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Lost in Space (and Time)

Browsing the current webzines yields the impression that no one has completely figured out how best to adapt a print tradition to electronic form. Simple matters such as knowing how to get from place to place and knowing whether an article is old or new seem to stymie the designer; a zine surfer must acclimate to different interfaces at every electronic publication.

Some differences are cosmetic; Slate’s maroon, gray, and white color scheme stands in sedate contrast to HotWired’s highly contrasting colors (a different glowing hue every day) and Word’s melange of moving images. Some entries into the field have yet to master Web basics. IntellectualCapital, which comes off as a weighty magazine of political and economic issues, has not yet figured out that long tables of contents on the home page are difficult to penetrate.

Webzines spawned by the print magazine establishment sometimes reveal unhelpful allegiance to print conventions. Slate, for example, assigns “page” numbers to articles. The idea is to make readers feel that they can navigate the way they do in print. But Web surfers don’t generally think of online material as numbered pages, and this system seems anachronistic-as if Henry Ford had built a set of reins into the dashboard of the Model T. (Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine numbered its pages when it started up three years ago, says founder and editor John December, but abandoned the system because the numbers seemed arbitrary in a nonlinear medium.)

If Slate errs by trying to be too printlike, the opposite tendency mars Word, a New Yorkbased lifestyle webzine. In Word, nothing stands still; the graphic images dance and shimmy, usually without any particular meaning. The table of contents looks like something from TV Guide, with six fine-print listings of articles arranged in columns under inscrutable department titles like “habit,” “gigo,” “pay,” “machine,” and “desire.” Graphical paraphernalia seem goofy; a gallery of animated dancing toilets, for example, adorns a page of self-described stupid jokes.

Salon and HotWired have probably devised the most fully Web-like sites. Salon’s main page presents links to the webzine’s departments: “Sharps & Flats” (music reviews); “Newsreal” (commentary on the news); “Media Circus” (media criticism); “Sneak Peeks” (book reviews) and “Taste” (food and wine). Clicking on one of those choices brings up a page with content divided into compartments, known as “frames.” The main frame contains the article of the day; along the left-hand side of the screen a narrow vertical frame presents an index of every article in that department for the past month, any of which you can read with a click.

Different webzines have different approaches for displaying articles that are too long to fit on a single screen. Slate delivers an entire article at once, no matter how long it is, allowing readers to scroll up and down through it much as they would flip through the pages of a long article in a printed publication. Salon and HotWired, on the other hand, often present articles in segments. A Salon essay analyzing the prevalence of libertarianism on the Net, for example, leads off with the first 500 words, along with a link to click on to get the 2,500-word balance of the piece. Salon breaks other articles into multiple, equal-sized chunks, with no apparent logic to guide the partitioning.

Webzine designers face a dilemma. The surest way for any Web site to draw traffic is to change the content frequently-nothing feels as stale as an unchanged Web site. Too much churn, however, confuses a print-oriented reader. Magazines as we have come to know them are defined by the issue date that anchors them in time; cover images and other cues help readers recognize what’s new and what’s old. And once an issue is read, it can be consigned to the trash or storage pile. Webzines treat time more cavalierly. It’s not immediately apparent when you have already read something, so you find yourself revisiting the site in search of fresh material. And sometimes a label of “new” on the contents page indicates only a small addition to a department rather than an entirely new piece. Slate took a helpful step toward anchoring its articles in time by offering, as an option, a contents page that sorts articles by date.

The ease of dipping into a webzine’s archives of past articles further muddies the reader’s place in time. With last week’s or last month’s articles only a couple of clicks away, webzine sites make it about as easy to tap into their well of previously published material as their current issue. It is as if Time magazine came to the mailbox every week with a 100-pound box of carefully indexed back issues. The most current edition loses some of its primacy when stacked against all that history.

The best webzines are finding ways to update their material often while acknowledging many readers’ preference for discrete “issues” pinned to a particular day or week. Slate, Salon, and HotWired, which change at least some of their content every weekday, all send out weekly e-mails summarizing the articles “now playing” at their sites; these notices go to all who have signed up for these webzines’ (free) alert services. The e-mail contains hot links that allow recipients to jump immediately to read the piece that the blurb describes.

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