Alt.zines and Memories of a Media Transition
In the late ‘90s, tiny magazines were having a moment. The popularity of underground punk and indie rock, together with the wide circulation of the review zine Factsheet Five, gave rise to zines, a subculture of shameless self-expression that was thriving around the same time millions of living rooms got their first taste of dial-up AOL.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain now what a zine was then is to work backwards. Zines were like blogs on paper. They usually started as the work of a lone weirdo, dedicated to an unusual interest or mode of communication, putting out their work for a devoted cult following and vast commercial indifference.
Compared to reading professionally edited prose, reading a zine felt closer to corresponding with a friend. Few of these projects ever had anything close to fame or wealth. Most zine people had day jobs outside their creative pursuits. They included domain experts along with punks, drifters, dedicated artists, street people, and full-moon-howling maniacs.
In the confines of their zines, writers could vent without the threat of real-time pushback – readers were usually sympathetic as we had to go out of our ways to find these things in the first place. When writers accustomed to self-indulgence gathered in online conversations, they tended to be intense.
Through the early 2000s, zinesters got together on alt.zines, a Usenet group for small-potato pulp publishers. It was a fast-paced cascading discussion about print, occurring through an electronic medium, at a time when the rise of the web, particularly Craigslist, was dramatically rearranging the incentive structures of paper publishing. This mess of overlapping ironies only added to the hothouse atmosphere of the group.
Alt.zines was defined wit, venom, and strong opinions. It played host to sniping, drawn-out arguments, and callous indifference to feelings.
As someone who grew up in the sticks with no home access to cable TV, much less the internet, receiving new zines through the mail was the next best thing to hearing from one of the pen pals I made at summer camp. When I started college and got my own first reliable internet access, one of the first places I went was alt.zines. It was there that I ran into with the writers and publishers I admired most, the strange and sometimes volatile people behind Crank, Infiltration, Fucktooth, Pills a Go Go, Pathetic Life, and Crimewave USA.
It was through my engagement with alt.zines that I learned a lot about the social dynamics of the internet, particularly when strong personalities come online. I saw flamewars, pileups, and mean-spirited pranks, and throngs of false personae. I saw people I liked rip into each other, and sometimes felt them rip into me.
My first post was a clueless advertisement for the zine I was publishing at the time, an artsy, unreadable cut-and-paste mess called Pyramid Scheme. One of the regulars responded with a dismissive one-line crack about the name. For some reason, I stuck around, eventually dislodging my head from my ass, making better zines, and getting into the mix.
I stumbled into the group around the same time as Jeff Somers, who published The Inner Swine before moving on to a successful fiction-writing career. His sharp comic mind yielded some of the most insightful meta-level reflections on the comings, goings, and interactions of alt.zines.
“It seemed like everyone posting there knew each other really well and had all these long-standing traditions and arguments,” recalls Somers. “It was exactly like that first day you showed up to an activity at school. Everyone turns to glance at you and then goes back to business. And so I tried desperately to be clever and super, super edgy in my first posts, which were all about how my zine was soon going to be a bible of sorts in a new world religion and everyone ought to pay attention to me. And no one did. The disinterest that alt.zines offered me was epic. But healthy. I learned to read posts and respond instead of just grandstanding. And slowly I got the rhythm of it, and got some comments, and even occasionally got sucked into the endless, exhausting debates and fights that clogged the newsgroup, though I tried hard not to. The main take-away for me was that all these idiots who showed up and tried to tell zinesters how they were supposed to be acting – to get organized, to fight the power, whatever – were met with scathing disinterest and hostility. It was a messy place for messy people and the last thing we wanted was to be told we’d joined a movement.”
We saw bare-knuckle librarian e-fights about ISDNs. We saw attempts at centralization (or at least explanation) and lots of internecine drama. Much of it involved the personal lives of high-profile zinesters, but some of it turned out to be more significant, especially that involving the struggles and chicanery of larger-scale zine distributors (which by then were showing signs of steep decline).
Most of the e-zines that were circulating in the late ’90s were markedly inferior in quality to the paper zines of the time. E-zine publishers sometimes posted their work on alt.zines, where it was routinely ignored and occasionally shredded by the regulars. Electronic publishing wasn’t taken seriously as a threat to this stout little medium or the surrounding community.
By the end of the ‘90s, a few notable writing talents were making their names solely through web publishing. Blogging was very much a thing. It was acknowledged reluctantly and circuitiously by alt.zines in 2002, in a threads such as “The Blog That Ate Cleveland.” The posters seemed to agree that the internet would never rid the world of paper publishing, before descending into a discussion of what happened when they did Google searches with each other’s name along with the word “asshole.”
Now, alt.zines is an unloved graveyard smothered in garbage. And while the internet did indeed decimate the alternative weekly publishing model and other large chunks of the print business, zines themselves are thriving. Younger zinesters are more creative than ever – now, zines are artisanal objects, and design, aesthetics, and the overall experience of the object matter just as much as the text. Zine makers still gather at festivals and discuss their hobby online, on reddit, Facebook, and elsewhere.
“Ultimately, what’s really weird is that the Internet didn’t kill paper publishing, or zine publishing,” says Jeff Somers. “It killed alt.zines. By the time of my last post (2010) it had been overrun with spam and bots as everyone fled for web forums and communities. Print? We still got that.”
Alt.zines is dead, but it was an interesting place to see a turning in progress.