What is a zine?

As publications, zines live in an interesting niche between low-key social media content and high-end glossy magazines. They’re often hand-made, printed and stapled pieces of paper, sold, traded or given away for free.

The name bears witness to this niche. „Zines“ is even derived from the word „magazine“, simply without the maga-.

I think the best way of understanding zines is to look at them as a practice, less as a medium or format (a notion I borrowed from Paul Soulellis). Zines are a practice of a) self-expression and b) construction of a public1.

Most analysis focusses on the self-expression of people through zines, since it’s the most visible part. Zines are often used by artists, writers, poets or illustrators as a place for experiments but also activists or organizers to share ideas, manifestos or a mixture of everything.

The reason zines have such a allure is because they’re easy to produce. There’s a magic in bringing something physically into the world and sharing it with others that digital has a hard time catching.

That’s one of the beautiful things about zines, the immediacy. The ability, with access to a laser printer, a Xerox machine, or a risograph, to print one sheet, fold it in half, and call it a thing, and be able to hand that to somebody in the most basic way.

This act of sharing of sending it to people — sometimes across the globe is the second part of the practice. The experience is richer, socially more engaged and — honestly — more fun than any social media platform could every be.

A zine is not a piece of content. At it’s best it can’t be reduced into the rigid spaces of a virtual feed. It’s alive, scrappy but alive.

That said — if we stick with the notion of zines as a practice, it should be possible to separate them from the physical, the paper, the ink, the glue. I think zines — as a publishing method and as a worldview — are alive and well online, as well.

Matt Webb lately had some good ideas of what this might look like:

  • A private wiki or Notion instance that has a special zone that auto-publishes editions of a static website, once a month.

  • A Slack workspace that has a special #links channel, and every Friday it gets compiled into a newsletter, sent to whoever is online for a quick review, and posted out to all subscribers. Emailed replies to the newsletter are directed back into Slack, where they appear like messages in bottles.

  • A WhatsApp group for a club committee, attached to a Google Drive folder with a fixed set of Google Docs in it, and once a week the content of the docs gets swept through pre-set templates and published as a PDF and emailed out to the membership.

  • A GitHub Pages repo that accepts all changes that are made to it, by anyone, and auto-publishes a website – but as issues, so previous issues are available at sequential URLs – and only on Thursdays.

  • A shared album in the iOS Photos app for a family that lives apart and, for Christmas, after paste-ups are shared for editing on 1 December, the photos are automatically printed into books that are mailed out to all the households.

  • A drag-and-drop Figma canvas that a design group drops and arranges inspiration image into, and every couple of weeks it all gets printed with Newspaper Club.

  • An email list for a writing group, and any Microsoft Word doc forwarded to a special email address gets posted to Drafts in a WordPress blog, and the next story, whatever it is, is pulled from the queue and published every Friday.

How to make a zine – The Creative Independent

ZINE MUNCH #2: Counterpublics, ‘Activist Downloading,’ and the Risograph (w/ Paul Soulellis)

  1. I am choosing „public“ instead of „community“ for good reason here. Over the last years the idea of a community has been horribly misused and hollowed — just because a random group of people happen to use the same app or subscribe to the same instagram account doesn’t make them a community. Instead it’s more fitting to refer to them as a „public“ as i.e. defined by Michael Warner and others.