New Weird Order

Sizing Up the State of the Webzine Nation
August 4, 1999

Baltimore City Paper

Webzine99, held on July 24 in San Francisco’s SOMARTS Cultural Center, may have had little in common with much larger Woodstock ’99, held that same weekend. The two events did, however, share one odd similarity: Both ended in flames.

You’ve probably already heard of Woodstock’s anarchic climax. Webzine99’s fiery end, though not as grand, is still worth reporting.

It happened around midnight, about two hours from festival’s scheduled close. The moderated discussions on Webzine publishing were finished and participants were mingling in a kind of post-conference party. It was then that panelist Mark Pauline, the founder of Survival Research Laboratories, a band of freestyling engineers who build menacing yet purposeless machines, snuck out to a nearby parking lot and fired up a cooler-sized military pulse-jet engine to entertain the crowd. "One hundred and fifty decibels of fun!" Pauline promised.

The noisy device squealed for a time, and then, as part of the grand finale, erupted in flames. The fire was quickly doused with water; although the tempers of SOMARTS management were not so easily extinguished. They had earlier instructed the Webzine staff not to set off any pyrotechnics. The festival’s techno music was cut and everyone was directed out. The exiled zinesters wandered off to a nearby rave, or to local watering holes.

Unsanctioned fireworks was about the only thing that Webzine99 shared with Woodstock ‘99, however. Whereas the gargantuan music fest pedaled $4 sodas and $17 bags of ice under the once-sacred pretexts of peace and harmony, the zinefest was all about finding new ways of breaking free from commerce-driven corporate culture. This is not to say it was entirely successful. It was underattended (only about 550 people showed); Only about half a dozen zines bothered to set up booths; and Web publishing tutorials went largely unnoticed. But what it lacked in size, Webzine99 made up for in talent and real countercultural import (not to mention free pizza). The event brought together an amazing collection of folks eager to inject imagination back into an increasingly commercialized World Wide Web.

What’s a Webzine? If you’re a bit fuzzy on the concept, you’re not alone. The field has yet to define itself. One might assume that Webzines are like print zines shoveled online, accompanied by the same individual vision, mistrust of authority, clever attitude, and ironic use of bad clip art. While many Webzines do possess these qualities, the best have a fluidity unmatched by their print brethren.

And if Webzine99 proved anything, it’s that the electronic medium can be stretched to encompass all sorts of new ideas. This was perhaps best understood by attending the day-long series of panels. The participants ranged from the Online Journalism Review, a tightly maintained watchdog site that hounds new-media journalism outlets to adhere to the same level of integrity as their more traditional counterparts, to the Brunching Shuttlecocks, whose joyfully frivolous site is known for such gags as a quiz that asks you to discern the names of Italian sports cars from those of impotence drugs (it’s harder than you’d imagine).

Bigrig Industry’s Rusty Blazenhoff recalled how her Webzine sold a box of macaroni and cheese on the eBay online auction site for $32.89. Mark Simple of Cardhouse told how contributor Godfrey Daniels called the manufacturer of an obscure cough suppressant called 666 Cold Preparation to ask if the satanic connotation of the title was deliberate; the resulting exchanges were written up and posted on Cardhouse. This wasn’t the only flirtation with the devil the panelists revealed: When Larry-bob of the San Francisco-centric gay-culture zine Holytitclamps was asked if he ever had any trouble with religious right-wing zealots, he replied, "They’re stupid. They don’t even know how to spell Satan correctly”—one angry e-mailer had actually warned him about the evils of “Satin.”

One of the day’s hot buttons was money—how publishers can make a living from their vision (few do) and, conversely, the perils of selling out. Mike Wooldridge, whose Flash Mountain hosts photos of people baring their private parts at amusement parks and other public spaces, took heat on the issue. The emcee ribbed Wooldridge for running banner ads for pornographic sites. "There are many people who pass around these photos on the Internet," he joked when introducing Wooldridge to the audience, "but only one person has made a cottage industry out of it." Later, when Wooldridge unveiled his newest project, ThatKid, devoted to his as-of-yet unborn baby (complete with a "Roto-Tummy" panoramic view of the mother’s extended stomach), the emcee sneered, "So you’re making money off of your unborn fetus."

Not everyone had such conflicted feelings about success. Later that night, an energetic Chris Pirillo—spotting the notebook in my hand and thus deducing my association with some potential publicity-generating entity—bounded up to promote his fabulously successful e-mail computer software newsletter, Lockergnome. The Des Moines, Iowa resident began writing Lockergnome in college, but it grew into a full-time job. Now, he’s entirely supported by banner ads. "I have a killer click-through rate," he boasted (referring to the number of e-mail readers who click on the banner ad, which leads them to the advertiser’s site).

The reality for most zinesters there, however, is that they'll probably never enjoy the opportunity to sell out, as it were. Phil Baird, who runs the Cult Fiction site told me he’s made "maybe $2 in maybe three months" from banner ads. However slim the prospects of riches, Webzines are at least more cost effective than their hard-copy counterparts. Stuart Mangrum, who used to edit the Twisted Times print zine and now contributes to Proust Said That, told me Webzine start-up costs can be as little as the price of an Internet account, whereas Mangrum used to spend $1,000-plus to print an issue of the Times. Webzines are also more compact. They can be loaded onto a computer disk or stashed away on a hard drive. The benefits of this were expounded upon by Bigrig Industry’s Brody Culpepper. Office drones can work on their zines at their desks, and no one would ever suspect them of slacking. "I try to waste as much time at work and as little time at home as possible," Culpepper said during the first panel.

While the panels stimulated much spirited discussion about the mechanics of running Webzines, the promoters’ decision to devote hall space for booths seemed rather pointless, given the nature of the products. The most successful booth was that occupied by Alec Bennett’s Wrybread, a zine that received considerable press awhile back from its Crack Cam (Bennett had set up a camera to take shots at a street corner rife with crack dealers outside his home). For his festival booth, Bennett and his friends assembled an ad-hoc moviemaking van. In the back of this vehicle sat a video camera, a computer, and even a small staging area. Anyone could hop in and, with the aid of a few props, make a short movie that Bennett would then post to his site.

What does this all mean? "A lot of this is repairing yourself," Cult Fiction’s Baird told me about the Webzine phenomena. Many of these zinesters have day jobs at design companies cranking out sites they don’t feel personally connected to. How much interest can they possibly take in designing a Web site for, say, a transmission shop? Baird works for such a company, where he can put in as much 60 hours a week. Webzines are a way to reclaim the spirit that moved them to create online in the first place.

“The Web’s not like it was in 1995,” Baird said. "It’s like you have a place in your childhood that you used to play at, but then it gets bulldozed over and shopping centers are put in its place." For Baird, today’s giant commerce sites are those shopping centers. And Webzines are the "tree houses" where he can reclaim some of the original spirit of the Web.

Berkeley, Calif.-based Web designer Wendy Thorpe, who runs Pottymouth, agreed. "People in the [Web] business feel isolated," she said. "You find yourself working on somebody else’s concept every day." Many of these zines are communities where the like-minded can gather and create. It’s no surprise that many zines here—such as Cubby, Gothic.Net, and Pigdog Journal, the last of which I occasionally contribute to—are run by loose groups of like-minded people. One has to wonder which comes first for Webzine publishers: the desire for community or the desire to express an individual point of view. "I think it was a combination of both that led us to start of Pottymouth," said Thorpe, who started the zine with a group college pals. "We had things to say but we wanted to say them with our friends."

There is more at work here than cliquishness, however. As one of the featured speakers, acclaimed University of California information-studies associate professor Phil Agre, observed, "When I read zines, I see people struggling to get from under the endless media surveillance culture, a sign that we all won’t end up in a Nike commercial.”

-Research Assistance: David Cassel

—Joab Jackson

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