What are Zines?
Short for magazine or fanzine, zines are self-publications, motivated by a desire for self-expression, not for profit. The following quote from Not Sorry (a zine out of the zine capital of the United States: Portland, Oregon) explains what zines are, and why they're necessary.
"I'm not even trying to be dramatic, but to the world at large, I am a freak. My voice is downplayed, ignored and/or made into a joke in the mass of verbal and physical disapproval that bombards me every day when I leave the safety of my house or make the stupid decision to read a newspaper, magazine or turn the television on. When I am out of my element, I am told that my very existence is wrong or problematic because I am a fat, queer, mentally ill, politically radical woman with very little money and little to no regard for beauty standards and so on and so forth. But you know what? I am so NOT fucking SORRY. As long as myself and others are disrespected, invalidated, unsafe and ignored by the masses, my experiences, ideas and opinions need to be heard and I will keep on talking this shit and it is not going to be pretty. Besides, how else are these stories going to be documented? With the exception of the gay rights movement, these stories will most likely not be found in any future history books, and if they are, they will most likely be totally inaccurate. Now I know that this zine will not go much beyond the zine reading community, but this is where I have chosen to start and it's something which is always better than nothing."
Jenny San Diego. Not Sorry, #3. April, 2005. Portland, Oregon.
Are Zines Blogs?
Zines Are Not Blogs: A Not Unbiased Analysis
“[A friend of my neighbor] asked what a zine was and I gave her a description that was worthy of Webster’s and then started showing her various zines. … She looked at [my current masterpiece] briefly and said ‘So a zine is like a photocopied blog.’”  Matt Holdaway
“Well, in the simplest of terms she's probably right, but in the simplest of terms I could say ‘A cat is like a dog except cats meow, shit in a box and don't hump your leg.’ and be equally correct.”  Eric Lyden
The first question I get asked when I explain zines to someone who is new to the medium is, “You mean like a blog?” I suspect this is a common misperception if the 13 entry thread on the topic (quoted above) from the Zinegeeks Yahoo Group is any indication. As the reader might guess from the title of this article, my inclination is to give a strongly worded negative response to this irritating question. However, in the name of good librarianship, I will make an attempt to answer the question fairly and honestly.
Definitions of the word “zine” vary tremendously, but they do tend to have these common characteristics:
- Self-published and the publisher doesn’t answer to anyone
- Small, self-distributed print run
- Motivated by desire to express oneself rather than to make money
- Outside the mainstream
- Low budget
For the sake of this discussion, I will add:
- No need for any special equipment or knowledge
- An expression of Do It Yourself (DIY) culture
- Foster a community among their creators and readers
In addition to some of the points above, blogs:
- Allow the creator to publish nearly immediately
- Are dynamic and can be altered or removed by the creator at any time
- Can be interactive, allowing comments from readers
Blogs seem to be self-published, but ultimately the blogger is responsible to someone other than him, her, or hirself. While blogs can be a very empowering medium, there aren’t many people out there capable of fully hosting their own blogs. Therefore, there is usually an Internet service provider that has the power to pull the plug on something it deems offensive, be it because of politics, sex, religion, copyright, or anything else. It’s also much more difficult for the average blogger to be truly anonymous than it is for a zinester. Being able to violate copyright and readers’ ethics or sensibilities have their good and bad points. Part of what makes zines what they are and what makes them so great is the total freedom not afforded to, but taken by the zinester.
A zine cannot still be a zine and have a large print run. This is not true for blogs. Some blogs have a million readers. Some of the most successful zines circulate more than a thousand copies, but once they get beyond that point, they cost too much to self-produce. This means that by many definitions they’re not really zines anymore. After growing into 4 digit distribution, zines often begin to rely on advertising and outside printers and distributors—all people who then have an opinion about the zines’ content and the power to impact it, by refusing to advertise in or print what they don’t like.
The desire to express rather than to profit as a motivation is something of a commonality between zines and blogs. However, bloggers may have a narrower scope on which topics they seek to express themselves. According to Chris Dodge, Utne librarian and alternative publications expert, “Blogs tend to be Internet focused, often, if not usually, reacting to something published on the Web. Zines are rarely Internet focused (if occasionally ZINE-focused). The two endeavors overlap, but the shared subset is a smallish percentage of each milieu.”
Outside the mainstream
An unfortunate commonality is that both blogs and zines suffer from a similar lack of heterogeneity, especially when it comes to the age of the creator. According to the Perseus Blog Survey of hosted blogs, “92.4% of blogs [are] created by people under the age of 30.” While zines are a minority majority effort, it is documented by more than one angry compilation zine that the medium has been dominated by privileged white punks. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes it feels like most zinesters are either punk rock white bicycle kids living in Portland, Oregon or crafty home schooling midwife mamas in their 30s. Even so, the voices and opinions of young people and stay at home moms are underrepresented in corporate publishing. This is their outlet.
Budget and special knowledge
Zines and blogs are both low budget—if you have access to an Internet computer. Clearly the publishers of the Zine Yearbook, Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma, get the zines vs. blogs query a lot, too, since they addressed the issue in the introduction to Volume 8 of the Yearbook. As they put it, “You don't need any specialized equipment to broadcast over the airwaves or record your ideas, and you don't even need a computer to create or view zines. All you need is a pen, paper, and a couple of dollars for the copy machine. … Because there are no economic barriers to creating zines, they far bridge the digital divide (the gap between those who have access -- and how much access -- and those who do not) as a grassroots and decentralized form of media. You're getting the voices of anyone with the gumption to put their words on paper -- not simply those who have access to a computer.” Zines are not entirely free to create either, but historically, part of the art of zining has been scamming as many of the materials and copies as possible.
I’m sure there are people who read blogs by PDA on buses and in the bathtub, but that’s just wrong.
The majority of blogs are not DIY. Many of them are hosted, and furthermore the level of artistic achievement doesn’t yet compare to that of zines, either. Shinjoung Yeo explains, “…the medium (paper vs. web) has a great effect on the outcome. A zinester can be far more creative with layout, design and materials than a blogger can. A blogger is generally forced to create a linear structure and overwhelmingly bloggers use the templates that are included or easily found to use with their software (blogger.com, Movable type, word press...)”
Both zines and blogs foster community, with LiveJournal type services especially developing zinelike ties between their members. Neither zines nor blogs are known for their longevity, but zinesters do tend to keep up with their zine friends even after they stop writing a particular zine and move onto a new one or quit the genre altogether. I’m not sure that blogging relationships are set up to work post-blog quite as well as their zine counterparts. And how often does anyone reread a blog?
A primary feature of blogging is its instant gratification. Something interesting happens, the blogger remembers a dream, or zhe reads a funny post on another blog, and within moments of having that experience, zhe can publish what happened and hir reaction to it for most any other Internet enabled person to see—and link to. Although there is a genre of “24 hour zines,” for quick turnaround, speed is not the norm in zine publishing. Notes Dodge, “I think the key distinction is that a blog posting tends to be written and published on the spur of the moment, as opposed to a zine's creation over time. Most zines tend to be compiled, with material gathered, written, or drawn over weeks, months or years, and actually edited, if only by the zine publisher herself. Thus they are more like little self-published books than blogs.”
Zines, although they’re called ephemera in library lingo, are actually a lot more permanent than blogs. The zine reader gets to keep the thing forever. When the reader returns to the zine, unless zhe has spilled coffee on it or wrought some other type of damage, it will be the same. It may disappear due to the holder’s negligence, but not because the zinester couldn’t maintain hir domain name or website or could have, but got sick of doing so. A factor so significant in defining the difference between zines and blogs that it’s shocking this issue is so far down in this piece is that zines are finished products (even if serials catalogers don’t think so). Blogs are not. No matter how sloppy a zine is—and they really can be a mess—someone has taken responsibility for the thing as a whole. Blogs are in danger of only being as strong as their most recent post. The pressure is to add to it daily. Zinesters also put pressure on themselves to produce more regularly, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much. I am sad when my friend Celia doesn’t send out a new zine for a year, but that doesn’t make me any less likely to read the new one when it finally comes. In fact, the delay adds to the thrill. If the blogger doesn’t post for a couple of weeks, zhe may lose hir readership altogether.
Another feature of the lack of permanence in the blogosphere is the fact that the blogger can change a post anytime zhe likes. The first version’s feed may get saved in an aggregator, or the site might be preserved in the Wayback Machine. If not, the reader has no way of knowing if the content was ever changed. The material is also vulnerable to hostile change in a way that zines are not. Zines are not hacked. I suppose it’s possible, although very difficult, but who would bother? Admittedly, though, this isn’t a problem for the 5% of Internet users who read blogs via an aggregator (RSS).
There is one difference between blogs and zines that I’ll freely admit may make blogs more powerful than zines (in this aspect only) and that is that the potential for interaction between creator/reader and reader/reader is much greater. Many zines have letters to the editor. Some even have letters that respond to previous letters, but this is not zines’ strength or purpose. Blogs provide an excellent forum for collaboration and discussion. So then while zines are not blogs, blogs are also not zines.
“Interestingly enough I have a Hungover Gourmet zine and a Hungover Gourmet blog. And they couldn't be more different.
“The zine features lengthy (at least in comparison to most blogs), well thought out articles on a wide variety of topics with keen illustrations.
“The blog is mostly food, drink and travel-related news tidbits I find interesting, up-to-the-minute restaurant reports, news about the zine and the like.
“Sad to think that somebody could blow off a movement with centuries of history behind it with one sentence.”
By Jenna Freedman, Coordinator of Reference Services and Zine Librarian, Barnard College
 Eric Lyden. “Re: So it's like a photocopied blog” message on the Zinegeeks Yahoo Group discussion list. Jul 19, 2005 11:27 am.
 In the spirit of the multitude of zines I’ve read on the topic of gender and transgender issues, I’ll continue using the gender neutral pronouns “zhe” for he or she and “hir” for him or her.
 Chris Dodge in a personal e-mail. “Re: zines are not blogs article” Tue, September 27, 2005 11:10 am
 Perseus Development Corp., 2004 http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/thebloggingiceberg.html#demographics
 Evolution of a Race Riot, edited by Mimi Nguyen is one example.
 Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma, "Introduction," in The Zine Yearbook, Volume 8, ed. Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma (Toledo, OH: Become the Media, 2004), 5.
 Shinjoung Yeo in a personal e-mail. “Re: new draft” Tue, September 27, 2005 11:27 pm
 Chris Dodge in a personal e-mail. “Re: zines are not blogs article” Tue, September 27, 2005 11:10 am
 Celia C. Perez: I Dreamed I Was Assertive, Picaflor, and Skate Tough You Little Girls zines.
 Lee Rainie. “The State of Blogging.” Pew Internet & American Life Project. January 2, 2005. Viewed September 30, 2005: http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/144/report_display.asp
 Dan Taylor. “Re: So it's like a photocopied blog” message on the Zinegeeks Yahoo Group discussion list. Jul 19, 2005 12:41 pm.
This article was written for and originally appeared in Counterpoise. Summer 2005. Vol. 9, Iss. 3; p. 10. In the magazine Charles Willett falsely claims copyright. Contact Jenna if you want to use more than just a tasteful portion of it for something.
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