There’s an old Sandra Bullock vehicle called The Net, wherein the basic premise is that she awakens one morning and is no longer Sandra Bullock. Her credit cards are invalid, all traces of her digital life have been scrubbed and no one remembers the plot of Speed.
As far as peak ’90s goes, you probably can’t do much better. The Net co-starred Dennis Miller and hackers galore depicting a techno-dystopian hell that seemed absurd — until one Saturday when I became Sandra Bullock.
For the last decade, I’ve run a music website called Passion of the Weiss, an independent publication of the sort that people once called blogs before that medium mostly went belly up. I usually described us as the last of the Mohicans — at least until earlier this month, when 11 years of archives and work disappeared, without warning or explanation.
My server company, Bluehost, removed all traces of the site. An error message came up when you clicked the URL. I couldn’t access the blog’s back end. It was as though we never existed.
This wasn’t my first Bluehost imbroglio — it had temporarily vaporized POW a few months earlier when the British arm of the RIAA sent a cease-and-desist over a 7-year-old E-40 MP3. I deleted it instantly but didn’t know that another version existed on a second server, inaccessible to the site’s readers. Without a phone call or human interaction, Bluehost shut us down, reinstating the site several headaches later.
But this new debacle was far worse. Tech support only offered Newspeak babble about how the blog violated the Bluehost “terms of compliance.” Bluehost refused specifics on what that meant. I was steered to an “online chat” with a glorified bot spitting out dozens of potential offenses. Diagnosing the problems would cost hundreds. Fixing them could cost thousands.
A corporate website with an in-house developer could repair it easily. But for a labor of love, staffed by a gifted volunteer army dedicated to mostly obscure music, this felt like a death sentence.
For years, people have rightfully eulogized the blog. It’s an interstitial medium that rarely matches the sugar rush of Twitter or Snapchat, or the edification of reported, long-form journalism. But when done thoughtfully and without self-seriousness, blogs offer one of the few remaining vessels for unfiltered writing — they’re digital ’zines that can ignore traffic quotas and corporate decorum.
For Bluehost and its parent company
POW was the first local website to write about Kendrick Lamar, Open Mike Eagle and YG. We wrote smart shit and dumb shit, and tried to live up to the motto, “Even if I was wrong, I got my point across.” Over the years traffic held steady or increased, but ad revenue slowly dried up. Big companies preferred advertising with other big companies. Branded content seemed too corny. Gossip news and trolling guaranteed traffic but lacked integrity.
As for Bluehost, it’s owned by a publicly traded parent company, Endurance International Group, which grossed $741 million last year. POW was just another minor inconvenience.
Without options, I did what any sensible person would do in 2016: I flamed Bluehost on Twitter. Fortunately, hundreds of journalists, musicians, readers and large and small publications lent us their support.
Within hours, the public relations fiasco shamed Bluehost into providing support and reinstating us. The problem was minor — too many spam comments slowed down Bluehost’s servers. Had the company just emailed me and recommended a plug-in, it could’ve been fixed without incident.
Instead, it offered me a chilling glimpse of what can happen to your online presence if you can’t marshal large numbers of people to apply pressure and bad press. We all can’t be Sandra Bullock.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.