It’s embarrassing to admit, but I can be awfully possessive about things I don’t own. Even things that no one owns. Even things that don’t yet exist.
That’s how I was with Mark Pilgrim’s writing and software. Every time he published something new, I stopped what I was doing to read it or play with it. His narrative pieces, in particular, felt like they meant more to me than they meant to other people in the same way that my favorite bands' music had, back in my teens and into my early twenties.
It was similar with Why the Lucky Stiff, though he was so prolific that I couldn’t always keep up, and sometimes I had no idea what he was talking about. He was sort of like an imaginary friend made mostly real, but left partially in a self-creating dream state.
The reason that’s how I was with them, rather than am, is because they’re both infocides, probably our most famous. They took their software, which was all open source, and their writing, which was all Creative Commons-licensed (if I recall correctly) and disappeared it from the internet, completely without warning.
Joseph Reagle, of Northeastern University and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, has published the draft of an article on infocides, “‘410 Gone’: Infocide in Open Content Communities.” His article is an interesting and comprehensive look at infocide, and includes well reasoned speculation into why Internet Famous people choose to disappear themselves. Though, as Reagle points out, “my approach also has a serious limitation: it does not include the voices of those who have enacted a successful infocide. (That is, those who really do disappear.)”
Which is what makes Dean Allen’s recent reappearance so interesting: it may offer some insight into the kind of situation that might inspire infocides to return to Internet Life, or at least explain a bit more about why they disappeared in the first place. Allen probably isn’t as Internet Famous as Pilgrim or _why, though he’s about as Internet Famous as you can get without earning your own Wikipedia entry. He created Textile, a peer and competitor to Markdown, and Texttpattern, a peer and competitor to WordPress, as well as TextDrive, which was the basis for Joyent, a web hosting company. He also had a popular blog, Textism.
But Dean Allen began to fade away. He wasn’t an infocide, but for several years it was as if he were on infohospice.
For instance, he didn’t remove his software. Unlike Pilgrim and _why, who generally developed their projects on their own, Allen tended to collaborate. When he left, his projects continued on under the guidance of the people who had become their primary developers. He didn’t abandon TextDrive; instead, he and his TextDrive co-founder, Jason Hoffman, merged it with Joyent, which continued to support its customers, at least until recently. His blog’s front page was changed to a one-word sentence—"Retooling.“—but its pages, such as its (funny and entirely specious) "About” page, continued to be reachable if you knew their URL. Even his Twitter feed presented just the hint of a pulse; his entire output for 2011 consisted of a single word:
One of the things that is unique about TextDrive is its origin story, which is about 80% Kickstater and about 20% YCombinator. Trading on his Textile and Textpattern credibility, Dean Allen crowdsourced the funding of TextDrive by allowing up to 200 people to pay $199 each to fund TextDrive, “a webhost that offers the best in performance, security and stability, backed by intelligent configuration and great software.” In return, he offered webhosting for the life of the company. I was one of TextDrive’s VC200.
Last month, Jason Hoffman, who stayed with Joyent as its Chief Technology Officer after its merger with TextDrive, sent an email to everyone who participated in the VC200 capitalization effort, as well as a few capitalization rounds that followed. As of October 31, 2012, Joyent would no longer support the legacy service still being used by many of the folks who had sponsored its VC rounds. I was about to lose my webhost.
And then, two weeks after Hoffman’s email, Allen wrote one of his own:
A couple of weeks ago I received, at the same time as Joyent’s shared hosting customers, a message announcing an end to support for shared hosting, affecting customers who’ve been with us for years, some of whom invested in accounts we had intended to support for the rest of the life of the company. The announcement struck many as abrupt. Some took it to be an abandonment of, if not an insult to, your good faith, written in marketing and lawyer speak.
I soon spoke with my friend Jason, who by then was deluged with abusive emails and imaginative threats. After I rubbed some salt in his wounds, we began imagining what it would take to continue providing what we’d intended all along to those who put their faith in us. After some wrangling, we’ve found a way to make it work.
I’d like to announce that on November 1st, 2012, TextDrive will relaunch anew as a separate hosting company, staffed and funded, run by me. Please consider the recently announced end-of-life for Joyent’s shared hosting customers now revised to be a continuation-of-life, to be carried out in the same friendly, creative, publishing-centered spirit of TextDrive’s early days.
And just like that Dean Allen was no longer in hospice. Like TextDrive itself, whose hardware and service ethic had begun to fade over time, his years of infohospice became instead a continuation-of-life.
I realize this is precisely one data point, but perhaps this is what it will take to resurrect Mark Pilgrim or Why the Lucky Stiff. There’s no way for those of us who simply read their work and used with their software to know with any certainty why they abruptly left us, but perhaps the reason they haven’t returned is because they know they aren’t needed.
A website, _why’s Estate, is a collection of everything _why published on the Internet. A bit of sleuthing will reveal most of what Pilgrim published as well. And, frequently, their best work has not remained static. One of the tools _why developed to teach people how to program, Hackety Hack, remains under active development, and many people celebrate Whyday every August 19. Pilgrim’s last book, Dive Into HTML 5 is now credited to “Mark Pilgrim with Contributions from the Community.”
Unlike Allen’s legacy, neither Pilgrm’s nor _why’s is threatened. Which means that, if I’m right about a threat to their legacy being the thing that would mostly likely inspire their inforesurrection, I have mixed feelings about Pilgrim or _why returning. As much as I miss them, I’m not sure I’m eager for the kind of occurrence that would provoke their return.