Before the internet and outside academia, zines were a way somewhat disaffected and alienated people of like minds found and communicated with each other. The letters section of Maximum Rock-n-Roll, featuring writers from all points on the intelligence continuum debating everything from is racism bad to should you eat meat was a precursor to the punky's punk forums on the Web today. In Maximum Rock-n-Roll's Letters section you could read both the insane ramblings of GG Allin and the very poorly spelled rants of Courtney Love. You could also get your letter published even if you were an absolute nobody.
As a grad student in ultra-religious South Carolina, I could ignore the pile of Chick Tracts in the Post Office on the way to fetch a zine full of detourned comics written by a guy in the UK that I found out about in FactSheet 5. At $1-$2 a shot, they were low-risk, but since they weren't completely free you had to take that risk, however small, and hope for the best. More often than not, there'd be a brief personal note from the zine's author in the envelope (as were sometimes found in orders from Dischord or K records).
Bloomington's best Bookstore, Boxcar Books (now at the new location next to the Runcible Spoon) has a good-sized zine collection, but if you look closely you'll notice many of the zines are a year or more old. I picked up a couple of zines and didn't notice this until I got home. It's not bad that they're old, but why aren't there enough new zines to fill the shelves?
It's the foul internet that's destroyed them. Factsheet5.com has helpful info about signs you have gonorrhea or other STDs. There are plenty of e-zines, but they aren't made of paper. If you read a story about strange shit happening on a long Greyhound Bus ride, like I found in an issue of Big Hands, it works a lot better on pieces of paper that have been folded together and stapled by hand than on my MacBookPro's glossy screen. It might work on a library computer's monitor, but the kids doing their damn MySpace and playing games hog those terminals. Damn kids.
The internet is everywhere now, except maybe parts of Mongolia. You could start and publish an e-zine from Antarctica. You could keep up with what's going on in the outside world from Greenland. In some ways you can't be disconnected at all in the ways that made people want to publish and read zines at one time.
Of course being out of it I have no idea how alive and vibrant today's zine scene really is. People are publishing zines about Ruby on Rails and their favorite podcasts. Hypermilers publish zines that share tips for using as little gas as possible. Disaffected but comfortable white youngsters put out Zines about Ron Paul. Or something.
Well, I'd best turn it over to the youngsters. Here are some jumping off points:
Action Girl Newsletter - How do you find zines? How do you make zines? Plus: a manifesto.
Portland Zine Symposium - You've already missed this year's. Plan ahead for 2009.
zinelibrary.net - nicely designed. professional. multi-lingual
sordidzine - no idea. from page 23 of the Google search 'zines'