Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 July 2012:

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

When the 3:AM website suddenly vanished last week, the might of social media helped track down the person who could switch the server back on. But what are the implications for online magazines?

[Turn it on again … server outages were undeniably on the rise, but this time there was no website to check. Photograph: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images]

I concluded my last contribution to this site with a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: “Literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Little did I know that 3:AM Magazine — the literary webzine I had edited with a group of friends for more than a decade — would shortly after vanish suddenly into cyberspace. Whether it was going toward its essence is a moot point, which falls outside of our present remit.

When I am not running late, I often check the website, along with my email, before setting off for work. The last time I performed this routine, I sat, for what seemed like ages, staring, bleary-eyed, at an empty page that obstinately refused to load. Blogger’s block, as I like to call it, is a less heroic, technological version of l’angoisse de la page blanche: the agony experienced by writers in front of a blank page. The only sign of activity came from the little dotted line going round and round in vicious circles like Sisyphus‘s boulder or — rather fittingly in this instance — nobody’s business. With hindsight, I realise it should have put me in mind of the proverbial dotted line on which dodgy contracts are carelessly signed. At this juncture, however, I wasn’t unduly worried — or at least I wasn’t yet aware that my relative (and frankly uncharacteristic) nonchalance may have been (was) inappropriate. After all, this sort of thing had been happening — not happening — on and off for several months, and each time normal service had resumed of its own accord, as if by magic.

Although rare, server outages were undeniably on the rise, and downtime had gone from a couple of hours to a couple of days. This, of course, should have prompted a reassessment of my non-interventionist attitude, but there was little I could do, short of moving the entire website to a new company and server, which is precisely the kind of drastic measure I was eager to postpone for as long as possible. Attempting to make contact with our host — whether by phone, email, carrier pigeon or Ouija board — was a fruitless exercise I had long given up in favour of more fulfilling pursuits such as staring at empty web pages failing to load. Besides, these outages afforded me a few guilty pleasures, not least a little breathing space from the frenzy of online activity: they reminded me of the carnivalesque atmosphere brought about, in my childhood household, by the power cuts of the 1970s. And there was the frisson of flirting with disaster without going all the way — until that fated morning when I tried to check the website only to discover that there was no website to check. There was still no website when I came home from work that evening, nor the following day, nor the day after that. When the expected resurrection had failed, Godot-like, to materialise for almost a week, we were forced to contemplate the nightmare scenario of having lost 12 years’ worth of archives.

The web is a Library of Babel that could go the way of the Library of Alexandria. It is the last word in the quest for a book in which everything would be said — a tradition that extends from epic poetry to Joyce’s Ulysses through the Bible, the Summa Theologica, Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum and the great encyclopedias, as well as Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre”. It is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — “the catalog of catalogs”, the “total” library conjured up by Borges — but it also marks the triumph of the ephemeral.

In order to mimic the instant gratification provided by the web, Argentinian publisher Eterna Cadencia recently published an anthology of short stories using disappearing ink. Once you open the volume, the ink begins to fade in contact with light and air, vanishing completely within two months. In recent years, I have received a growing number of requests from early contributors to 3:AM Magazine, asking me to delete a poem or story of theirs. These people are usually applying for a new job, and find themselves haunted online by youthful incarnations of themselves that may jeopardise their futures. Yet it only took an instant for someone to switch off 3:AM‘s server and solve this problem. The past does not pass on the web; it lingers or resurfaces — unless, of course, it is wiped away. In our case, most of the material was retrievable via the Internet Archive, but as Sam Jordison pointed out in a recent email, how can we be sure that this site, or a similar one, will always be around? At least, in the old days of dead trees, you could safeguard copies of your journal in libraries or universities. When 3:AM was launched, I used to print out every new article we posted, but stopped when the site started running to thousands of pages. I had never imagined that the company I was paying to host, and indeed back up, our webzine would vanish without a word of warning, like disappearing ink.

3:AM‘s servers (located in Dallas, Texas) were owned by a company (based in Saint Joseph, Missouri) whose website was down. Emails bounced back and the phone had been disconnected. We naturally assumed that the owner — whose main claim to fame was his contribution to the penis-enlargement business — had done a runner. But as soon as the word was out, we were inundated with heart-warming messages of support and offers of help via social media, and within a few hours, Twitter had located the owner’s whereabouts. 3:AM readers informed us that he was now the landlord of — or an employee in (there were conflicting reports) — a tattoo parlour. Someone even kindly mailed me an overexposed picture of the aforementioned establishment.

American novelist Steve Himmer spotted that he and the alleged fugitive had a friend in common on Facebook, who was able to send a direct message. London-based author Susana Medina friended him and striked up a conversation. His mobile phone number and personal email addresses were soon unearthed and passed on by amateur sleuths. Blogger Edward Champion conducted a phone interview with the errant entrepreneur in which the latter claimed that he had wound up his web hosting business in 2008 and had no idea that he was still hosting us. He mentioned a “server admin in Bucharest” — name of Florin — who had been handling the company’s “lingering details”. If this is all true, and it could well be, 3:AM had been running on some unattended phantom server. I also wonder whom I have been paying all these years.

Thanks to our readers’ support, and to Champion’s fine detective work, the server has been switched back on (possibly by Florin) … until we migrate elsewhere.

Digital Vanishing Act

Edward Champion, “3:AM Magazine — How Twelve Years of Literary Content Disappeared in an Instant,” Reluctant Habits 6 July 2012

3:AM Magazine, the first literary magazine to champion Tom McCarthy’s work and a pioneering avant vanguard that had published the early work of Tao Lin, Tony O’Neill, and Ben Myers, had vanished in an instant, with the hosting company seemingly disappearing along with it. While a substantial chunk of the magazine’s content was still available through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, there was no backup. And according to editor-in-chief Andrew Gallix, the site was held together by little more than “a doctored WordPress system”.

“It never occurred to me that our server could just be switched off without a word of warning and that the owner would do a runner!” wrote Gallix to me by email. Gallix’s efforts earlier in the week to reach the host were unsuccessful. Emails bounced. The phone had been disconnected. Gallix hadn’t received so much as a notice that his valiant magazine was disconnected and no longer in service.

While Gallix had used another host for a site dedicated to McCarthy’s work, he never switched 3:AM over during the twelve years he ran the site. He had a full-time day job. He wanted to read and he wanted to write. If the server crapped out, it would find a way to resurface after a time. “I kept postponing the move in the hope that things would improve,” said Gallix.

There was no reason for Gallix to worry. Because he had experienced very few problems. “The site was down on some occasions,” said Gallix, “sometimes just for a couple of hours; at worst for a whole day: there didn’t seem to be any real cause for concern”.

* * *

3:AM began, as many literary magazines begin, with a short story. Gallix started corresponding with an American named Kent Wilson, and a website was born. 3:AM Magazine, initially a static site comprised of a handful of stories, was founded in 1999. But Wilson had an unanticipated spiritual awakening. And 3:AM, which abided by the motto “Whatever it is, we’re against it,” didn’t fit into these mysterious ways. Wilson asked Gallix to take over 3:AM in April 2000.

“We were the first to really make use of the global dimension of the web,” said Gallix. “All the editors and contributors met online, and it was only after that some of us became friends in real life”.

This commitment to friendship and passion sustained a literary magazine with a distinct and inimical tone. “While in the middle of a feverish pawing at the back-clip of her bra,” begins one typically edgy and entertaining story around this time, “I did not think much of her whispering in my ear that she could not stay for the night because she had to go home feed Satan”.

But as long as the website continued to work, Gallix didn’t rue over the technical logistics. Wilson had given Gallix the name of a host: RMIhost.com, which was run by Reece Marketing Inc. Reece Marketing Inc. was a one man operation run by Brandon Reece. And when I tracked Reece down by telephone on Friday afternoon, he told me that he was stunned that someone was still using it.

“We haven’t done hosting for four or five years,” said Reece, who sounded somewhat surprised at the news that 3:AM had vanished. “I haven’t hosted anybody’s site since 2008.”

Gallix informed me later in the afternoon that he had paid an annual hosting fee, but it was unclear whether someone had taken over from Reece. He received an email every year asking to pay for the next year. So what was RMIhost.com?

“That’s all still up there,” replied Reece. “It’s not doing any business.”

Reece claimed to not know anything about 3:AM Magazine. He said his company had once specialized in website design and had operated out of Dallas. “It was never a successful side company,” said Reece.

Reece recalled a guy named Kent when I asked him. He identified a “born again Christian,” and confirmed that this was Kent Wilson when I provided the surname. But Reece didn’t appear to know what Wilson had given him. Was it possible that he wasn’t even paying attention to RMIHost?

“I don’t ever remember hosting 3:AM Magazine,” said Reece. “I think I would know.”

Reece referred to “a server admin in Bucharest” — a gentleman named Florin — who he promised to email tonight. When I asked Reece if RMIhost had leased any particular server, he seemed baffled.

“DNS,” said Reece. “I haven’t done anything like this in a while.”

Reece was busy “looking for something new right now”. He intimated that he was in a transition period and that the hosting company had been more of an unprofitable sideline. These days, he was living on savings.

“I don’t trust my personal expertise,” said Reece when I asked him about his technical chops. “I don’t even know how to do that myself. You forget everything you do.” But he did promise to get on the case by Monday. He also allowed me to pass along his contact information to Gallix.

As for Gallix, he informed me that he had tech people retrieving what they could off the Internet Archive. But even if 3:AM manages to extract the content, he’s unsure about what “more reliable and reputable host” he’ll offload his content onto. The experience revealed to Gallix “the fragility of online content”.

It remains unclear whether Reece was playing dumb or acting in good faith. But he was willing to pass along his contact info to Gallix, even after I informed him of the significant online outcry that had followed 3:AM‘s server outage. And these efforts do represent a step in the right direction to preserve 3:AM‘s vast archive.

No matter how the 3:AM predicament works out — and there are positive signs that it will — preserving online work may very well be as dangerous as other historical precedents. Or as Tom McCarthy, reached on holiday, declared to me upon learning the news, “My first reaction is: ALEXANDRIA!”

[7/6/2012 6:45 PM UPDATE: As of 6:45 PM EST, 3:AM Magzine has been restored. Many thanks to all who helped out with this story and to Mr. Reece for following through with his promise.]