Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Why Leslie Harpold’s Sites Disappeared

Leslie had a special kind of magic. But today there’s no trace of her sites.

As long as those sites were up, her brand of humanity was alive, pure, unedited and quenching. The availability of her writing made her slightly less absent. Sad isn’t really an appropriate construct for missing Leslie. And sappy sentimentality wouldn’t please her at all.

But that writing should remain on the Internet. Those sites should never come down. They belong here like Leslie belonged here. Immortal.

A little over three years ago, the web designer and online essayist Leslie Harpold died at age 40. Leslie was a friend of mine, part of a circle of early web creators who discovered the medium as it was blossoming in the mid-’90s. We hung out together on a private mailing list for a decade watching the web (and ourselves) grow up. Leslie left behind a vast body of online work in the form of essays, web sites, weblog entries and photos.

Since that time, almost all of it has disappeared.

Leslie’s family allowed her domains, and others to expire and politely turned down all requests to mirror her sites. Several of her friends, including me, had offered after her death to pay the costs required to keep them online.

The recent death of Brad Graham, another early web publisher, has renewed interest in the fate of Leslie’s work. I sent an email yesterday to Leslie’s niece, asking if it would be possible for some of her friends to reprint her work as a book and web site. Today I heard back. They will not allow anything to be republished. Because I’ve been told that some of her writings might be a sensitive issue for her family, I replied to her niece that if this is indeed the case, those particular works could be excluded from reprint.

This did not go over well.

I was told that it’s none of my business why her family doesn’t want her work republished, which is absolutely true, and that her legacy “is not dependent on websites or books; her legacy is with every person who knew her and loved her.” This is only partially true. Leslie was an early pioneer in the creation of autobiographical content and experimental web design. She left behind thousands of web pages, many of which are as memorable as Possible Scenarios for Heaven from 2003.

Leslie’s family appears to have decided to let her entire body of work disappear and be forgotten completely. The only things that are left online are articles she wrote for other sites, such as The Morning News.

This raises an important question for those of us who create work on the web that we publish ourselves. When heirs decide to bury a web creator’s body of work by shuttering sites and rejecting all republication requests, can anything be done to save the material?

If the heirs of Charles Dickens had decided that his novels were not his legacy, they could have spurned all publishers and let the books fall out of print, but the existing copies would not have vanished entirely. There still would be physical copies of the books to read and some would’ve survived long enough to fall into the public domain.

For works created on the web, however, the only thing keeping them around is an active publisher or a copyright license that permits others to reprint the material. A copyright holder who wanted a web site to disappear completely could take it offline, demand its removal from all archives and never allow republication. Leslie’s work will not begin passing into the public domain until 2065.

Perhaps this is the way it should be. No one has found an email or web page where Leslie stipulated her desires for her work in the event of her death, leaving the decision to her heirs.

But everything I learned about Leslie over the years tells me that she’d want this part of her to survive.

The importance of digital asset planning explained

Posthumous Hosting and Digital Culture

THE DEATHS of Leslie Harpold and Brad Graham, in addition to being tragic and horrible and sad, have highlighted the questionable long-term viability of blogs, personal sites, and web magazines as legitimate artistic and literary expressions. (Read this, by Rogers Cadenhead.)

Cool URIs don’t change, they just fade away. When you die, nobody pays your hosting company, and your work disappears. Like that.

Now, not every blog post or “Top 10 Ways to Make Money on the Internet” piece deserves to live forever. But there’s gold among the dross, and there are web publications that we would do well to preserve for historical purposes. We are not clairvoyants, so we cannot say which fledgling, presently little-read web publications will matter to future historians. Thus logic and the cultural imperative urge us to preserve them all. But how?

The death of the good in the jaws of time is not limited to internet publications, of course. Film decays, books (even really good ones) constantly go out of print, digital formats perish. Recorded music that does not immediately find an audience disappears from the earth.

Digital subscriptions were supposed to replace microfilm, but American libraries, which knew we were racing toward recession years before the actual global crisis came, stopped being able to pay for digital newspaper and magazine descriptions nearly a decade ago. Many also (even fancy, famous ones) can no longer collect—or can only collect in a limited fashion. Historians and scholars have access to every issue of every newspaper and journal written during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, but can access only a comparative handful of papers covering the election of Barack Obama.

Thanks to budget shortfalls and format wars, our traditional media, literature, and arts are perishing faster than ever before. Nothing conceived by the human mind, except Heaven and nuclear winter, is eternal.

Still, when it comes to instant disposability, web stuff is in a category all its own.

Unlike with other digital expressions, format is not the problem: HTML, CSS, and backward-compatible web browsers will be with us forever. The problem is, authors pay for their own hosting.

(There are other problems: the total creative output of someone I follow is likely distributed across multiple social networks as well as a personal site and Twitter feed. How to connect those dots when the person has passed on? But let’s leave that to the side for the moment.)

A suggestion for a business. Sooner or later, some hosting company is going to figure out that it can provide a service and make a killing (as it were) by offering ten-, twenty-, and hundred-year packets of posthumous hosting.

A hundred years is not eternity, but you are not Shakespeare, and it’s a start.

Digital death is still a problem. A widow’s battle to access her husband’s Apple account

Leslie’s Digital Legacy

It is not a surprise to most when we hear that the life we are living today could end any minute. We have all come to expect death at some point. With this being said what we do in life defines us and what others will remember us by, but what all that we worked for could be taken away in the blink of an eye? This is the sad case for Leslie Harpold.

In the early 2000’s Leslie Harpold was an up and coming writer, graphic artists and editor. She was the total package when it came to freelance artists. Flooded with praise and respect Leslie was making a household name for herself in the online world. Then in 2006 the unimaginable happened. At the age of 40 Leslie had passed away leaving her family, friends, and clients in disarray.

With her life taken away and no way to come back Leslie had only her digital media left to carry on her digital legacy. Unfortunately for Leslie the story gets worse. Leslie was young and had never thought about death, she never thought about how she would be remembered and what to be left open to the public to view if she had passed. So on the horrific day that Leslie passed all of her digital legacy was automatically given to her parents. Maybe it was a coping mechanism, maybe they wanted something to not be seen, or maybe they just down right did not want to share their daughter is memory with the world. Regardless of the reason Leslie’s digital legacy was taken away.

Friends of Leslie had offered her family to take control of her websites with the clause that they would touch and alter anything. Just keep the website intact so others could experience the joy that Leslie had brought to the world. Unfortunately any sort of discussion with the family on this matter would go into a definite circle. They wanted no means of Leslie is past to be displayed. In the end no one could fight what the family wanted, they were automatically the ones who had control and not any of Leslie is friends.