The Wizards of Austin's Webzines Behind the Curtains
Back in 1984, the proverbial Kansas from whence the hurricane of Internet activity has taken us, home computers were those chunky Apple II Macintosh numbers with monitors the size of postcards and little green cursor prompts flashing off and on over black backgrounds. Back then there was what was known as the "computer geek." This person was typically nerdy (ref., Revenge of the Nerds, circa 1984). He was bespectacled and a user of pocket protectors. Dungeons and Dragons and Atari 2000 home video games were not uncommon pastimes for this denizen of computer lore. Of course, in 1984, the Internet was a mere glimmer in the collective eye of nerds everywhere.
Today, we are a long way from Kansas. Now the computers that were once used for arcane logarithms and computer language programming are portals for an entire Web culture zipping around the planet on an imaginary grid of raw, digitized fodder and sound bites. What's more is that the people who some 15 years ago may have been thought of as out-of-touch goobers with math degrees have found themselves on the leading front of what's new.
Take Austin, for example. With more people per capita online than any other city in the country besides San Francisco, the Texas capital is wired to the gills. It's no surprise, then, to find a few Web masters and their webzines tucked away in the oak woodwork. Case in point, Harry Knowles, who has taken the film industry by the horns with his chatty, brimming-with-info "Ain't It Cool News" (http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com) site, while showing the full potential of Web publishing in the process. The outspoken film critic has built "Ain't It Cool" into one of the most visited film news addresses in the world in just over three years. But Knowles is not alone. Nikol Lohr, Web designer at Texas Monthly's soon-to-be-defunct Web site, "The Ranch," is making headway with her "Disgruntled Housewife" (http://www.disgruntledhousewife.com), a stylized site for the discerning modern girl with a sex drive. Then there's Andy Dillon, founder of "Austin Unscene" (http://www.austinunscene.com), a young webzine looking to scoop some of Austin's alternative stories, and former dominatrix Content Love Knowles (no relation to Harry), who is publishing erotica and bondage stories on her adult site "Babalon" (http://www.babalon.com). With fresh political opinions, piquant sex columns, and creative editorials, it's hard to imagine these Web culture gurus staying up all night playing D&D. Now the new computer geek is hard-working, smart, and connected.
"I was busting my ass for a year before anyone took notice," Knowles says of his Web site. He is sitting on the other side of a table constructed of paperback books and topped with a gallery of glazed ceramic farm animals. (The small house in which Knowles lives with his father is a garage salesman's Elysian Fields of movie paraphernalia, posters, and knick-knacks covering literally every inch of its insides). "There was no tangible evidence that this could possibly become significant," he continues. "My whole theory on it all was that I believed firmly that all I had to do was write long enough to get 50,000 readers. Maybe it would grow. Maybe it wouldn't. I just wanted to be doing something I loved."
Knowles' sentiments about his webzine are echoed by Lohr, Dillon, and Love Knowles, who all started out of pure desire to be doing what they were doing. Moreover, while all four of these sites are different in their content, each is run by an individual as far from being a "computer geek" as a Nintendo game is from Atari "Pong." In fact, if you ran into any one of them out on the town (a distinct possibility) you'd never guess that each spends up to 15 hours a day in front of a computer screen. That said, they certainly aren't normal, either. But a skewed outlook is almost a prerequisite for any successful individual with lofty expectations and new ideas, especially when dealing with the Internet. For like any frontier, the Net demands an adventurous attitude in order to breed inventive and resourceful outposts. And besides, they don't call interactive Web publishing "new media" for nothing.
At a local cafe, Nikol Lohris telling me about a celebrity breast game she has in mind for her "Disgruntled Housewife" webzine, a site started by Lohr when she was living with her then-"deadbeat boyfriend" three years ago. These days, she is not married, but she is somewhat disgruntled. The boob game was supposed to be a jumble contest for visitors to play where you match the celebrity with their breasts, but Lohr forgot to name all the chests once she separated them from their faces. "Now I have all these breasts and can't identify them," she says. It is this kind of witty and off-kilter approach that makes Lohr's "guide to modern living and intersex relationships" a webzine that is reinventing and re-energizing zine publishing.
Zines -- or miniature magazines -- have historically been shoestring budget, stapled-together publications put out by individuals who need to rant about something, which in most cases is anything. They are either incredibly liberal or incredibly conservative, and rest assured no one -- unless Bill Clinton cobbled together a rag during his Rhodes tenure at Oxford -- has ever published a fluff-filled, middle-of-the-road zine. They undoubtedly have roots in the zealous pamphlets of the founding fathers -- and who's to say Socrates didn't sew a few pieces of parchment together for his soap boxing in Athens? But it was the invention of the copy machine in the 1940s that made publishing far more affordable for your average screed, and opened the door for anyone with something to say and the commitment to hack it out.
Enter the Internet, and the door comes off its hinges. Online zines -- webzines -- are attracting not only thousands of people with something to say but also thousands of readers hungry for stuff to read. Instead of hocking your paper rag on the street corner to 100 unfriendly passersby, you can sit down in your living room and let thousands of visitors come to you. You even have the advantage of interacting with your visitors through e-mail. Throw in the fact that you can update a webzine's content daily while using color images, video streaming, and animation detail, and creators of the online zine scene have upped the ante considerably. Patrick Henry never had it so good.
Except for Andy Dillon, whowho "worked like a slave" for nine months on Human Code's groundbreaking CD-ROM Cartoon History of the Universe, none of the four people I interviewed for this article has had any formal computer training. Lohr taught herself HTML (hypertext markup language) after landing a job at a computer company with a fake résumé. Harry Knowles forced himself to read about programming languages while bed-ridden with a back injury for six months. Love Knowles learned through friends and e-mail suggestions from her site visitors. This innovative spirit so prevalent with Internet trailblazers is a testament to the fact that no one is quite sure what the rules are out there in cyberspace, so creative individuals like the ones here in Austin seem to be making them up as they go along. Keeping a good sense of humor and a playful attitude
doesn't hurt either.
"I have many 'noms de porn,' and not all of them are female," says Content Love Knowles, the magenta-haired ex-dominatrix who runs the adult site Babalon.com. "It's a virtual world out there. Use your imagination."
Imagination, however, is not the only thing that keeps a site running. Mostly it's hard work. Not only are these individuals the writers for their sites, they are their own editors, designers, technicians, and engineers. Moreover, while Web publishing is still in its beginning stages, much of the software tools available to online programmers are relatively undeveloped. This means that some webzines are creating their own programming software catered to the idiosyncrasies of their own sites. Dillon and partner Dan Shmeedler, for example, have created Catalus, a program they claim will make site design and upkeep much easier. It's something they hope to market over their site to help defray the costs of keeping the young webzine going.
As far as the money goes, no one seems to be too concerned about making it, which is a good thing, since it's notoriously difficult to do online. Lohr says she could make a living off DisgruntledHousewife.com, but she'd have to "scrimp and pinch" to do it. Instead she would rather just keep having fun with the writing and collect "the few pennies" from the advertisers she already has. In a similar vein, Harry Knowles claims that he doesn't even look at the checks he gets from his advertising agency, but when he does, they are "happy checks." He requires signed contracts with those who advertise on his site that allow him total control of its content, no matter how much he might piss someone off. Just as it was in the beginning, the freedom to write what he wants on his own site is Knowles' uncompromising driving force. "The money is not what I'm into," he says.
Still, the opportunities for revenue are growing as advertisers begin to link themselves to popular sites and online shopping malls start springing up faster than Bill Gates' checking account. For Content Love Knowles, making money seems to be only a matter of time. As she puts it, the $6 billion online adult entertainment business didn't come about because "six people were spending a billion dollars each." Dillon, who spent about $15,000 to start up AustinUnscene.com, is also looking to generate some income and has recently started an "UnMall," a shopping link where you can buy locally made gear and artwork. "We tried to sell ads," he explains. "But nobody knew how."
Aside from selling ads, it seems like Dillon and company do know what they're doing. When I visited his small, budding Interactive Thought offices on South First, the tiny space was abuzz with activity, from a new sign being posted on the roof to the phones ringing off the hook. Like Harry Knowles, Lohr, and Love Knowles, Dillon and his workspace are constantly energized with the possibilities of a vast cyberspace. If Austin is Oz and these folks are its wizards, then what's behind the curtain isn't all that bad. In fact, it's downright inspirational. And if you still need to get back to Kansas, try clicking on www.Kansas.com. It'll be a lot faster than clicking your heels together.