In my closet, I have a mail carrier's box full of zines. Some of them are quarter-size, others are half-size. Some are handwritten and hand-drawn, while others are laid out entirely using computer. Some have vellum covers, block-printed designs, ribbon bindings. There are as many different styles of zines as there are zinesters.
They all have one thing in common, though: you can actually hold them in your hands.
Such a quality seems quaint in a time when we are constantly bombarded with announcements about new gadgets and wireless networks that will free us from the tyranny of materiality. No longer will we be held hostage by books and magazines! No longer will we be confined by the limits of paper! An entire world of information will be at our fingertips, no matter if we are riding a bus to work or in waiting in a rest stop off Alligator Alley.
And I'll admit, it is pretty cool. The internet has given me access to all kinds of information I would have never otherwise known about and exposed me to writing I would have never had the chance to read.
But it doesn't keep me from feeling wistful for the things of the past, no more than the pretty design of my iPod Nano can erase the memories I have of sitting in my bedroom and listening intently to a CD for the first time while paging through the booklet, reading the lyrics and examining the artwork.
I had the opportunity to consider what it means to hold a piece of media in your hands while reading a chapter in Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism by Alison Piepmeier. She quotes Marissa Falco, whose adorable and perfectly laid out zines were among my favorites, who writes (to summarize) that a zine gives her the ability to connect with others on a visceral level. She can smell the scent of another person's house, see the pressure of the pen on the letters included with the zines. I know exactly what she means. When you hold a zine in your hands, odds are good that the person who created it held it in her hands as well.
It's a different kind of connection than what I might establish with someone I know only through the internet. I may converse with someone through Twitter or blogs or email, but that conversation first goes through a keyboard, then into a computer, through a network of servers and hubs before coming out on another computer and finally reaching my intended partner's eyes. The disconnect is so considerable that it's no wonder people treat others so shabbily over the internet. Without those humanizing touches Falco wrote about, it's easy to see people as pixels and bytes rather than, you know, people.
I sometimes think social media has the potential to overcome these limitations and establish the kind of human connection that makes the world of zines so powerful. I've used it for work as well as for my personal purposes, and each use has fostered that sense of shared humanity in its own way.
When I took part in the NASA Tweet-up in November 2009, I live-tweeted the entire two day event, and soon I realized nearly 100 people were following everything I said, responding to my tweets and asking me to check out something for them. It was a remarkable feeling, knowing that I was experiencing the launch, not only for myself but also for dozens of people via my phone.
Social media has also put me in touch with talented, strong people. It has helped me connect with others who shared experiences not unlike what I've gone through in my life. It has given me the ability to help others in their times of need. It helped me maintain friendships when I was in a place where I was unable to sustain those relationships in real life.
I refuse to look at the debate as a matter of either/or. I would like to think we live in a culture where it is possible to enjoy the convenience and accessibility of new media while appreciating the value of old media. I do worry that, with the rush to embrace all that is bleeding-edge, the way we interact with media will change so dramatically that we are no longer able to do that. I see it with the way people find it hard to sit down and read a book after zipping through six-paragraph news stories and blog entries, or how music fandom is now more single-oriented rather than album-oriented.
But at the same time, I do believe there will always be many people like myself, who enjoy curling up with good reading material in bed, who take sensuous pleasure in the feeling of a book on their hands, and who will find a way to enjoy the best of that both digital and analog media have to offer.