When I went to read the four LiveJournal entries again, they were gone.
I’d reached another impasse in my search. The familiar keywords weren’t returning anything new. I needed new leads, and for that, I’d need to re-read the LiveJournal entries. Maybe I’d missed something. Maybe there was some clue I’d overlooked, some hint that had passed me by. Maybe if I read the four entries again, I’d glean something new, something invaluable.
The journal itself has been gone for years. It was how, eight years ago, I realized that she had disappeared. Where there was once a robust archive’s worth of hundreds of past entries, there was now a notice stating the journal and its contents had been purged.
What was left were four entries that had been crawled by the Wayback Machine’s spiders. I thought this was a curious loophole, as privacy, and the want to disappear, is a huge reason that one would purge one’s LiveJournal, instead of merely making it private. That anyone could type the journal’s URL into the Wayback Machine and circumvent this act was surprising, and yet I couldn’t believe my good luck, having those four entries.
So I went back, and typed in the URL. I’d foolishly thought those four entries would appear again. I’d foolishly thought, The archive is forever. I’d foolishly thought this little part of her, these tiny snapshots of her life, would be there, waiting for me.
They weren’t. LiveJournal’s robots.txt made sure of it. So, I thought. They finally closed the loophole.
I was disappointed, but later that evening, after a couple glasses of wine, I was glad. She’d wanted to disappear. Now, she really has.
The names I’ve left behind are CrimsunHue, Disentranced, Juliannezero. Crazyparadise, Nachtzehrer. Laancer. Dozens of accounts and email addresses scattered all over the internet, passwords long forgotten, lost to me, forever.
The name she left behind was Guardian21.
I never actually knew her. Never spoke to her. Never saw her face. But I knew her writing. Guardian21 was the screen name of a popular fanfiction writer in the online Final Fantasy fandom. I knew from her fanfiction.net account that her real name was supposedly Jami, but that’s all I knew. When she suddenly disappeared, that was it. She was gone.
Jami’s last date of contact with the fanfiction world, her last words as Guardian21, was June 27, 2008. All that is left of her now are the fraying threads of her internet persona, a trail that has long run cold.
I know it’s cold, because I followed it to its bitter end. I’ve never been content to let sleeping dogs lie, and I didn’t want to let Guardian21’s ghost rest. It’s something that had bothered me since June 27, 2008: Why did this enormously talented, and popular, fanfiction writer suddenly drop off the face of the planet, leaving an unfinished story behind? Why had she finished all of her previous stories, but not her last? Where is she now?
A thousand Google searches turned up nothing after that day in 2008. After all, I didn’t even know her full name. The pieces of the puzzle of her early life were illustrated with Final Fantasy fanfiction, Sailor Moon RPGs, a few errant LiveJournal entries. A few other screen names cropped up. More names she left behind.
I actually became impressed at how thoroughly she had left Guardian21 behind. Nostalgia has rendered me almost incapable of truly abandoning many of my own names, now matter how outdated, redundant or embarrassing they are.
I looked for her for over a year. Weeks, months would go by between fervent Google searches. The dossier of her internet life filled. But it led to nothing.
I had to accept that she’d wanted to disappear. But I couldn’t.
I just couldn’t.
It’s easy to be dismissive of fanfiction when the writing is bad. Thanks to the phenomenon of My Immortal, a now-notorious Harry Potter fanfic, and later Fifty Shades of Grey, fanfiction as a whole is expected to be some paragon of horrendous writing, built on particularly egregious examples of run-on sentences, illogical plot leaps, wooden dialog, and Mary Sues. In many instances, this is the case. Fanfiction.net, the most popular publishing forum for fanfiction, doesn’t offer editorial services, and publishing on the website is as easy as uploading a .docx. When the writing is bad, that status quo coasts on.
But not all fanfiction is bad. Some is good. Some, like the stories by Jami, are even phenomenal. But it doesn’t matter. No amount of good writing will ever rescue fanfiction from the ditches of public opinion. The fact is things made by and consumed by girls are reviled and feared, because the things that girls love are frivolous, useless and vapid, because girls themselves are frivolous, useless and vapid, or so the thinking goes. And fanfiction is certainly the realm of girls. It’s why writing a fanfic about Captain America and Bucky Barnes falling in love is laughed at but your coworkers’ Fantasy Football league is granted valuable workday hours.
In fact, there was a long while when I was embarrassed of my fanfiction habit, and I didn’t even write it. Was that why Jami had disappeared? Had she taken a new job where that sort of association would have imperiled her? Why purge the LiveJournal, then, and not the fanfiction.net account? Was it because, beneath the need to grow up, to leave Guardian21 behind, she was proud of the work she’d done, proud of the thousands of glowing reviews, proud of the praise?
Did she feel forced to leave behind something that made her happy for fear of being laughed at?
That thought makes me very, very sad.
I mourn every link not archived by Wayback Machine.
I think, If this is all I have left of her, this nebulous internet presence, then time is eating her, slowly.
Links go dead. Email accounts get purged for inactivity. Lights go off and there is no one left to turn them back on.
I think, this will happen to me someday.
It’s happening to Jami.
My own internet presence sometimes eludes even me -- I forget passwords, get locked out of accounts, forget the answers to obscure security questions. To remain on the internet, to continue to inhabit these places, is a continuous performance that I sometimes fumble. Tumblr wants to delete my account for inactivity, an account I carefully, lovingly, curated as an art project many years ago and now lies dormant. The bulk of the artwork I’ve created over the last three years is web-based, and I won’t be alive forever to keep renewing these domains.
The powers that be know this. Google and other social networks have developed contingency plans for users on the occasions of their deaths - passwords can be relinquished to family members, accounts can be automatically closed. Plans can be made for some things, but others - they won’t even fade away. One day they will suddenly and irreparably disappear.
The things we leave behind on the internet are fragile and impermanent, and we are just beginning to notice. Far from the early-internet days of “Everything you put on the internet will be there forever,” we have come to see that, just like anything else, internet content is disposable, deletable, prone to corruption, and, legally, subject to omission. Google results, as in the case of revenge porn, can be removed. In 2009 Yahoo! removed GeoCities from the internet, taking with it almost two decades-worth of early internet history. (It should be mentioned that there are a number of people and organizations attempting to archive GeoCities websites, but some of these attempts amount to little more than screenshots of front pages. Still: there are heroes out there.)
We are not entitled to permanence. Life, relationships, the internet are all inherently impermanent, though every major internet service would try to convince us otherwise. I often think back to 1999, when I was thirteen years old, on AOL dialup. On the eve of the new millennium, AOL offered its users an internet time capsule to which we could contribute a short message. The capsule would be “opened” in the year 3000. I don’t remember what I wrote, but even then, at the age of 13, I marveled at the absurdity that AOL would exist in a thousand years.
What the internet has given us is another way to express and record ourselves that is only slightly less perilous than a paper book in a wooden library. There is simply no way to ensure that we, us, ourselves will carry on indefinitely, though for the first time, we are beginning to believe that it’s possible, or at least we are tricking ourselves into this delusion. And what’s left over when we’re gone, do we want it? Do we want the Facebook profiles that our friends and family post to after our deaths? Not everyone can stay friends with a dead person forever. One day it would become an island, no connections, the sea around it so vast that no one would ever see or think about it again.
I wonder if Jami knew of her own internet trail, if she kept track of every account, every comment, every corner of the fandom web to which she published fic. Do I know her internet presence better than she did? Did she want this visibility, this fuzzy, enduring and endearing self-portrait?
What we have left of Jami, what she made for herself on the internet, isn’t Jami. It’s some amalgam of the things she wanted us to know of her and accept as canon. And what of me, Julianne Aguilar? What would someone learn about me from my internet presence? That I love late 90s PC games, and my cat, and about one of every twenty Tweets is even half clever? And if I don’t want my internet trail to reflect who I really am, am I ok with this weird, half-curated version of myself? What will they think of me in a hundred years, in a thousand? Even those individuals who have remained with us over the centuries have been whittled down to little more than myth. For every Socrates there is an Odysseus, little and less proof of existence. For every Chris McCandless, there is a Guardian21.
Maybe it’s better this way. They say history is written by the victors. Maybe, for the first time in our long history, us losers can write our own histories.
What I will tell you is that I found Jami.
It wasn’t even some clever search technique that turned her up. I wish I could say I’m some sort of ultra-capable internet private detective, but what eventually led me to Jami was what had led me to Guardian21 in the first place: a highly-visible internet presence.
I will tell you that she is a successful writer of fiction. I will tell you that she was nominated for a prestigious genre award. I will tell you that her work is just as phenomenal, her talent just as sharp, as her early fanfiction hinted at.
And I will tell you that this is the most unlikeliest and fantastic conclusion to this story that I could have possibly hoped for.
Do you know how rare it is for a fanfiction writer to make it in the actual writing world? It is rare. It is even more rare for a writer of any background to find success, and even more rare for a writer to be nominated for one of the biggest prizes in fiction. I couldn’t believe it. But then, of course I could. It was all right there, in Guardian21’s words, on fanfiction.net.
Some names we have to leave behind in order for new names to grow. I don’t know what will be left of my internet presence the day after I die, or a hundred years after, or a millennia after. But it will be better than a name and a couple dates on a tombstone, and that’s all I can hope for.