Where games, archives, and zines meet, you’ll find 5CollDH Undergraduate Fellow and Hampshire College student Nora Claire Miller hard at work. Miller’s project uses digital cartographic and network mapping tools to critically explore the physical and cultural travel of zines in the 1990s. This is Nora’s third post of three; you can click through to read the first and second installments, or read an interview with Nora by Jeffrey Moro. We also encourage you to check out their blog, locatingzines.5colldh.org!
I’ve posted over the last few months describing different facets of my project, Locating Zines. I’m hoping that this post gives a broader overview of my project. If you saw the 5CollDH symposium in April, or have seen the video of the talk I gave there, parts of this post will seem familiar!
My project, Locating Zines, seeks to digitally explore networks of zines. Zines are small, self-produced booklets or mini magazines. Zine-making can be traced back to 1930s, when it became popular among science fiction writers. Later on, zines emerged in punk movements of the 70’s. In the 1990s, zines became an important part of riot grrrl culture. Originating in Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s, riot grrrl was a musical and social movement rooted in third wave feminism that centralized girls in music and subculture scenes. Because they were cheap to create and produce, zines were accessible to a wide range of people.
Riot grrrl helped to define zines as a space for teenage girls to speak to each other and to the public about the things that they faced. Girls writing about their experiences of sexism, rape, racism, heteronormativity, and mental illness, just to name a few, gained access to communities of other zinesters experiencing similar things. It is important to note that although zine culture of the 90’s is often associated with riot grrrl, the two were not intrinsically linked. Riot grrrl as a subculture was predominantly composed of white, middle or upper middle class women. Historiography often places riot grrrl as central to girl zines of the 90’s. This erases the histories of women of color and queer people who were making zines at the same time. In my project, I look at the myriad of zine networks of the 90’s that existed within and outside of riot grrrl.
Locating Zines began last summer, when I worked as a cataloger for a Five College Digital Humanities project called Zine Scenes, a collaboration between five college faculty and librarians Alana Kumbier, Michele Hardesty, and Leslie Fields, among others. My work involved gathering metadata, which in this case means data describing the physical zines I was looking at–I recorded things like places of publication, and whether a zine was printed black and white or in color. The database was intended as a research tool, an advanced finding aid for students interacting with archival zine collections. As I looked at my spreadsheet, however, I began to ask myself what this metadata on its own could tell me.
I started off making geographic maps. Zine exchanges in the 90’s were sometimes direct physical trades, but more often, zines were sent through the mail, either between zine writers pen pals, or larger zine distributors. Because of this, a large percentage of the zines I looked at listed the writer’s address. Many zines were actually designed to become envelopes when taped shut, and had a space for a recipient’s address to be written on the back. I worked with CartoDB, a web-based cartographic mapping program to map where zines were being produced, wondering if I could find trends that would tell me something. This is a time-based map tracing zines by the locations and dates that they were published:
I soon realized, though, that I was working with zine collections donated by individuals, which meant that they were likely to follow the geographies of those individuals. For example Tinúviel, the founder of the music label Kill Rock Stars, whose zines collection comprises a large part of the Girl Zines Collection at Smith, has a lot of zines from New York and Olympia, Washington, where she had record labels. This would skew the map data more towards those areas. Basically, my sample size was too small. To do any sort of conclusive analysis on where zines in general were being produced, I’d need to look at thousands of zines.
Early on in my metadata collecting, I noticed that many zines I was looking at reviewed other zines. I started keeping track of this information, curious about what it could reveal about networks. I decided to use Twine, a text-based game-building platform, to start to chart out connections between zines. Twine is similar to a choose your own adventure novel, where each passage links to a variety of different passages depending on which answers the user chooses. I used Twine as a way to visualize zine networks. The video below shows the network map I created.
Twine is definitely not designed to map networks. My map was actually created using the back-end of Twine, the part that’s not supposed to be the final product. Essentially, according to Twine this whole map is an extensive storyboard. On this map, each square represents a different zine. This map shows 1,017 zines. For the zines I have information about, when you click on a passage you can find metadata in it. I have information about around 150 of the zines in this map. The rest are only titles–zines that other zines reviewed, that I haven’t yet found in archives.
When we zoom in on the map, zine titles are visible as well. There are also arrows between the zines, which indicate who was mentioning who. This has been helpful as a research tool in determining different types of zine networking.
I managed to wrangle Twine into working for me, but it wasn’t easy. Twine wasn’t designed to handle this much data, nor to produce storyboards at the size I did.Currently the application takes ten minutes to open on my computer due to the sheer size of the game file. In addition, I can’t view the entire thing at once–the application won’t zoom out far enough. In order to pan around the way I did in the video, I had to set my screen to a really high aspect ration. It’s interesting to note that zines resisted being mapped and Twine resisted doing the mapping, and yet Twine became the most effective technology I used, and the only one that functioned as both a visual aid and a research tool simultaneously.
If you want to read more about the details of what Twine is and how I worked with it,check out my blog post about it.
For this software, it makes more sense to only map zines that are connected to two or more other zines. This means that I only charted around 160 zines. Force maps are modeled after charged subatomic particle interactions. Dragging the map around creates interesting effects. Depending on which zine you drag it by, and how connected that zine is, the map will either move a lot, or a little. One problem with this type of map is that it doesn’t distinguish the connectedness of a zine based on whether that zine mentioned a lot of other zines, or was mentioned by a lot of other zines–a really big difference. For example, from this map, it looks like the zine Caught in Flux, a music zine, was incredibly popular. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned Caught in Flux–it just reviewed a lot of other zines. On a software like Twine, directionality of a connection is a lot easier to display, because Twine is story-based in structure.
In some ways, though, D3 does help me to visualize things that Twine can’t. In D3, for example, I’m able to try to begin to chart out subsections of zine communities by using color to highlight certain titles.
In the example above, I was curious about zines that I know were written by people of color, and the ways in which they existed within networks. What I discovered is that many of the zines written by people of color that I looked at mentioned each other’s zines directly, and there were few degrees of separation between them. These zines, though often historiographically invisible, were also very connected to other zine networks of the time–zines like Bamboo Girl and You Might As Well Live were heavily influential, and served as hubs to both other zines by women of color and to the network at large.
If you want more information about how I used force maps and D3, check out my blog post about it.
I thought that D3 would help me to detangle the dataset that had become so complicated in Twine. But try as I may, D3 was no more organized, and in fact it told me less. The more I tried to force zine data into neat visualizations, the more the zines themselves pushed back against them. When trying to map by genre, I had to contend with the fact that many zines refused to be categorized. I had to make choices–is this zine more of a personal zine, or a music zine? Where does the intent of the zine writer end, and my intent begin?
And here’s the thing: in 1993, if you were actually immersed in the zine cultures I have been studying, you wouldn’t have seen any of this. With thousands of zines available to me in archives and a whole slew of digital tools available to me, I can visualize what, at the time that these zines were produced, was completely invisible. The final form of my project is the other side of the Twine map–it’s actually a game.
You start out in the “zine library”–basically, the idea is that it’s sometime in the 90’s, and you’re in a bookstore or an info shop or something, and you find a stack of zines. You’ve never had access to a zine before, but you’re enthralled, and you want to read more of them. By clicking a link, you “pick a zine up”.
So let’s say you click on Bamboo Girl. You’ll see a picture of the zine, and some of the metadata I’ve collected about it (ideally, you will have read the whole zine, but for ethical reasons I’ve chosen not to digitize any zines, and try to get the concepts of them across through metadata instead.) Anyway, here you are “reading” Bamboo Girl. You’ll see that there’s a list of other zines that are mentioned in Bamboo Girl. Let’s say I pick Girlhero. I know, from my Twine map, that there are actually two zines that mention Girlhero, Bamboo Girl, which is where we came from, and Yawp!. But I haven’t looked at a copy of Girlhero, and don’t have any metadata for it, so neither does the 1996 edition of you–and you haven’t seen my map. Maybe, you wrote a letter to the writer of Girlhero, but they never wrote you back. Maybe you look for it in the zine library but, not finding it, you give up. The object of this game is to navigate through networks without hitting any dead ends. It is intentionally frustrating. As you play, you may begin to chart out connections in your head. If you play long enough, those connections might become more elaborate.
Now, two decades after the zines I’m studying were written, I can visit archives, use computers, and make maps. But when these networks were being built, people within them, zine writers and readers, couldn’t see the whole network at once. In working with two sides of Twine for this project, I sought to replicate two sides of the experience of tracing networks.
Next year, for my Division III (senior thesis) project at Hampshire College, I plan to use data I have collected and digital maps I have made to continue to critically explore zine networks of the ’90’s. I hope to use my maps in conjunction with excerpts from zines, scholarly literature exploring zines, and my own academic writing to write a multimedia digital essay.
Without the help of a bunch of amazing people, this project would not have been possible. I want to thank members of the Zine Scenes team: Alana Kumbier, Michele Hardesty, Leslie Fields and Julie Adamo for inspiring me to do all this in the first place, and providing incredible advising throughout the project. I’m also super grateful to the 5 College Post Baccalaureate fellows, Jeffrey Moro and Mariel Nyröp, for all of the support they gave me, including teaching me how to set up a WordPress site and some fundamentals of coding, and generally talking me through pretty much every crisis I had in my project during this fellowship. I also want to thank Marisa Parham, the director of 5CollDH, whose work enables all of this to happen. Thanks also to this year’s other student fellows, Eunice Esomonu, Ott Lindstrom, Tanvi Kapoor, and Isaiah Mann—your feedback was really helpful, and your projects inspired me!
Thanks to this fellowship, I was able to travel to visit two two zine archives. During my first trip, I visited the Sallie Bingham Center at Duke University, where Kelly Wooten, the research services and collection development librarian for the Bingham Center, helped me out a ton in my research. Later on in the year, I visited the Queer Zine Archive Project in Milwaukee. I’m immensely grateful to Milo Miller and Chris Wilde, the co-founders of the QZAP, for being amazing hosts and giving me a great introduction to their collection!
Thanks also to my friends and family, who put up with a lot of me being overtired and talking a lot about confusing computer problems.
If you’re interested in future updates on Locating Zines, follow my blog: locatingzines.5collDH.org
If you’d like to play my twine game, you can do that here: