It couldn’t last. Ever since bursting into popular consciousness in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web kept growing chaotically. Universities had Web sites. Companies had Web sites. Individual families had Web sites. Any organization that didn’t have a Web page seemed to be labeling itself a relic. But after the initial flurry of clicking around, most visitors to the Web wanted something to sink their teeth into. After awhile, grainy pictures of half-full coffeepots in England just didn’t cut it anymore. Oh, sure, if you poked around enough you could find a brilliant essay or collection of digitized art or clever interactive game. But it was every surfer for him or herself. Although a breed of Net users reveled in this chaos and unpredictability, many people who logged on found the Internet about as fulfilling as wading through a warehouse full of pages ripped from student notebooks.
It is amid this mess that Web magazines have risen to popularity in the past year. A visit to Salon-a webzine of reviews and essays founded by expatriates from the San Francisco Examiner’s arts section-guarantees a few snappy essays on life, culture, and politics in the ’90s by name-brand writers. Enter the electronic portals of Microsoft-owned Slate and you can eavesdrop on a high-minded debate among policy wonks about the political and economic issues du jour. Tap into HotWired for spicy and often abrasive commentary about the medium itself.
In editorial direction, webzines buck the trend in print publications, where success has recently accrued mainly to specialty titles, especially those that give advice on how to live and what to buy. Advertising dollars flow into these publications, attracted by readerships presumed to be in a buying or self-improving frame of mind. Two of the wealthiest people in America-Patrick McGovern and William Ziff-made their fortunes peddling computer magazines. The new breed of webzines, by contrast, appeals to readers less with buying advice than by projecting an attitude. They do this in the form not of practical articles of the sort that fill the bulging pages of computer and “lifestyle” magazines but with compendiums of commentary-essays, cultural critiques, political analysis.
A magazine on the Internet can do much that its printed cousin cannot. Articles can include links that readers click on to find additional information. Previously published stories can be read as easily as this week’s issue. Webzines can enrich their stories with sounds and video. Web publications can create structured online forums where readers can debate among themselves-and with the magazine’s writers and editors-the ideas presented in the magazine’s articles. Material online can be updated as needed, incorporating new information and correcting errors.
Overall, the dozens of webzines differ from each other as drastically as the array of titles on a conventional newsstand, ranging from the sassy countercultural rant-rags such as Suck (which devotes much of its space to bashing other webzines) to the sober and establishmentarian IntellectualCapital to the New York artsiness of Word. The quality can be quasi-New Yorker literary or just-past-amateur. Designs also vary greatly, from gray Slate to the self-conscious hipness of HotWired, with its gonzo icons and pages saturated in the neopsychedelic, Day-Glo colors that its print sister, Wired, inflicts on its readers. But a look at the top tier of webzines-including Slate, Salon, and HotWired-reveals most of what these publications are doing well, poorly, or not at all.