe they did a redesign and all the links are dead, or maybe they just cleaned out the archives and my pieces were a casualty. Who knows.
I wanted to write something on Farhadi’s Everybody Knows so I went to go check my review of A Separation, which I saw at the 2011 NYFF – and boom, “page not found.” Then I checked all the links. 2011 was such an amazing year, Melancholia, This Is Not a Film, Also gone is my obituary for Jim Gandolfin, which I read some years back at an event at Housing Works Bookstore (sitting with my pal Steven Boone, who also read a piece at the same event!). It’s an important piece if I do say so myself, and he was an important actor. I focused on his performance on Broadway in Carnage, an essential piece of the puzzle.
I thought “Shit, it’s all gone!” Just out of curiosity, I went into my blog archives, because I often write my stuff in draft on the WordPress interface. In this way, I found the majority of the drafts. The rest I found in emails exchanged with the two wonderful editors of that original site, because sometimes I’d send reviews in the body of an email. I found the Jim Gandolfini piece, which I know for sure was there at his last birthday, because I link to it every year.
I think I snagged most of it, and am going to rebuild these pieces on my own site – because … why do I bother with this? Because it’s my legacy. It’s three years of work and it was the first time I was paid for writing and it was a very meaningful experience. Also lost was my first interview with a famous person – Ron Eldard – which I voice-recorded on the side of the road in West Virginia, because that’s when he called me, so I pulled over and took the call and taped it. A major moment. I found that one in the body of an email I sent to my editor, while I was in Memphis. I was so unprepared, because I thought the interview was a bust, that I didn’t have my laptop so I typed out the interview on my phone.
I’ve already begun the process to rebuild these things on my site and I wonder … is this worth it? who cares about this stuff? An interview with Ron Eldard. A review of Melancholia.
This is the dangers of digital publishing. It may sound overblown to talk about my legacy but this is my work and my work is how I have found meaning in a world that’s disappointed me. My work was redemptive. Not the work itself – the writing may be all kinds of flawed – but HAVING the work to DO was the saving grace.
I’m glad I found all of it. I’d rewrite a lot of it now. They were my first forays into this racket. But there are a lot of good pieces. I’ll be adding them here periodically because I just need to have them. And then … I will slowly begin the process of printing stuff out. Not just those pieces. But everything.
What is the solution to situations like this? There are many ways to handle it and I am lucky I have this place here, where I can “store” stuff if I need to. Other writers don’t. (Yes. I know about Authory, which I am considering as a backup.) We are going to lose so much in the future. Younger critics already show such recency bias it’s like nothing that happened before 1998 has any relevance. They don’t even CHECK to see if someone else said exactly what they’re saying now, and maybe they need to link back to it, or incorporate it into their new thoughts.
I’m not talking about my work specifically, like the world will be a lesser place because my interview with Ron Eldard has vanished into the digital abyss … but … in general. We already have lost so much cultural memory. Even my own site isn’t safe. When I die, it will vanish within a couple of months because I won’t be paying my bills for the hosting. If it’s not “on the web” it may as well have not happened at all. We have been discussing this on Facebook for a week, a bunch of writers, and people tell all kinds of horror stories but also have had ideas and solutions. It’s worse for some people. There are people who wrote for The Village Voice for 20 years and have lost everything. Poof. Gone. There are others who started out in print, but when everything switched to digital, their pieces didn’t make it. If they didn’t keep copies, they’re screwed. My friend Dan showed me a stack of black binders, filled with hard copies of every single piece he’s written in the last 20 years. This is going to be one of my projects for 2020. Do it a little bit at a time. When I’m dead, this place will vanish. I got some good ideas about what to do about this on Facebook which I will look into.
What is the solution?
I always think of the Leslie Harpold situation. Some of you might remember her. She was an early adopter of in-depth personal online writing. She had a popular blog and she was an incredible writer. She died suddenly in 2006 – nobody knew how, and it was cloaked in mystery. Pneumonia, ill health, there was some fear it was a suicide. But none of this was confirmed. I’m just describing what was worried-about at the time. She was clearly not well. Her devoted readers were devastated by her death. A couple months later, her blog vanished. Poof. That archive was meaningful history, particularly since she had been blogging since the 90s. The Library of Congress holds her pieces on 9/11, citing it as important history. So at least THAT’S safe. She was hugely influential and if you don’t know about her it’s because cultural history is being dissolved in the proliferation of voices – and everyone feels like history started yesterday. Well it didn’t. Once upon a time there was a woman named Leslie Harpold and she helped create the world we live in online today. Some of Leslie’s friends reached out to her family, asking if anything could be done – passwords handed over so her site could be reborn, domain paid for, her readers were willing to pay for it so her writing would not be lost to the world. I still remember her yearly advent calendars. They were exquisite pieces of writing and memoir. Her family said no. They had no interest in getting her blog back online. If you’d like to read a couple of pieces about Harpold – because the situation made everyone recognize the dangers we are now facing digitally with what is disgustingly called “content” – here are a couple:
On the fifteenth anniversary of her death (last year), another piece came out: Leslie Harpold and the Problem of a Digital Legacy.
Leslie Harpold’s entire archive – gorgeously written – is gone. Forever. Only a couple of pieces linger on in the Wayback machine.
And I guess I DO find the world to be a little less bright without Leslie Harpold’s writing.
I am not equating my review of True Grit with something culturally essential. But it is my work and I care about it and I would like it to survive.