13 April 2008

Social media and fanzine culture

Long before social media went mainstream there was a small-press sub-culture that bore many similarities to social media, albeit on a much smaller scale. Fanzines, or “fan magazines”, is a perojative term for self-published small-press publications. Up until the late 1990s, fanzines were the primary medium through which you could shout to the world from the safety of your own publication.

Fanzine culture had its roots in the underground newspaper scene that kicked off in the late 1960s, but falling printing costs throughout the 1980s and early 1990s and the rise of desk-top publishing allowed more and more people to publish their own material.

As a medium where people could share ideas and be genuinely creative for the sheer hell of it, fanzine culture was like a small-scale internet. Quality would vary widely, but you could always find pearls in the most unlikely swine, be it the diary of an exitensially-challenged technical writer in Leeds or a book collecting together plug wiring diagrams.

At their peak in the early 1990s, self-published zines covered a vast array of subjects, with publications such as Factsheet Five and the Small Press Review providing important nodes in a global small-publishing network. In some sub-cultures, underground music for example, fanzines were an important means of disseminating information and an accepted means of participating within the scene.

Some zines crossed over to the mainstream and are still publishing today – the UK’s Viz comic and the America’s Film Threat magazine are two examples of bedroom enterprises that eventually crossed over into professional enterprises. However, the vast majority of zines were small-scale publications with readerships in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

The similarities with user-generated content on the internet are obvious. Blogging and social bookmarking have come to largely supercede the offline technologies and networks that fuelled zine subculture. People are participating in online publishing on a far grander scale than they did with zines. It’s hardly suprising – when publishing technology becomes freely and cheaply available then people will use it to express themselves – and in large numbers.

However, fanzine culture differed from the internet in one important respect: producing a fanzine still required a degree of time, persistence and tenacity that meant that you certainly didn’t produce one on a whim. The internet may be a more democratised medium, but only in the sense of requiring less effort. After all, any idiot can write a blog or post a video, and they frequently do.

Let’s face it – most people don’t really have anything remarkable or entertaining to say. An evening spent cruising blogs can be pretty soul destroying: is this all the internet is for? Badly-written and derivative, the vast majority of user-generated content comes with an over-whelming sense of déjà vu. Any fresh ideas are jumped upon and copied to the point where they lose any vestige of what made them entertaining in the first place.

In many ways I miss the obsessive insularity of fanzines. I also miss having a tangible artefact to hold in my hand that acted as evidence of an author’s effort. Social media may have spread the joys of self-publishing to a wider audience, but it has certainly not led to a general rise in quality. Just as with fanzine sub-culture, mainstream professional media does not have much to fear from this more recent form of self-publishing.

Filed under Rants, UI Development.