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Old-School E-Zines Come of Age
by Joel Katelnikoff
Bobby comes home from school, drops his backpack on the floor, and heads straight to his room, locking the door behind him. For the rest of the evening he will use his computer to log onto Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), using his parents' phone line and a device called a modem. If you think this sounds harmless, think again. Tonight Bobby will be transferring text files to his computer from the BBSes. These text files contain information that is anonymous, uncensored, outrageous, and absolutely dangerous. With information about anarchy, drugs, sabotage, and even explosives readily available, every BBS that Bobby calls is a game of Russian roulette for himself and others. Little do Bobby's parents know that the machine they bought to help him improve his grades may prove to be a more deadly weapon than a switchblade or handgun.
This is a familiar scare scenario that one might have seen in the media in the late 1980s, when television and newspapers discovered a new medium through which computer users could freely acquire and disseminate information without any restrictions. Text publications were soon to join the ranks Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and video games as scapegoats for the ill-behavior of young people. Despite the efforts of corporate media, however, text zines continued to endure and evolve.
Before the internet was available, there were computer services called Bulletin Board Systems. BBSes were run on personal computers. They often had one dial-up phone line connected to a single modem, and only one person could use the BBS at a time. A typical BBS would offer local messages, games, and files. They tended to serve their own area code, with perhaps a few long distance callers from other areas. BBSes were most popular from the early-80s to the mid-90s, before most BBSes became defunct due to cheap and direct internet access. During the pre-internet era, a new medium was on the rise: the text zine.
A text zine, for the purposes of this article, is a computer-based zine that is created in the form of a text file (.txt). Text files contain no special formatting, such as bolding, italicizing, or underlining. They contain only printable characters, and do not contain any extra code such as line-wrapping, centering, or varying font sizes. Text files are the most utilitarian, size-efficient type of computer file. Much like any other kind of computer file, the text file can be infinitely replicated once it has been created. Copies can be made from other copies without any loss of quality. Also, because of their small size (usually under 50k), text files can be transferred via modem in seconds, and can be stored by the dozen on a 3.5 inch floppy disk.
The first text files were computer-related technical manuals, but it didn't take long for users to realize that with new technology they could create and distribute their own files. More eclectic sorts of manuals started to emerge. The subject matter inside these files tended to be the kind that could not be found in regular books. These files contained information on hacking, phreaking, anarchy, carding, and viruses (HPACV). While hacking and virus texts (featured in Phrack) were the domain of those with strong technical knowledge of computers, anyone could learn from phreaking, anarchy, and carding texts. Phreaking texts (featured in Phone Losers Anonymous) taught the reader how to manipulate telephone systems to make free calls, disguise phone numbers, create party lines, and do a variety of other things. Anarchy texts (Anarchy n Explosives, The Big Book of Mischief) taught the art of sabotage, pranks, and explosives. Carding taught readers the skill of outright theft: how to manipulate credit cards in order to steal money.
Because these texts had no traceable publishers, nobody could be held liable. Because there were no bookstores involved, there was no way to stop the copies from being circulated. Because all of the text articles were written under pseudonyms, there was no way to trace the origin of the articles. Everything was underground.
Most people involved with today's text zines were introduced to the medium through their search for illicit information. gir of angstmonster says that what got him into text was "being little and wanting to blow shit up." In my personal experience, I was most interested in the texts that discussed scams and explosives. In terms of information on getting free stuff and ripping off businesses, text zines are a natural extension of the YIPPIE movement as described in Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book. The anti-corporate, underground, do-it-yourself voice is definitely there, with titles such as "How to Hack a Coke Machine" and "Improved Ways of Cheating in School." These guides are important primers on how to succeed in capitalist society when you're not a member of the bourgeoisie. If you can't cheat people legally, you have to do it illegally. As for building explosives, there may be no philosophical rationale for it, but can you really resist a title like, "How to make a Really Nice Pipe Bomb"? C'mon! It's irresistible!
In the mid-1980s, several HPACV zines were starting to venture into more creative territory. In 1985, Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) became instrumental in the redefinition of the text zine. This was the first text zine to number its issues, and with this came a commitment to endurance and growth. The zine started out as a series of manuals, guides, and transcriptions of song lyrics, but within a few years it began to shift toward articles and rants.
cDc captured a lot of attention throughout North America, being featured in a variety of media. On an episode of Geraldo Rivera's show, he held up a copy of a cDc article entitled "Sex with Satan," and disgustedly yelled, "Cult of the Dead Cow? These guys are a bunch of sickos!" They were featured in the cover-story of a 1993 issue of The Montreal Gazette, entitled "Computer Data Can Be Dangerous." In The Gazette, cDc collective member Deth Vegetable was attacked for disseminating information on how to make explosives because three teenagers from Laval lost some fingers while building a pipe bomb of his design (featured in the article "Anarchy for Fun and Profit"). A few years later, The Globe and Mail referred to Deth Vegetable as "[the world's] most infamous hacker." With a blend of technical knowledge, disobedience, and desire to be heard, it comes as no surprise that this group has had an influence on most zines that have come afterward, either by first-hand or second-hand contact.
Over the course of 15 years, cDc grew from a group of badass kids boasting "All Rights Worth Shit," to a forum for thought and expression. When they and similar groups like underground eXperts united (uXu) and Greeny world Domination (GwD) began to venture out from HPACV to fiction, a unique blend was formed. This was not the kind of polished writing that one might expect to find in mainstream media; it was raw, unpolished chaos. And still, it was different from other independent media; text zines harnessed the desire for free thought and free information, including zero printing costs and zero purchasing costs. But what truly characterized early fiction in text zines was the unique repertoire and language of computer and BBS culture. This was not just any literature: this was the literature of hackers and anarchists - ironic and cynical texts from people who cared nothing for the world.
So what was it like to witness the early literature of text zines? Some writers share their stories:
AIDS of Hogs of Entropy (HOE): "You've got to picture it: here's a 14 year old kid in Warwick, Rhode Island who is completely bored by the world around him and suddenly there's this huge influx of disparate opinion, ideas, and writing."
Kilgore Trout of State of unBeing (SoB): "Dan Rather wasn't telling me which crystal to buy at radio shack to build a redbox so I could prank call Russia! No matter what type of viewpoint you held, you could whip together some text and upload it somewhere."
The Prime Anarchist of Activist Times: "I had this strong sense there was a huge world out there, and sitting here in America, I wasn't going to see it by reading books, magazines, and watching television."
Mogel of HOE: "Computer systems were full of kids questioning, interacting, teaching each other--creating a community on their own terms."
Leandro of Capital of Nasty: "Being able to write something and distribute it all over the world was something that back in the infancy of my internet experience was something pretty damn remarkable, mostly because of that whole 'underground' feel to it."
What made the rise of literature within text zines so amazing was the repertoire of the writers. One story that I have always considered to be a classic example of the literature that rose from the world of computers is Mogel's "mE t0o!@#$". This is a classic love story told through a unique text filter: Boy has angst, boy meets girl, boy eventually confronts her via modem. This story riffs off the angst and cynicism that are prevalent in earlier text zines, but eventually breaks through into the earnestness of true emotion, despite what pain might accompany it. This article demonstrates the text medium's growth from a forum of angst and cynicism to one where honesty and openness were also possible. At the time this story was published, text zines' focus on HPACV culture had been diminishing steadily, and a new culture of post-HPACV/BBS zines was beginning to emerge.
Post-HPACV-BBS zines started to take off in the mid-1990s with zines like SoB and Doomed to Obscurity (DTO), which focused on fiction, editorials, and poetry. While residual hacker and BBS slang hung around, it was no longer in the foreground. These zines took literature more seriously, and strove for a higher quality of writing. Zine editors created more challenging projects, occasionally merging several zines into larger super-zines. As a result, many of the smaller zines felt left out or unable to contend, and so the number of active zines diminished.
However, while more high-falutin zines provided the market with prose and poetry, direct lines can be traced from earlier zines like Big Long and Hairy (BLaH) and GwD to text zines of our time that bypassed the literary movement and instead abide by the "trash aesthetic." impulse reality, and angstmonster, for example, state that they will print any submissions whatsoever. The result is a spontaneous and stimulating potpourri of art and smut, with content that appeals to a variety of readers. These zines prove that, through text, something can be written one day and published the next.
Zines like Intertext, Capital of Nasty, and The Neo-Comintern, on the other hand, have a more rigourous editing process. Editors often conditionally accept work, offering writers suggestions for revision. These zines are well-organized and committed to the development of quality within their core group of writers, honing their skills over years to consistently produce better issues.
Some of the most influential zines are those that tackle political issues. TCAHR is devoted to political essays, and Activist Times is a weekly journal that has relayed American and International news from an independent perspective for the past 15 years. Other zines, such as cv.crud and Addendum, are written entirely by individuals and can vary as easily as a mood swing. All in all, there is as much diversity in the world of text zines now as there ever has been, in terms of style, format, and content.
But in this day, why do zines continue to publish in text format? At one point text was the natural publishing choice of any computer user, but today other options (such as weblogs) are available. While text is still the purest media form, it would not be a natural choice for most people. HTML is easy to compose, allows linking, has word-wrap instead of hard line breaks, and allows for pictures, audio, and video, and so it has more sensory appeal than text. Naturally, the use of the text medium is decreasing as other media increase in popularity. To choose text in this textless age becomes a statement, an ascetic denial of modern media.
Text zines tend to be more unpolished than other media not only because they are published independently, but also because many text editing programs predate an option that revolutionized the desktop publishing industry: word-wrap. In DOS-Edit, for example, if one wanted to add a word to a sentence, they would have to reformat the line breaks for the rest of that paragraph. For this reason, many (if not most) early text articles were published as first drafts.
In our time, most zine writers who are serious about their writing will work in a more sophisticated word processing program and only use the archaic programs for the purpose of formatting. The formatting is still important, since without hard line breaks editors do not have control over the formatting of their zine. Without hard line breaks, one would not be able to read a text article on a web-browser without having to scroll back and forth repeatedly. Also, the text zine standard is to limit the width of zines to 78 columns of text so they can be viewed on old-school 480x640 monitors.
Today's zine writers fetishize text. It is a beautiful thing, so pristine and succulent. Kilgore Trout says, "What has always drawn me to textfiles is the simplicity of the format; you don't have to worry about layout or graphics. Sure, you can be ASCII King and fancy stuff up, but when it comes down to it, it's all about what is being written. If the words don't hold up, there is nothing to fall back on. That purity has always been enticing."
In the late 1990s, Mogel feared that with the growth of the internet, contemporary text zines would get lost in the shuffle. In order to unite the zine community, he created a mailing list, but shortly decided to focus his effort on an html-based text zine hub instead. This hub would include links to all active text zines, zine resources, and daily updates on the newest releases. The hub would be known as "The Current Text Scene," and would be the essential website for current readers and publishers alike. Recently, the site has been more alive than ever, finally getting its own domain name (www.textscene.com), adding on-site archives of zines that do not have their own webspace, and encouraging zine publishers to be productive and ambitious.
While Mogel is no longer involved in text zine publication, The Current Text Scene continues to thrive, co-administrated by linear, gir, and myself. In linear's opinion, what makes this website so significant is that ever since its inception, textscene.com has been run by individuals who have a personal investment in text zines, are passionate about their work, and have a sincere concern for the health of the community. He says, "The way the text scene is set up makes it hard -not- to want to start your own zine, or write for an already established one, or participate in SOME WAY! And that's a great, important part of the community. It shows you that it is easy to share what you have to say with thousands of other who share something in common with you (hell, even people who have nothing in common with you other than computer access!!)."
When people start their own zine, it is a simple and unrestrictive process. One simply needs to open a text editing program, start typing, click the save button, and start distributing. That's it. But there are a few other things that text publishers must consider about the medium. Since the writing is being read from a screen instead of a page, articles need to be shorter in order to be easy on the eye. Paragraphs should not be as long as in other media, since a large block of text on a screen is harder to deal with than it is in a book. It is just as easy to publish short works as long ones in the sense you don't have to pay for printing and you've got unlimited space in a text file, but it is important to keep in mind that the reader's attention is actively being sought by other internet media sources, some of which will be other text zines, and some of which will provide a more rounded multimedia presentation. In an age of flashing lights, it can be helpful to secure a readership through concise and punchy writing before delving into more drawn-out material.
Some advice from the experts? Prime Anarchist reminds us, "the 'artwork' has to be drawn with words. By that I don't mean literally as in shape poems or anything. All of the imagery has to hold your readers with just text." Leandro says, "This may sound odd, but what is the main part of a text zine? Text. So if it sucks reading it, you aren't going to read it." AIDS says that text writing needs three major things: "coherent stories, easy to follow prose, and a general desire to be actively read." Mogel urges writers to "bring the reality to readers in the best way you can, while still respecting them, without compromising too much." Kilgore Trout, when asked if he had any advice to give, replied, "Not really. Probably just that everybody should try running a zine at some point. It'll keep you on your toes."
All text zines mentioned in this article can be accessed through Textscene.com.
Two other important text resources that were not mentioned in this article are textfiles.com and etext.org, both of which exist for the sole purpose of archiving thousands of new and vintage text files.
Thanks to the following for their interviews and suggestions:
Heckat and Gnarly Wayne of The Neo-Comintern, gir of angstmonster, The GNN of Underground eXperts United, Kilgore Trout of State of unBeing, Leandro of Capital of Nasty, Lobo Licious of Greeny World Domination, linear of impulse reality, Mogel, AIDS, Trilobyte, and Jamsey of Hogs of Entropy, and The Prime Anarchist of Activist Times, Inc.
Joel Katelnikoff is the Editor-in-Chief of The Neo-Comintern Magazine, Co-Managing-Editor of Qwerty, Co-Administrator of Textscene.com, and is pursuing a Master's degree in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick.
"Generation Text" was previously published in Broken Pencil #18.