My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
— Percy Shelley
Years ago, searching for texts lost to the sands of time, I came upon the ruins of an ancient civilization: the once great Jetko shipping community. After another binging of Avatar: The Last Airbender back in high school, I found myself thinking about a possible ship between Zuko, the show’s main antagonist, and Jet, an important minor character. The two had a brief narrative arc when they first met on the way to Ba Sing Se, a city within the Earth Kingdom. The two characters, both with their own secret identities, seemed like a ripe opportunity for a secret relationship. Larger issues about the relationship between the Fire Nation and its oppressed only intensified the animosity between these two at odds individuals, but maybe something else could be found there too, something like love.
As with most things in life, there were people on the internet that agreed. Even better, they had made content I could consume: jokes and drawings and best of all, fanfiction. After tearing through the limited amount on a major fanfiction archive, Archive of Our Own (AO3), I started doing a bit more sleuthing. I scrolled through old Tumblr posts and LiveJournal accounts, finally finding a small community from the early 2010’s that had created and shared Jetko fanfiction. The stories were varied and well-written, and I was satisfied reading through them for a while.
However, the farther I scrolled, the more confused I got. People kept mentioning one specific user, apparently a brilliant and visionary writer with renowned works in the fandom. Yet on LiveJournal, Tumblr, AO3, and more, this user was nowhere to be found.
After a little more digging, I learned the truth: after libelous accusations which led to harassment and doxxing, this legendary Jetko writer had deleted all their accounts and thus their writing off the face of the internet. All that was left were quizzical posts from other users and mentions that would redirect to 404 error pages, digital ghosts from the past.
Fanfiction, and literature on the internet in general, raises new sorts of questions about the pitfalls and possibilities of archiving. How do you save not just an artifact, but all the software and hardware that is needed to run it? What kinds of methods can you employ when data centers around the world are logging information uploaded to the internet every second? What happens when authors that have independently put out writing onto the web decide they don’t want their thoughts to be circulated any more?
The risk of a piece of writing becoming irrecoverable is very real. Just this past December, Adobe stopped supporting Flash player. While their reasoning was understandable—other, more modern software were strong enough to act as alternatives, and web browsers were already deprecating Flash—December 31st, 2020 marked the end of an era for many visionary pieces of electronic literature and art.
Even before that, this constant “innovation” that defines the internet forced everything from small, individual literary explorations to entire sites with millions of pages to shut down and close up shop. Software became outdated, fixing bugs in ancient coding languages became unfeasible, the time and money required to hold onto domain names simply became too much to handle. Information on the internet moves quite literally at the speed of light. However, this can also mean that information can vanish at that same exact speed. “Longevity is rooted in the materiality of archivalia,” according to media theorist Wolfgang Ernst. Thus the immaterial—the virtual—lacks it. This is the threat constantly looming over every word typed down and published onto a web page: how long will it last?
All this data floating in cyberspace and in the cloud does actually need a physical storage place. Yet the methods developed for storing this data can create new issues. Currently, most virtual information is broken into smaller pieces and then stored in multiple places at once. As Shih-Pei Chen puts it, this is done “to make sure your files are always available, accessible, safe, and secure, even when one physical copy is temporarily down or damaged due to hardware or network failure.” Yet this method creates a new issue that we are all now much too familiar with: “deleted” data isn’t always actually deleted. Secondary copies can often be hiding somewhere out there in the ether.
Asking the question of who has access to that second copy of the deleted data complicates issues. It can’t be the user, so the only other possibility is those who hold and store our data. This creates an imbalance of power—even if we want every trace of us completely gone from the internet, all we can do is press a button. It is up to the websites, apps, and storage services that house our information to agree to do our bidding.
After scrolling through so many people extolling the fanfiction of this user that no longer existed, I felt like I had to see it for myself. I clicked into five year old posts claiming to have saved .epub and .txt files, and screenshots of old kindles. One user’s deliberations of whether or not to give the link out stuck with me. On one hand, they felt uncomfortable giving access to writing when the author so ardently wanted it to disappear; on the other, they truly felt the works were “pieces of art,” and if they were able to get so much enjoyment and emotion from the texts, it would be unfair not to let others have the chance too.
Of course, all the links I tried were defunct. I messaged around, but no one responded. Maybe these digital simulacra were all that was left of this lauded writer. Maybe the actual text truly had been deleted.
With the tension between preserving writing on the internet and the struggles involved in deleting it, a new question gets raised: what if these writers actually want their work to disappear? Instances of this happening in formal publications are few and far between. Stephen King is one major example, when he “allowed” his novella Rage to go out of print after it began to inspire real life instances. But it’s not like a guidebook exists for this sort of thing. Even the ones that nominally do, like The Digital Media Project’s guidelines on retraction, assume the author only wants pieces and parts of their writing to be retracted, not the whole thing. It makes sense—not only does so much effort go into “officially” publishing texts in the first place that it would take a lot to go back on that, but removing articles and books falls on the company publishing it, and any redaction without reason will start to make readers question that company’s credibility.
Self-publishing on the internet isn’t like that. All one needs to do is make a site (or even just join someone else’s) and hit “post.” With this ease in effort, it reduces the amount of second thoughts that go through one’s head before releasing their writing to the billions of people that use the internet daily. The second thoughts are forced to lurk, only springing up later when that information has been accessible to the public for days, weeks, or even years.
I see this process happening on a micro level every day with deleted tweets. There’s always the garden variety dirty deletes, revenge deletes because “no free clout,” and whatever problematic tweet is trending each day. But sometimes I’ll see innocuous tweets, or even genuinely good ones, that display “this tweet has been deleted” when I try to click into it. I’ve gotten into the habit of screenshotting my favorite deleted tweets, preserving them before they disappear off my timeline for good, and dissolve into whatever backup database that Twitter maintains, if they maintain one at all.
Everyone has the ability to save whatever they want from the internet. Everyone can screenshot, copy and paste, print out essays and stories and inane ramblings—but we don’t, not always. Should we even be able to in the first place? We take countless measures to preserve “art.” We restore old paintings, we refurbish sculptures and other objects, we painstakingly maintain centuries old manuscripts. Did these people from the 17th century know that their diaries and letters would be saved and read hundreds of years later?
We need to have the ability to preserve digital writing. Without it, we lose an integral part of the history of mankind. At the same time, we need to be able to also delete digital writing, or else we are usurped of the control over our own creations. As for how to save other’s creations that we deem beautiful, important, worth saving even when their creator doesn’t agree? I don’t know. This is a new problem, endemic to our digital age, when everyone can see everything from everyone else. The one thing I do know is that we need to be having these conversations if we want to figure it out.
This past May—just under three years after my first message inquiring about the lost Jetko fanfiction—someone messaged back. As we exchanged email addresses, there was a sense of nostalgia, or even wistfulness. We were both no longer big Tumblr users by this point, and these events that had happened on the site years ago seemed so removed from where we were now, especially during such a weird time like the rise of COVID-19. But nevertheless, later that day I received a file in my email account authored by the elusive writer.
I wasn’t even much into Avatar: The Last Airbender by this point, but I felt like after so much time and effort, I had to read it—and so I did. And they were right. It was good.