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 comment by Liria Mersini
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 smug.com, harpold.com 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.
This might interest you. (And this.)
THANK YOU, Nick.
1. copyright must only apply to persons*
2. copyright expires when the person expires
* and no, corporations are NOT persons.
There is a way to find what she wrote!
The way back machine:
And it actually works.. All updates to her website are stored... Enjoy!
Thank you for such an amazing post. I have been researching and speaking about death and digital legacy for almost a year and, although, I had extrapolated that this type of scenario might occur between a family and an online friend's community, Leslie's is the first tangible evidence of this happening that I've come across. I would very much like to speak with you privately about your experience, and if appropriate, speak about Leslie and this scenario in my talks. Please feel free to contact me directly by email at your convenience.
The Wayback Machine is good (if slow), but it is also, of necessity, incomplete. Images and layout files as well as huge chunks of content are missing, links break. The Wayback Machine is an achievement, to be sure, and it's Waybetter than nothing, but a complete record of any website, in its entirety, as it was originally presented, remains beyond reach.
Thank you for the article. It definitely highlights the different perspectives and experiences that one can have of a person. Leslie loved her niece deeply - I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt, because of the way she talked to me about her and her achievements - and I'm sure the feeling was mutual. Their relationship was obviously different from ours, it is just a shame that the people for whom Leslie's digital life was so important couldn't have been given provenance over the writing that helped define it. I hope that it continues to exist somewhere, and that some future biographer will be able to reconstruct it for posterity. Leslie's legacy is indeed still with me - but sometimes I wish I had the writings, too.
This breaks my heart even a little more. The absence of so many of Leslie's words just magnifies her loss. Thank you for letting us know what's happened.
My sites will disappear for sure. All my billing is electronic and no one else in my family has a clue how it all works. Not sure what to do about it.
Maybe her family wants to compile her works and create a tribute to her themselves.
Just because you knew her on web sites, blogs, mailing lists, doesn't mean you really knew her or her family or the unique relationship she had with them.
You write as if somehow you feel the family 'owes' you the option to publish or republish her works. Did you ever imagine that if in doing so, it might upset family members?
Leslie had furniture, and clothes, she took pictures, and had other posessions. Her writings are just like everything else she compiled in her life and should rightfully pass to her heirs. If copyright were to die with the author, it would be akin to forcing every family who suffered a loss to give away their dead relatives belongings.
Leave the family alone to grieve.
Maybe her family wants to compile her works and create a tribute to her themselves.
They don't. Her niece told me that if Leslie had made her wishes known regarding the disposition of her work, she would have followed them. Lacking that, for whatever reason, they have decided to remove it all from the web and turn down reprint requests.
You write as if somehow you feel the family 'owes' you the option to publish or republish her works.
I never said anything of the kind. As I acknowledge in the post, it's none of my business why they want all of her work to disappear. But by the same token, as someone who was involved in the artistic side of her life for 10 years, I have an interest in seeing it survive.
Your comparison between copyright and physical property is off the mark. Physical property does not cease to be your own after a set number of years for the benefit of society. Copyrighted material does.
Leslie was an immensely talented writer who wrote some absolutely brilliant stuff. It shouldn't be willfully consigned to destruction.
Her furniture, clothes, personal pictures & such forth were private, & were kept so. They were never shared with the world, & the world has neither stake in them nor right to them.
But her writings were from the start public, gifted to the world. In the absence of any statement from Leslie herself on the matter, I believe the world still has a right to them"more right than her family, in fact. Of course the online community has no hold over what Leslie's family might wish to do with them, but for them to deny us that which Leslie so clearly gifted us is selfish & inconsiderate.
I mean no disrespect to her family, but her public legacy is theirs to do with as they will only in law, not in either a moral sense or in fairness.
Moral of the story: when something like this happens, you should immediately grab all the content via curl or wget or whatever, and make a safe backup of it.
That straight away removes the question of the content physically disappearing, and leaves you only with the secondary question of the heirs and relations and what they want to happen to it.
Question (not sure you'll know, but worth asking) -- is it that the family is preserving her work privately, but is just not interested in seeing it on the web after her death, or is it literally the case that they see no value in the work since she didn't leave any specific instructions on what should happen to it after her death?
Leslie had furniture, and clothes, she took pictures, and had other posessions.
Some of us gave her those possessions as gifts. One that I gave her burned in the fire when she was living in NYC.
But Linda, I want to thank you. I want to think you for giving me the inspiration to see a lawyer and draw up a legally binding will, this type of selfish behaviour would never occur with my works.
Fortunately, i have my personal archives, and no copyright law or clueless family can ever take that away.
I knew Leslie for many years -- we did literary events together and also worked together at ArtAndCulture.com in 2002 for about six months (I wrote about her here).
Leslie used to talk about her family, and the main gist I got was that her background was very different from New York City and that her "back home" was another world. She was interested in her heritage in the Appalachian area, and showed me some old photos. Regarding her writing, I know she cared very, very deeply about her written work, and I am sure she would want it still available to readers.
About the current situation -- well, perhaps somebody from the family will speak up about how some of her work can be made available. It's not like this situation can't be changed -- I'm sure they care about her memory and only want what she would have wanted.
Oops, I don't think the link came through! Here it is, including a video of one of Leslie's short stories (luckily, I own the rights to this video, and it's staying online!).
Thank you, thank you, thank you for the video. The full text of the story is still online here.
Is there any chance you could put up the whole video, now that YouTube doesn't impose a ten-minute limit anymore?
regretfully, I didn't know about Leslie until listening to Jeffrey Zeldman, Paul Ford and Dan Benjamin talk about her on the 5x5 podcast. she sounded so interesting, and reading her writing, I am sad that she is gone, and I hope that her family can be persuaded to share the parts of her that she was so generous in sharing with the world.
It reminds my of my friend Steve Gilliard: after we lost him (too young!) we ached to put a book of his work together, but it was not to be. at least, not so far...
I realize you wrote this over a year ago but the recent NYT article Cyberspace When You're Dead mentions Leslie's lost domains and brought a lot of my sadness about her absent art back to mind.
One thing that's personally frustrating for me is that I was a contributor to smug and I never bothered to archive the articles (last I looked I believe one survived on the wayback machine) simply because, knowing Leslie's love of the medium, I assumed they would exist in perpetuity unlike, say, everything I ever wrote for Webmonkey. (Though really who needs a tutorial on FTP any more?) I'm sure many of the other contributors feel the same.
Lost text aside, Smug's disappearance is missing history. In a web of largely isolated blog voices marching to no particularly publishing schedule, it's hard now to trace the cultural migration from independent 'zine publishing to collaborative websites releasing curated content on a monthly basis.
Every Christmas I think of Leslie's Advent Calendars. The family is right, I don't need her art to remember her by, I have my memories. I only wish others had them too.
I am so sad. I just discovered one of Leslie's articles last night, I loved it so much, I started looking for more. Looks like I am to late.
Her family has the right to dispose of her writing as they wish. They do not have the right to dispose of anybody else's writing as they wish. Publications like Smug contained copyrighted material that these folks are holding hostage with no right whatsoever. Hopefully that will change, one way or another.
Goddamit! Levi and Emily: That story is not Leslie's. It is mine. She plagiarized it. Of all the stuff of hers that got lost, this remains? I knew Leslie from 1985. In the last few years of her life we fell out of touch. When I learned of her death I found the online video of her reading MY story. We had often shared our work with each other. I didn't realize that she had stolen some of mine. I have tried to raise this issue before with no good results. I want those links removed or else credit given to me, Kristy Nielsen.
Leslie had many, many wonderful qualities but she was also quite troubled and had a real problem with lying. I've known it since we were friends in college. Any input or feedback welcome.
Leslie was reading that story as far back as 1999. I don't know what you expect her friends to do when she's not around to answer this accusation, but if you have proof that the story is yours I'd like to see it.
Here is a link to a well-established site that published my story with my name in the 90's:
The text linked to above as "Leslie's" is the exact text I sent her as a friend. Not one word is changed except that my name is removed.
The whole link didn't come through. After webdelsol add
My copy of the literary journal that published it in print is in storage so I can't photocopy the title page until I move in a few months.
I expect her friends to remove the links and stop promoting the story as hers. Believe me, I wish she were here to answer to the accusation. There could be no response except mea culpa.
Rogers: I want to apologize. My anger was re-ignited but it should not be directed at you or Levi or Emily. It is an impotent rage since I cannot confront Leslie herself and I'm sorry I let it fly without taking a moment (or three) to calm down.
Here are the facts: I don't know exactly when I wrote the story. It might have been in 1999. I don't usually write stories that contain humor and so I sent it to Leslie thinking she would appreciate it. She did. Like the character in the story, she never knew her biological father and that part in particular resonated with her. Unbeknownst to me, she liked it so much she took it on as her own and performed it. I published it online at Webdelsol (don't know the exact date) and in print in Barnabe Mt. Review (again, don't know the date). I didn't realize that I would need to prove my authorship.
I wrote a few pieces for Smug and avidly devoured her online content. Notice how she never published this story on any of her sites? The copy of the text was on some sort of an index file at Harpold.com. I saw it there before all the sites came down. It was a copy of the file I had attached to an email to her. I found no other traces of it. Nor could I find, thankfully, any other pieces of my writing. I searched, panicked and paranoid, but I am not a tech savvy web pioneer so who knows what I missed.
Leslie was my friend for over 20 years. I loved her. I was grieving and reading through everything I could find about her death when I found it. The feeling of violation I experienced was intense as I watched the video of her reading my story. But again--not your fault. Leslie's.
I realize all of this is history now. All I want, wherever possible, is to have the story removed or properly credited.
And, for what it's worth, I wish all of her online content was available. It was amazing. I did copy a bunch of stuff from "Not Pretty" before it came down. It was a hidden site with some brutally honest stuff--fabulous Leslie writing--candid, funny, touching. The best of her.