Three Years is a Lifetime on the Web

Enterzone started in the summer of 1994 when two people had to wait an extra hour for their dinner reservation. As we sat at the bar, I told Briggs that I'd been thinking about a new kind of publication that might be possible on the Net. Sure, I'd wanted to publish a journal of writing, and opinion, and art and cool stuff like that for years, even had a name in mind as I was finishing up college , but the realities of print publishing and distribution were always just too daunting.

Even when I first started seeing e-mail journals, I didn't consider on-line publishing as a workable alternative. It took the web, with its passive form of publishing (post the material on-line and let people come and get it for themselves) and its hypertext linking (permitting structures and organization impossible in traditional paper publishing), to get me excited about this idea. Finally, sitting at that bar with Briggs, it all bubbled forth. At the time I was reading Burroughs, and the fluidity of the Web, the broken-down borders between places reminded me of Interzone. Instead of a 'zine - a bounded, closed publication - we'd build a 'zone, an open-ended node, pointing in many directions. We brainstormed with these ideas and words and related concepts and came up with Enterzone. Besides replacing "i" with "e" (as in email, ezine, ezone), we though of trying to welcome readers in, of providing an entry point into this zone we envisioned. Then there was the Enter key (or "Return," but anyone who's been around a computer long enough has been instructed to "press enter"). It just seemed to fit.

Soon after the first exciting conversation, I e-mailed Richard Frankel, who was more immersed in the geekery of the Net than I was, to seek his advice and help in this project. He agreed to help and even offered our first web-hosting space, on a server he was running in his capacity as the chief geek for an academic department at Berkeley. (This led to the misconception that we were a U.C. Berkeley or even Berkeley, California, based 'zine.)

You can still see our three names on the masthead of the first episode. (We decided not to have volume numbers, and to release "episodes" instead of issues, so as not to blindly accept all the metaphors and habits of mind that come with magazine publishing and its vocabulary.)

Why a Retrospective?

One of the primary advantages of publishing on the Web is that text is cheap and we can keep all of Enterzone, past and present, up and available for perusing on the Net. In this past three years and 12 episodes, we've only just exceeded 100 megs of disk storage, and people still complain that each episode is too big and has too much material to digest in one sitting (good! you have three months to read each one before there's anything new, and all the time you want after that as well - that's what bookmarks are for). And with those past episodes on-line, the typical reader can easily stray (from an author page, say) from one episode to another.

Are our favorite pieces from the past getting overlooked or ignored in the constant rush for something new or "cool" on the Web?

We've built in so many crossing and overlapping paths that in some ways we think of the entire conglomeration as a single entity. But we wonder sometimes if our favorite pieces from the past are getting overlooked or ignored in the constant rush for something new or "cool" on the Web. In our eagerness to keep up with the great flow of material that now comes our way we're always looking toward the next episode and we don't always manage to fix every typo and link in the previous one before we move on (in fact, the first time we moved the site, we went from a Mac server to a Unix server, and immediately a number of the formerly case-insensitive links stopped working - we still haven't fixed them all, I'm discovering now as I review past episodes for this retrospective, and here we've just moved to our third server, this time on a Linux box, close enough to Unix that it won't introduce new errors into the static pages, but our search engine is temporarily off-line and we're still fixing some of our other scripts and routines).

So, we wanted to take this opportunity to look back for a moment, and take stock of what we've managed to publish, sift through and bring work forward once again.

Evolving Presentation on the Web

We started with a concept but not much sense of how to present it. No clear idea of how writing and other artforms ought best to be presented on the Web. We knew that we wanted to take advantage of the Web's ability to link layers of related material to present overlapping views. Our first approach involved multiple tables of contents, but people told us that was too confusing. All along we offered a linear "default" alternative thread through each episode's new material (called the Path of Least Resistance), but we streamlined the alternative tables of contents to minimize the extra number of links a reader might have to work her way through to get to the content.

The crux of the biscuit for any web publisher is how to engage the reader. The presumption is that this medium is a cold (or cool) one, but we believe that it has the potential to be hot (or at least warm). We're trying to bring readers into this zone and to do so we've got to make the computer screen melt away just as the book page does when you enter into the dream of a published novelist. There's some kind of leap of faith involved and we're working on earning your trust.

We've always believed we should put the content first over the the design and layout, but we wanted the design to enhance and favor the content as much as possible. Within the limitations of HTML, we've worked with an easy-to-read basic design that has gotten slightly more sophisticated as we've gone along. Much as we wanted to have margins on the screen, we held off on using tables to get them across until we were fairly sure that most or all browsers could read the pages just fine before adopting a table-based design. Ultimately, we hope to use stylesheets and return the content pages themselves to their original HTML 1.0-style simplicity; but style sheets are not standard enough yet for our liking.

Our awareness of the limitations of this medium have led us to favor shorter pieces of writing, or to require that authors break up longer works into digestible parts. In other ways, the Web format has subtly influenced both the content we've selected and the designs we've come up with, as we look for the rhythm, pacing, and meter that feels right on-line.

As someone who's always been enamored of type, I won't personally be satisfied until we can deliver a richer reading experience, but right from that we can't set any threshold too high and still get anything done. There is always time to try new design ideas next time.

We're still looking for ways to improve the navigation of the site. Most of all, we'd like to make it possible to establish corridors that unify a specific set of material, either by genre or author, or episode, etc., and make it navigable by standard context-specific back and forward links. Right now, we could do that with frames and stylesheets, but we're afraid what it might look like to users without those capabilities. We're always looking for web design and graphics prodigies who'd like to help out or make suggestions.

A future design for Enterzone might be one that is somehow simpler (the new content just piles up by genre or by author) and more sophisticated (the reader may navigate through the new and existing material in increasingly personalized ways). Similarly, we've started experimenting with stylesheets (on this page, for example), which makes the HTML coding simpler, really. This means that people using browsers that don't understand stylesheets (such as Netscape 3.0) will see a page design very much like the unadorned look we started with.

On Being Noncommercial

Finally, it was important to us when we started that we put out a noncommercial publication. Already in 1994 it was clear that advertising was becoming the dominant medium of the web and that most new publications were going to have to justify their existence in bottom-line terms. We've always tried to take a bye on that process of generating cash to keep the presses running. This has required a certain amount of sacrifice from everyone involved. The editorial board has poured countless donated hours of labor into each episode, and writers and artist give us their hard-earned work to disseminate with no more pay than the exposure it might generate.

We've deliberately skirted the boundaries between uptown and downtown publications. We like the fluidity of the underground (the New Yorker compared us to pirate radio), but we copyedit where called for and we've got an ISSN.

If anything we feel that our noncommercial nature has benefited us by not setting impossible goals for us to meet and because people tend to bend over backwards to help you when they see that you're doing something just for the love of it. Enterzone is our way of giving something back to the Net. In the recent Barbie controversy we've discovered that some commercial entities may try to control what is written and created in the noncommercial world, but we haven't given in yet, and it's not clear yet which sector enjoys the greater protection. Meanwhile, we're looking into incorporating as a nonprofit, another straight-world formality that may help us keep free to publish and say what we want.

Whitewashing the Fence

A while back I noticed that Enterzone was starting to grow its own legs. Sure, we still have to beat the bushes sometimes to find the kind of work we want, or to get entries in some of the more marginal genres. But for the most part, we've practically got a stable of writers and artists most of whom submit new material to us regularly, without being prodded. The funny thing is, we knew almost none of these people when we started. Yes, the first few episodes were built out of a personal rolodex and many longtime connections, from writing groups, other publications, schools, workplaces and so on. But very quickly people started finding us. We feel that just by providing a forum for voices that may not otherwise have had a platform, we've been blessed with fantastic content. All we have to do really is string it together and make sure the hyperlinks work.

Together with readers who've come and stayed and come back again, bookmarked our pages, and told their friends; and the other 'zine publishers who've picked and listed us on their pages, these contributors have formed around us a sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly knit coterie of well wishers and fellow travelers, and that's been payment enough.

Thanks everyone.

Christian Crumlish
Publisher and Editor

Path of Least Resistance