The Web - the only significant new communications medium since television - may have been invented to serve the scientific community, but it is now predominantly commercial. Not surprisingly, in these early days it's the IT business that makes best use of it. You want the specification of Hewlett-Packard's latest printer or Compaq's latest laptop? It's yours for the keying of a URL (that's a uniform resource locator - the address you want to retrieve).
The Web is also a harmless place in which to ride hobby-horses. You can show off expertise or promote views without paying the print bills of conventional vanity publishing or political pamphleteering. Quite a few people seem to spend their leisure hours actually producing Web pages of this sort, despite the fact that hardly anyone sees the result.
But what about proper publishing, where people write stuff that's entertaining, stimulating, informative or simply well constructed, and make it available to an expectant public? The shelves of WH Smith don't carry stacks of computer peripherals catalogues or activist pamphlets. They groan under the weight of news, views, reviews and information in the form of magazines, for which the paying public has an apparently insatiable appetite. Does the Web have a part to play here?
Well, yes: the Web has its equivalent to a magazine - collections of electronic pages which we may as well get used to calling a webzine. (You'll also see them called e-zines or cyberzines, but these terms are perhaps best reserved for electronic magazines in general, whether in Web format or not.) For the Internet purist, there is only one true kind of webzine - an online magazine owing its existence purely to the Web, unrelated (or at most loosely related) to any printed publication. These independent webzines (as I call them) are usually a labour of love; but some big money is going into projects of this kind, presumably with advertising revenue in mind.
Then there are spin-offs from existing paper publications - designed, usually, to promote sales of the paper parent. I've identified three varieties: replica webzines contain much of what the parent printed magazine contains; sample webzines contain a taste of what the printed version contains but are careful not to give away too much; and mimic webzines contain none of what the parent contains but are composed of new material with the same flavour. We'll be looking at all these kinds of zine in our new weekly Newsstand feature. We'll be keeping you abreast of the whole webzine scene - looking into special areas of interest as well as keeping an eye on general zines.
You might expect webzines to be a radically new kind of publication; the Web is, after all, radically different from print and broadcast media. Access to information stored on the Web is at present virtually free (although this state of affairs is likely to change); information is conveyed from publisher to reader instantly, so it can be absolutely up to date; a given Web document can provide you with instant access to other relevant documents (stored anywhere in the world) via hyperlinks; and we look at the Web through the stressful, low- resolution window of a computer screen. But many of the present generation of webzines seem oblivious to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. What's most depressing is that many webzines are perpetuating the central problem of the Web: the difficulty of figuring out what's worth looking at.
If you see an interesting magazine on a real newsstand, you can flick through it and in 30 seconds get a good idea of what it has to offer. On the Web, there is no flicking. If you're lucky, there may be an explanatory page for new readers - but don't count on it. If not, either you divine from the opening graphics whether the editors are on your wavelength, and covering things you're interested in, or you explore the site in the hope that they may be. And to explore a webzine and get a feel for its contents takes serious fractions of an hour, as I know to my cost.
When you get your paper magazine home, you can filter out what you want to read with the merest glance at each page. A webzine is much more ponderous, and it's crucial that you get a good contents page as a guide to where to go on your weekly visit to the site. But more often the editors seem to take a perverse delight in making their contents pages cryptic. I am surprised, too, by the sheer wordiness of some of these sites. Some are clearly not designed to be read online but to be downloaded, printed out and read in paper form. Some observers seem to think this is a cute use of the medium - you know, cutting out all that wasteful transportation of paper. I see the point. But if I want to read 5,000-word essays on foreign affairs I don't want to wear out my LaserJet printing them, thanks. I'll buy them at the newsstand, printed on both sides of glossy paper with high-resolution pictures included.
And then there's the matter of links, the central idea of the Web: instant access to related material. In principle, an article in a webzine is capable of opening up a whole world of information on the subject in hand; the trouble is, giving useful links involves work in finding useful sites - a lot more work than typing unlinked words. Some articles include a peppering of useful links, but most do not.
So much for use of the medium. What about the raw content? Once you've identified something interesting, what do you find? Not surprisingly, you find a wide variation. Some of the people generating webzine copy are being paid proper money to write it; they have presumably been selectively recruited and are being managed by someone else who is being paid even more proper money. Others are doing it because ... well, because they've got nothing else to do with their time, I guess.
No doubt in time magazine publishing on the Web will be as professional as it is on paper, and those involved will be exploiting the strengths of the medium and compensating as well as they can for its weaknesses. Then, deciding what to spend time on will be easy. Until then, let Newsstand be your guide n