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  E-zine-list maker John Labovitz sums it up:
Five years and counting

by John Labovitz

A few months ago, the e-zine-list, my online directory of electronic magazines, had its fifth birthday. I never planned the e-zine-list to have such a lifetime. It was born quietly, to fill what I saw to be a small niche: a directory of online zines, organized into a simple, brief text file with titles, descriptions, and contact information. With subtle changes, it has survived the technological and cultural upheavals of the last few years' of the Net.

Much has been written about the birth of the Web and of the Net culture of today. But electronic publishing began long before the Web was born. I will try to relate a bit of the history and spirit of the time when the Net was younger and wilder.

In the beginning

We've been told a million times the story of the Internet's creation: its birth as the US military-sponsored ARPAnet project in the late 60s; the quiet, slow, but exponential growth through the 70s; the reformations and coups of funding and reorganization and hesitant commercialization in the 80s; up to the colorful carnival that is the Internet now, at the close of the century.

I first entered this story in the early 80s, as a bored 16-year old in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Instead of doing schoolwork, I peered at the ASCII text that scrolled down the black and white monitor of our home computer, and tried to unravel the mysteries that lay beyond the modem carrier tone. There was no Web then, no Internet service providers, no America Online; graphic user interfaces were still research projects; modems ran at a speed a hundred times slower than today. Going online meant dialing up one of the several hundred BBS systems scattered around the world.

”Going online meant dialing up one of the several hundred BBS systems scattered around the world.”

My friends and I exchanged maps and adventures of secret systems with cryptic login screens, and the magic keys that might (but usually didn't) unlock them. One key, however, worked - a borrowed login led me first to a US Department of Defense dial-up connection, then through a twisty maze of numeric machine addresses, until finally I found my virtual self in Boston, in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT.

Here was a world far different than the homey BBSes of the microcomputer hobbyists, or the anonymous, invisible mainframes of the corporations. The weird array of computers at the AI Lab had been hacked on for decades by each generation of MIT students, and were still evolving.

As a stowaway, I kept out of sight while exploring the nooks and crannies of the systems. Few doors were closed - not for lack of keys, but lack of locks. User accounts were a relatively new phenomenon, passwords newer still. Although I knew no one at the Lab, no one seemed surprised to find a 16 year-old boy spending hours learning the system, even a boy who had borrowed a login. To my surprise, when I collected the courage to ask for a login of my own, I was given one, no questions asked.

Electronic incunabula

Scattered among the filesystems at the AI Lab were the normal technical detritus of programs, source code, documentation, and system files. But stored there, too, among the personal directories, were short stories, diaries, archives of email discussions, and random thoughts of the users of the systems.

In those days, a computer was still a rare and abstract machine, not a personal, desktop tool; placing one's thoughts on a networked computer, even without advertising it, was an invitation for people to read those thoughts. I remember finding a file at the AI Lab in which someone had written, "Never put anything on a computer you wouldn't want anyone else to read."

I wasn't the only one to read those files. Often these files in the communal space of the AI Lab and other servers on the Net could be explored remotely, via the FTP protocol. In effect, it was publication without distribution - much like the Web is today. Publishing meant simply making the information available in a public place; active promotion wasn't necessary.

Although people would occasionally post a notice of a file available by FTP or email, there was no standardized way of addressing files across the network, nor was there a universal browser like Netscape. Like the inconsistent spellings in Old English, one had to simply figure out what the writer was trying to describe, and do one's best to type the right commands to the FTP program. This kept the archives scattered, obscure like manuscripts in the monks' cells.

”Like the inconsistent spellings in Old English, one had to simply figure out what the writer was trying to describe, and do one's best to type the right commands to the FTP program.”

Some of those monks studied the nature of electronic text itself: how to represent text in the electronic realm and allow it to be searched and analyzed and reworked. Michael Hart created Project Gutenberg to archive older writings whose copyright had reverted to the public domain. Ted Nelson imagined a vast network of interrelated documents, linked backwards and forwards and even incorporating a system of royalty micropayments. His Xanadu system, still under development even in 1998, is one of the ancestors and inspirations of the Web.

Early experiments attempted to create an electronic publishing environment less static and more rich than plain ASCII files - including Apple's Hypercard environment, the Owl Guide hypertext system, the PostScript page layout language, as well as some custom applications. But although these visionary systems showed the possibilities of the medium, they were limited by their isolated, proprietary nature and - more importantly - they couldn't be read online: one had to download a binary file and run it on a local computer.

An environment less rich but far more appropriate for the Net arrived in the form of the distributed Gopher menuing system, which caught on quickly in the early 90s. Menu items led users to either text files or more menus on the local Gopher server, or across the Net to another Gopher menu server. This easy linking had never been implemented on such a widespread scale, nor with such an easy interface. Like today's Web, anyone who could program a Gopher menu could link to any other resource on the Net. Gopher was a first step toward publishing in context.

The arrival of zine culture

While the academics theorized and the hackers hacked, the Net exploded in the late 1980s and early 90s. Immigrants from less technical or less academic disciplines arrived and mixed with the established male-geek culture. Universities who in earlier times would have scoffed at giving Net access to anyone but science majors now handed out accounts to first-year students. Mailing lists and newsgroups flourished with the diversity of daily lives, their members madly discussing hobbies, lifestyle, entertainment, food, art, history, sports. The Net became a place not only known, but desirable.

But Net access couldn't be bought - and nothing could be advertised or sold there, due to how the National Science Foundation funded the Net (at least the US portion). It was a rare time and place without an economy, only the hidden economy that kept the plumbing running behind the scenes.

Established commercial magazine publishers, if they noticed the Net at all, could find no economic reason to publish for free, with no advertising. Professional designers who were used to color and typography found no tools or materials in the text editors on running on ASCII terminals.

So the job of creating the literature of the Net was left to its residents. Some were publishers of existing print zines, veterans of the literary, science-fiction, and punk zines that proliferated then. Some simply saw the Net as a glistening new medium, free of photocopy costs and open in its malleable possibilities.

The zine world had already pushed the boundaries of print design and production, taking full advantage of collage and xerography. Net publishers applied this same creativity, along with the periodical model. The role of an editor was well-known and accepted (even if that editor was also the writer, publisher, and sales staff). There was nothing to lose commercially - producing an e-zine took nothing but time and energy. And there was no shortage of creative and original content - zines have long been known for their quirky and obscure frames of reference.

Nowadays we'd call these first e-zine publishers "early adopters" - the experimenters who took the Net for what it was, and imagined its possible futures, without trying to bend it to fit the constraints of traditional media like newspapers or printed magazines. E-zines could stand on their own, as only pixels on a screen, rather than a low-grade form of slick, glossy magazines.

Without choice of fonts and colors, with no images or other graphics, on a static page with no hyperlinks, an e-zine publisher had clear constraints. But the limitations were seen by some not as oppression, but as a sort of minimalist discipline. In their ASCII workshop, publishers created graphics with strings of punctuation, shaped their pages with space characters and newlines, broke the rules of common style, and created an ASCII art that to this day has a certain grace and beauty.

HI-REZ, one of the early zines, excelling in ASCII.

A few early e-zines are still lurking around the Net. Michael Murphy's Network Audio Bits, containing reviews of music CDs and records, was first published in 1987; Jim McCabe produced Athene: The Online Magazine of Amateur Creative Writing in 1989; that same year, Daniel Appelquist released his science-fiction and fantasy e-zine Quanta. Through the early 90s, the ASCII artform was explored in e-zines like HI-REZ, The Undiscovered Country, and Unplastic News. (Many more early e-zines are archived at and The WELL's Gopher server.)

A directory of online magazines

In those tumultuous Net years, I'd never published an e-zine. I was, however, involved in publishing several print zines - a punk/music newspaper in DC called The DC Period;  odd articles my friends wrote that I collected as A Frilly Piece of Goop;  a literary journal of writings and art in the first-person point of view entitled i: The First Person;  and Crash,  a magazine about alternative travel.

It was Crash  that my friends Nigel and Miles and I were publishing in the summer of 1993. I was living in San Francisco, and had just re-entered the online world after a year without net access. Now out of touch with the evolution of the Net, I arrived back via an account with Netcom, who at that time was one of the first companies offering dial-up access that individuals could afford.

Inspired by the healthy vitality of the mix of cultures now homesteading on the Net, I decided to contribute by putting the back issues of Crash online. I converted the Mac Pagemaker files to plain ASCII and uploaded them to my personal FTP directory at Netcom. Now I had published my zine as an e-zine, but how to tell people?

”This was long before search engines and directories like Altavista or Yahoo; there was no way to find things on the Net except to explore exhaustively - or ask someone who might know.”

This was long before search engines and directories like Altavista or Yahoo; there was no way to find things on the Net except to explore exhaustively - or ask someone who might know. The Usenet alt.zines newsgroup had good discussion and reviews of print zines, but little on electronic zines. So in mid-August, I posted the following message:

I'm curious if there are any zines accessible on-line, via FTP, email, gopher, or whatever. I'm interested in either purely electronic zines or zines that are published both in paper and digitally. If there's enough interest, I'd be willing to compile and maintain a frequently-posted list.

Several people responded to my article, some publishers who told me about their e-zines, others who knew good sources of e-zines, and enough words of encouragement that I decided to produce the list. It wasn't difficult; in all, I found around 25 e-zines on scattered FTP and Gopher servers, plus some addresses of publishers who only had email.

I posted the resulting e-zine-list  on alt.zines  as well as a few other etext-related mailing lists. I don't remember the exact date of the first issue, but the Wiretap archive has a very early edition of the list.

Almost immediately, more e-zine publishers emailed me requesting that I add their zine as well. A month later, I published a new edition, and I've continued that cycle since - I now add around a hundred new e-zines each month.

Long ago I stopped posting the list on mailing lists or newsgroups, or even generating the list as a text file: now the e-zine-list  is only available on the Web, and hovers around 3,000 listings.

The golden age

Coincidentally, as I started the e-zine-list,  the Web was becoming a glint in the public eye. Although it had existed since 1991, the Web had grown quietly and slowly by today's standards - there were around 100 Web servers in mid-1993. (Net historians should explore A Little History of the World Wide Web.) However, NCSA's Mosaic browser was catching on, and people were realizing that there was something very big happening here.

Compared to email and FTP, the Web was sleek, sexy, cool. Gopher's straight-laced discipline of linear menus seemed primitive and restrictive when compared with true hypertext links that could take you from the middle of a paragraph to another country in a mouseclick.

I was fortunate to help landscape the early Web, as one of the developers of Global Network Navigator. GNN was arguably the first commercial, general-interest Web magazine, and attempted to be a guide to the blossoming Web. (After being purchased by America Online in 1995, GNN faded from view and has now been lost to the silicon sands of time. I saved a very early view of the GNN home page.)

Journalists and reporters heard about this strange and magical place of the Net, where all the world's information was just a click away, and called us to get the scoop. We gave them a demo of GNN and they went away impressed with a good story, and spouted visions of what the Net was and could be.

At GNN, we would get telephone calls from curious people who had read about our project in the newspaper. We went to great effort to explain how it all worked - the Net, the Web, GNN, and where the lines divided it all. They asked where they could buy a copy of the Internet, as if it was a software package.

Even the e-zine-list,  attracted attention - a growing wave of articles surveyed the current state of online magazines. Amusingly, several quoted nearly verbatim my little definition called "What's an 'e-zine,' anyway?":

For those of you not acquainted with the zine world, "zine" is short for either "fanzine" or "magazine," depending on your point of view. Zines are generally produced by one person or a small group of people, done often for fun or personal reasons, and tend to be irreverent, bizarre, and/or esoteric. Zines are not "mainstream" publications - they generally do not contain advertisements (except, sometimes, advertisements for other zines), are not targeted towards a mass audience, and are generally not produced to make a profit.
An "e-zine" is a zine that is distributed partially or solely on electronic networks like the Internet.

The journalists asked many of the same questions. A common one was, "Will electronic media replace the 'old' media of books, magazines, television, radio?" This question seems less asked nowadays - perhaps we've realized that each of these mediums have their place and purpose, and adapting one to fit the boundaries of another is bad for both. Either that, or the huge popularity of the Net shows that we have agreed to the replacement - and the old media is dying a slow death.

One reporter from a New Jersey newspaper called me and asked my all-time favorite interview question: "Are any of these zines true?"  He meant, I think, are these zines authoritative, are they the definitive word on their particular subject? It is a question that, in one form or another, is often asked by people who stand at the border of non-mainstream publishing and look in. This random, chaotic world of oddly titled little magazines makes these observers disbelieve that all these opinions and "facts" and realities could really exist at once: some of them must be false, mediocre, inauthentic. But one of the strengths of the zine community is to support nearly all  creative expression, with no more judging than declaring one's personal favorites. The Web is even better; both linking to and escaping from a Web page is easy.

”Publishers realized that there was no need to set a strict production schedule, or even publish periodically at all: if a Web page could be updated at will, then it was published constantly.”

As the technology and designers' technical adeptness improved, the fringes of the Web developed ideas that were different even from the average Web pages. Publishers realized that there was no need to set a strict production schedule, or even publish periodically at all: if a Web page could be updated at will, then it was published constantly.  Although in reality no one could keep up with the ultimate dynamism of an ever-changing e-zine, a publisher could keep it fresh and fun to explore by gradually adding nodes and niches. Those hideaways needn't even be articles or poems: they could be spaces,  little interactive environments where magic happened.

The quantity and breadth of the e-zine world increased, and so did the ways of cataloging e-zines. I added topic keywords to the e-zine-list,  but otherwise maintained the same browsing interface and wide range of entries. Others compiled lists of particular topics, from music to science-fiction to writing and literature. Todd Kuiper observed that not everyone had Web access, and even those who did didn't want to spend all their time surfing; he applied that limitation in a positive direction to produce a a list of email-only zines, now published as Low Bandwidth. Otis Gospodnetic's large eZines Database was designed more for searching than browsing.

With all this experimentation, the other side of the spectrum was bound to expand as well. Commercial publishers finally saw the light and the possibility of the Net, perhaps even thought they saw a way to make money, and in they came: bringing hype and over-design and advertising. The term "e-zine" itself, once implicitly referring only to a branch of zine culture, became co-opted and changed its meaning into the more general "electronic magazine."

And now, robots and search engines get more refined. However, I doubt that they will completely replace human-designed lists - there's only so much context a search algorithm can deduce, and just as there is still an audience for an edited publication like an e-zine, I think there will still be an audience for edited, compiled lists.

Lately, the largest topic to increase on my list has been business: not just general business e-zines, but e-zines specifically about Internet marketing, promotion, e-commerce, and even multilevel-marketing. From the earliest e-zines produced at no cost, with no advertising, and without any hope of income, now we've come turned about to find e-zines that exist solely to make money.

Do it yourself

Jerod Pore, of Factsheet Five Electric, once told me that he believed that any publication that didn't mind being called a zine - with all that represented - was welcome to use the term. I'm not sure the same acceptance applies today, but in a way, it doesn't matter. What's important is not the word, but the idea behind it.

If we find nothing else in common between all the zines and e-zines out there, the one shared thread is the independent spirit of do it yourself  publishing. This is not a new spirit - we can trace its history back through punk zines, freak/hippy papers, science-fiction fanzines, self-published poetry, and back to the start of publishing itself.

When you do something yourself, you naturally find edges where traditional and common-sense knowledge no longer applies. It is from those edges - of graphic design, writing style, storytelling, or an amalgam of them all - that independent publishers take their imagination, creativity, and personality, distill and apply to type and paper, pixels and files, and release it for the world to see.

Even with the mainstreaming of the Web, the the medium is still developing, still being created. There is plenty of edge left to explore.

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