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Cheap Memes
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 the meme.
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 talking—the 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.
The decentralized, 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.
Today, anywhere 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 between.
Chester Carlson 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 printing.
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.
(3) Henson
(4) Analogous to biosphere, or the genetic ecology.
(5) Mogel
(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, CA 94117-0099.
(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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