From Zine Racks to Hell Sites and Back Again
Did print zines anticipate the worst of online publishing and social media? Are they an answer?
By Tobias Carroll
While living in Chicago in the late nineties and early aughts, I edited a print zine about music and culture called Eventide. I knew next to nothing about writing, editing, or design when I started, and my first lesson involved figuring out that Microsoft Office 1995 is not ideal for desktop publishing. At first, the focus was music, hardcore mostly, and its various offshoots. By the last issue, Eventide was also covering film, politics, and nearly anything else my friends and I found interesting. The process was a never-ending workshop: I learned how to interview, how to build an argument, how to write a record review, and how to handle very angry emails from, say, the proprietors of Victory Records and other distribution points.
Like many old zine makers, I have a deep nostalgia for those last days of DIY print culture. Eventide was my foray into writing, but it also formed an essential part of my development and identity as a human being. I found a community among other zine makers who were always on call to help with aspects of zine publishing, from selling at shops and shows, to tips on printing and layout. We also traded ad space and subscriptions with each other, creating a closely-knit network.
Though few of our zines survive, I still run into people from that world, now and again. Earlier this year, I bought a ticket for the Brooklyn stop on the Jawbox reunion tour from a guy I used to trade zines and ads with. That renewed connection got me thinking about the heyday of zine culture, and how it differed from today’s world of social media and instantaneous online publishing. As I remember it, the old zine community brought with it a sense of accountability for both words and deeds, something the fringe elements of online publishing sorely lack.
But did it, really? What if this is naïve, and zine culture actually set the template for the worst elements of online trolling and provocation that followed? What if, instead of creating a better way to express ourselves, my fellow zine editors and I unwittingly set a guiding precedent for today’s hell sites and extremist megaphones?
Here’s a phrase to ponder: “Self-expression is addictive, and once you’ve discovered the pleasures of publishing your own words, you’ll never go back.” Is this the manifesto from the guy with a Pepe avatar who’s been trolling you on Twitter? Is it a statement of intent from a YouTuber who rants to his hundreds of thousands of subscribers? The rallying cry of an anti-vaxxer conspiracy blog?
None of the above. These words appear in the introduction to The World of Zines, published in 1992 by Factsheet Five editors Mike Gunderloy and Cari Goldberg Janice. Not many people under 35 remember Factsheet Five, but it was once a central component and guide to the zine community. In The World of Zines, the authors speculate as to why someone might make a zine in the first place. “Some people do it just to have fun,” they write, “or to explore an area of the world which the mainstream media doesn’t adequately cover. Some are in it to cause trouble, or bring about social change.”
Revisiting the compendium in 2019, I’m struck by the way that statement resonates with the more problematic elements of modern-day online publishing and social media. Consider this New York Times article about online radicalization from June, which describes how YouTube “has allowed [vloggers and others] to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences, and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses.”
How did the admirable zine-maker become the loathsome YouTube purveyor of conspiracies and hate speech? In the broadest terms, each one is using readily available tools to create media to fill a void that they perceive in the media landscape. But did one lead to the other? What gave zine culture its generally progressive and inclusive tilt, while a subsequent generation of online DIY media so often veers toward bigotry and intolerance?
“What differentiate zines and other self-publishing media, in my mind, is the anarcho-punk politics of mutual aid behind them,” says Jenna Freedman, of the Barnard Zine Library. “Zines have an ethos of community care, that I think it’s safe to say is not the culture in social media.”
We were talking about the DIY spirit, and the differences between zine editors and the new generation that speaks through an easy-to-use CMS, YouTube and Vimeo. Zines have always been largely been a progressive force, culturally speaking, while online media has produced a much more politically disparate group. To this former zine editor, Freedman’s words about community and mutual-aid rang true. Even for zine-makers who weren’t venturing into explicitly political spaces, that sense of community was present. It shaped the ethos, and I miss it.
But if nineties zine culture left behind a legacy of some revelatory work, new communities, and lasting friendships, it was never utopian. I remember walking into the long-shuttered New York City shop See Hear, which had a fantastic selection of zines on music, politics, and nearly any subculture you could imagine. But the walls sometimes featured unsettlingly bigoted flyers beside the usual notices for upcoming shows across the city. (I remember one that combined a doctored portrait of Abraham Lincoln with anti-Semitic language.) Finally, in 1996, there was a call for a boycott of the shop for stocking “hate literature.” More recently, in 2015, when BuzzFeed investigated the origins of an infamous anti-Semitic illustration, the artist turned out to be a former contributor to Answer Me!, an influential and aggressively anti-PC zine published out of Los Angeles and Portland in the early 90s.
Still, there was a system of accountability built into the zine community, even at the fringes. Most zines contained return home addresses and mastheads. Factsheet Five contained information about zines’ origins and producers, and provided space for serious and bylines criticism. Zine reviews in other zines performed a similar function. It was a way of creating mechanisms through which bad behavior could be called out, isolated and debated in good faith.
Jenna Freedman, of the Barnard Zine Library, says that zines have always created “a place of relative safety and care for marginalized and/or subculture points of view to be valued and thrive.” Whether you were reading or editing zines, the networks they created were essential to the process: if you could find one zine, you had a roadmap to find more, or a starting point to make your own. They formed a larger discussion of fiercely individual voices, but grounded in (mostly) shared values.
The same ethos that prompted smart explorations of culture and identity also prompted hurtful or hateful mockery of the very same things. This corner of the zine world — the precursor to today’s 4chans and 8chans — was never terribly numerous, but it was loud. If two percent of all zine editors were opting for hateful screeds or images in the name of an “anti-PC” ethos, that constituted a reasonably small number of zines. When the technical and time barriers to publishing fell, this number began to scale exponentially.
“DIY [print] culture was very exclusive,” says Punk Planet founder Dan Sinker, referencing the sheer man-and-grrl hours of work required to publish a zine, as well as the logistical and financial commitment (whether you were Xeroxing in bulk or working with a printer) to get numerous copies of a physical object printed. “Now, the costs associated with making things is so low it’s incredible. That’s a good thing in the wide-angle, but also has its downsides. There are trade-offs in terms of gatekeepers and access to distribution. But I love the idea that I can have an idea in the morning and have it out by the afternoon and it basically costs me nothing. It means that a lot more people can find their voice.”
But, again: what happens when the people who find their voice want to use it to silence others, or worse, hurt them? How to balance embracing the million blooms of self-publishing, so beautiful in the abstract, with the real-world consequences of the “intellectual dark web,” vicious trolling, and online organizing for the spread of extremist ideas and actions?
As this piece came together, Sinker’s perspective was the one I was most eager to hear. Mostly this was because of the role Punk Planet played in my own life and zine career. PP was ambitious in its approach to design and writing — each issue was just a gorgeous physical object — and central to the larger zine culture. In addition to a thorough review section, each issue featured an interview with at least one other zine editor. (Including, in the February 1999 issue, yours truly.) Sinker’s publishing career straddles both sides of the media landscape. After Punk Planet ended its run in 2007, he spent seven years as the director of OpenNews. He’s also no stranger to online provocation, having run a satirical Twitter handle focusing on Rahm Emanuel’s campaign for mayor in Chicago.
When I asked Sinker about the connection between the zine world and the DIY elements of online publishing, he took the historical view. “I think there have been a number of waves of this since the heyday of DIY and today,” he told me. “In each wave, the means of production got simpler and more affordable, but access to distribution got more difficult.”
For Sinker, that balance has been in a state of constant flux. “There was probably a sweet spot a decade or more ago, pre-Facebook, where the ease of production and the ease of distribution was about as close together as it gets — publish a WordPress blog, get into Google search results,” he said. “Now, those more organic methods have been completely taken over by platforms, so if you’re unwilling to enter a platform-based distribution method, your ability to get found is very difficult.”
Zines never disappeared, and are even seeing something like a revival. Etsy currently lists over 37,000 items in its “Zines & Magazines” category. Steven Englander of ABC No Rio’s zine library, says that small print publications continue to exist in contrast and reaction to an extremely online world. “I think resurgent interest in zines and making zines is due to the vast sea of online content,” he said. “Zines are something to have and to hold. Everything online seems so ephemeral.”
Sinker compares the continued presence of zines in underground shops and online stores to the resurgence of vinyl. “It’ll never be huge — it never was huge — but it’s good to see people trying.”
Let’s hope that the zine networks that sustain publishers and writers, and bring them together and hold them mutually accountable, will also remain intact, helping us chart better routes for new media even as the old forms endure.
Tobias Carroll is the author of two books, Reel and Transitory. His third book, Political Sign, will be released in 2020. He maintains an irregularly-updated archive of Eventide interviews at eventidearchive.com.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: August 23, 2019
Author: Tobias Carrol
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Factsheet 5