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E-zine Riders

Illustration by Terry Groat-Ellner

Lip Service: The greatest contributions low-tech e-zines might make to the din and dingbattiness of the human condition is that they provide an outlet for some seriously--and very tightly--wound souls. Ranters get their say in the great ether of anything-goes Internet.

Low-rent ranters on the Internet place headstrong substance over razzle-dazzle form

By Chris Schoen

Electronic magazines, or e-zines, have been proliferating steadily since the dawn of modems. Not those fancy Web pages loaded with graphics that are sometimes referred to as e-zines. These are clunky, text-only documents. They've resisted evolution into the colorful, interactive, post-literate meta-zines we've been promised. That media trajectory has been more or less co-opted by the World Wide Web, the good neighborhood of the Internet--where all AT&T's wet dreams are coming true.

As the alternative print media has grown increasingly snazzy through the rise of desktop publishing (even fanzines these days look like the Parade supplement in your Sunday paper), what has kept e-zines alive is the complete absence of a market economy in that anarchic web we call the Internet. It costs nothing in the digital world to make a zillion copies of the magazine you just created, which is after all just a bunch of sentences in ASCII text, and maybe the clever use of dotted lines and capital letters. That zero cost gets transferred to the subscriber--in other words, it's free.

And the subscription process is fairly simple as well: In most cases, it is sufficient to send some email with the word "subscribe" in it to an automated "rover," and you'll have your first issue within 24 hours. Sometimes it comes before you've had time to log off.

But more critically, e-zines are the last bastion of content over form (except in those many cases where there is neither) in a medium where anyone with a computer and a SLIP account can put up their own 256-color, highly alluring, interactive, point-and-click Web page. All the e-zine editor wants to say is: "Here's some stuff."

To acquire the definitive e-zine list, compiled by John Labovitz, use one of the following methods: Zines e-zine-list

E-mail John Labovitz

Most electronic zines tend to be at least peripherally about themselves--that is to say, people with modems are still considered a pretty distinct demographic and they are the readership base for e-zine editors. A good deal of them concern themselves with the even more sharply defined subculture known as the cyberpunks, who allegedly do exist though no one will admit to being one.

Or perhaps we have a sublime postmodern condition here: an entire consumer group of voyeurs whose product is ostensibly designed for someone else, rather like the consumer base of the Weekly World News, a large percentage of whom read the News to laugh at the suckers who really believe in a secret meeting between JFK, Elvis and aliens, and in doing so are responsible for helping to keep the News afloat.

In either event, the market seems to be there. Just as most paper zines are punk rock fanzines, at least 50 percent of all e-zines you'll come across are cyberpunk publications, or position themselves as such. And many of them do suck, which isn't the point. Take the case of the only slightly gratuitous Hi-Rez, which features smarmy Hunter Thompson-like reports from a roving "cyber-beat" who uploads his pieces from pay phones, interestingly formatted poetry and the following manifesto in their premiere issue: "We are the cyber-beatniks ... the dangerous new artists ... the technicians of ecstasy."

Like many other e-zines, Hi-Rez is prone to chunkiness and self-absorption, but it is worth noting that these aspects are the charm of electronic zines. The medium is at least 75 percent of the message and what's left is something you've probably seen stated better in the pages of Wired or Mondo 2000 or Science Fiction Eye or Fringeware Review.

E-zines are about clumsy personalities--too headstrong, raw or rantish to make it into the existing press--as much as they are about the free dissemination of information or alternative economics. Sometimes, like in the music of Daniel Johnston or Mary Margeret O'Hara, there are flashes of genius in the chaos..

The spectrum of e-zines is by no means limited to cyberpunk. There are political zines, art zines, Wicca zines, queer zines, zines devoted entirely to the band Queensryche--or what have you. They're out there and they're free. If you don't have time to read them all, you can drag your PC into the bathroom with you..

What they all have in common is that their progenitors found a message they believe is too important to obfuscate with presentation. That certainly doesn't make them better than their upscale cousins, but it does make them refreshing..

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From the March 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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