Zines, Metazines and the Virtual Press
By Mark Frauenfelder
This is about the special type of meme carriers
known as zines. A meme is an information pattern capable of replicating.
A zine is a self-published magazine, and a metazine is a zine
about zines. Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the term
"meme" (1) in his book The Selfish Gene
to describe certain types of thoughts and ideas that are analogous
to genetic phenomena. A meme is an information pattern that behaves
like a virus. A meme inhabits the host's nervous system and causes
the host to infect other nervous systems. Slogans, use of the
wheel, infectious melodies, catch phrases, religions, rules of
thumb, styles, and even the theory of memes itself, are all memes.
For example, when an artist thinks of an new way to express an
idea, SHe (2) transmits the idea to other artists, so that the
idea jumps from brain to brain, and the style manifests itself
in the artwork of other artists.
The science of
memetics is a method of studying the behavior and effects of
information patterns by using techniques borrowed from epidemiology,
evolutionary science and linguistics. Memetics has also been
described as "Darwinism applied to ideas."
To qualify as a
meme, an information pattern must possess the following attributes.
It needs bait, something that looks tempting enough for the host
to bite so it can enter hir nervous system. It also needs a hook,
something to encourage its replication. Sometimes there is also
a threat, to discourage the host from changing or discarding
An example of a
meme bearing bait, hook and threat is any one of many conventional
religions. The bait is the promise of salvation and eternal life,
the hook is the need to infect others with the religion meme
and the threat is eternal damnation and hellfire for those who
reject the meme. (The preceding does not apply to your religion,
of course. Your religion is not a tricky meme, but rather the
one true path leading to glory.)
Memes do not have to be truthful to be robust
and spreadable. Nor must they be ultimately beneficial to the
host. Keith Henson points out that Reverend Jim Jones' memes
became weirder and weirder when he isolated his group in the
jungle, because the well-established memes existing in society
could not compete nor provide corrective feedback against his
barrage of poisonous memes. (3) The Jim Jones meme, the Kamikaze
meme and other martyr memes are auto-toxic; they kill their hosts.
Talking about memes
as if they are alive is not only useful and convenient, it is
also accurate. As Richard Dawkins' colleague N.K. Humphrey writes
in The Selfish Gene: "memes should be regarded as living
structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you
plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain,
turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just
the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of
a host cell. And this just isn't a way of talkingthe meme
for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically,
millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems
of individual men the world over."
Memes must fight
one another to survive in the nervous systems of human beings,
because brain resources are limited. All people filter out ideas
they consider useless, and they retain ideas that they consider
beneficial in some way. If they didn't, they would exceed the
storage capacity of their nervous systems.
Memes also must
compete for external carriers: books, magazines, billboards and
electronic media. Network television, national magazines, and
book publishers in the overground media rely upon advertising
sales income or public funding, and as a result must appeal to
a large audience to ensure their survival. To guarantee the continuing
support of a large segment of a population, these external carriers
must contain memes that are consistent with the ideosphere (4),
or memetic ecology, of that group.
Overground media reacts allergically to mutant
memes, usually by destroying the external carrier by burning
it or banning it, or by inciting the meme police to incarcerate
the human propagator and hir dangerously contagious nervous system.
Witness the sad story of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an American psychologist
who was thrown in prison for continuing his practice even after
a U.S. court of law issued an order resulting in the burning
of his books.
So where, then,
can unpopular, hot, radical or strange memes survive and propagate?
Where can the intrepid meme-explorer find a dose of exotica?
SHe needs only to dip hir brain into the zine pool, the wild
ocean of self-published magazines, where fish learn to breath
and salamanders sprout feathers and try to fly.
It is only here,
in the primordial soup, far away from the dinosaurs of the overground
media, where these new ideas have a chance to test their wings.
Because zine makers, also known as zinesters, are unburdened
by the restraints of commercialism & public opinion, their
publications can carry strange memes. And because zinesters are
usually more interested in propagating ideas than they are in
generating a profit, zines are a plentiful source of cheap memes.
In fact, if anybody
enters zine publishing simply to make money, they are doomed.
Mike Gunderloy, when publishing the successful metazine Factsheet
Five, worked an average of 90 hours per week on his zine and
still struggled to pay the bills. The copy sales and feeble advertising
dollars a zinester might collect rarely cover the cost of paper,
printing and postage, not to mention the time spent producing
the zine. Most zines have a circulation of less than 100 copies
per issue, while many have as few as ten regular readers.
Zines predate the underground newspapers and magazines
of the '60s, such as the East Village Other, The Gothic Blimp
works, The Oracle and The Realist. Zines have their deepest roots
in science fiction fandom of the '50s and '60s. In those days,
a science fiction reader who wanted to share hir opinions and
enthusiasm would shove a ten-sheet carbon paper sandwich into
a typewriter and hack out a three- or four-page fanzine to send
to other fans.
These fans would
respond by mail, and the zinester would include the letters in
hir next zine. The letter columns of fanzines became areas for
heated debate on issues both about science fiction and only peripheral
to science fiction. Politics, environmentalism, religion and
social engineering were all fodder for discussion. Often, the
letter columns became so swollen that they filled the fanzines'
pages almost entirely.
The idea of using
cheaply produced zines to bring together fans who shared a common
interest quickly spread to areas other than science fiction.
Zines and magazines
have a superficial resemblance to one another, but differences
abound. Zines are usually focused on highly specialized topics
far from the mainstream. They cannot compete with Life or Reader's
Digest. Fledgling memes that have little chance of surviving
in well-established external carriers, such as large newspapers
and television, can take root and flourish in zines. For example,
the overground media rarely mentions cryonics as a method to
extend the human lifespan, and when they do, they reject it as
being obviously ridiculous without considering the issue more
deeply. Many zines, on the other hand, devote entire issues to
cryonics and life extension.
The other major difference between magazines and
zines is their start-up and operating expenses. Leonard Mogel,
founder of National Lampoon, estimates that it costs at least
$60,000 to start a new magazine. (5) The budget-conscious zinester,
however, can produce and mail 100 copies of a 10-page zine for
less than $75. The situation is reminiscent of the punk rock
movement in 1977. Frustrated musicians, bored with the insular
corporate blandness of contemporary rock music, decided to short-circuit
the established system by producing, recording, distributing,
promoting, and advertising their music by themselves.
iconoclastic quality of zines is ideal for people interested
in shucking prescribed realities in favor of designing their
own world-view. The
Church of the SubGenius, one of the first religions to use
a zine to spread its own blend of particularly virulent memes
(6), reminds us that truth and reality are subjective yet inescapable
shams, and the best course of action is to reject the reality
tunnels thrust upon us by the corporate/political world and instead
"pull the wool over your own eyes.
between 5,000 and 10,000 zine titles are in print (7), and every
one of them offers the reality hacker a way to pull hir choice
of designer wool over hir own eyes. Whatever an individual zine
may lack in number of readers, the zine universe more than makes
up for in volume and variety.
Not only is the
zine menu longer than a Chinese restaurant's, it's always changing.
Gunderloy estimated that the half life of a zine is two years.
(8) In other words, only half the zines being published today
will still be alive in two years. Of course, by that time, a
new batch of external meme carriers will have arrived to fill
any vacancies in the ideosphere. The zine world has a high birthrate
to match its high deathrate.
The explosive growth
of zines can be attributed to two phenomena: the ubiquitous photocopy
machine and the metazine called Factsheet Five.
Before the arrival
of cheap photocopy machines, printing for zinesters was a matter
of choosing two items from a menu of three: speed, economy, and
quality. The traditional offset method was the fastest and prettiest
way to print a zine, but it was usually far too expensive. The
zinester who played the part of a Benedictine monk by hand-writing
each copy, which was cheap and good but terribly slow, illustrates
the opposite end of the spectrum. Other methods, such as gelatin
printing, mimeograph and carbon copies all fell somewhere in
patented the photocopy process in 1938, but it took several decades
for the technology to trickle down to the street before zinesters
finally had the speed, economy, and quality they needed for perfect
As the number of
zines grew in response to the inexpensive photocopy machine,
it became difficult to keep track of the different titles in
circulation. Mike Gunderloy of Renssalaer, New York, decided
one day in 1982 to create a list that reviewed the interesting
fanzines and APAs he received in the mail. He named his list
Factsheet Five, from a short story written by science fiction
author John Brunner. (9) The first issue of Factsheet Five consisted
of one two-sided sheet of day-glo green paper. He sent it to
25 friends, who liked it and spread the word around that Factsheet
Five was a lot of fun.
Other zine publishers
learned about the free publicity, and Factsheet Five's page count
climbed steadily. The first issue took 10 minutes to copy and
mail. When this article was written, Factsheet Five was a 140-page
zine with a print run of 8,000 copies. Each issue reviews about
1,500 zines and hundreds of audio and video cassettes, computer
programs, mail art shows, T-shirts and artifacts. When he was
publisher, Gunderloy's shelf space was eaten up at a rate of
12 inches per week. Still, by Gunderloy's own admission, Factsheet
Five can only skim the surface.
(1) Dawkins gives credit to anthropologist FW
Cloak, geneticist L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and ethologist J.M. Cullen
for introducing the idea of memes.
(2) I'm making use of a meme here adopted by Dr. Timothy Leary
to avoid sexist pronouns. Here's a handy list of genderless terms
with which you can infect yourself: hir= her/his, SHe = she/he,
WoMan = woman/man.
(4) Analogous to biosphere, or the genetic ecology.
(6) The Stark Fist of Removal, a zine that has had great influence
on other zinesters in the development of other zines and mutant
religions. See Stang for address.
(7) (Gunderloy 1990) A sample copy of the metazine Factsheet
Five is available for $6 from P.O. Box 170099, San Francisco,
(8) Gunderloy 1990
(9) John Brunner also wrote a book titled Shockwave Rider,
which inspired Robert Morris to write the worm computer program
that accidentally brought down the Internet computer network.
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