Find Your Voice:
Writing for a Webzine

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Paper presented at Webzine'99.

This is a draft. Please do not quote from it.
Version of 30 July 1999.
2300 words.


Self-published magazines, or 'zines, have proliferated since the 1980's. The zine movement opposes itself to a wider culture that has been swamped by a tidal wave of fakeness. In a world where any meaningful shared symbol will turn up in a sneaker ad next month, it becomes important to fly beneath the radar of the surveillance machine of commercial culture. Several strategies can be distinguished: resisting being labeled by the machinery, embracing the machinery and tried to use it, appropriating elements of mass culture for their own uses (Jenkins 1992), and trying to stay a step ahead of it. The zine movement represents another strategy: creating a community of cultural producers who talk to one another through their creative work and personal letters without aiming for broad commercial appeal. Heartening though it is in its goals, however, in practice this community has been defined much more by what it is against, commercial culture, than by the positive alternatives it is for (Duncombe 1997).

Paper-based zines have been limited by the limitations of the medium. The Internet, however, promises a new world of popular cultural production -- webzines. It is now less necessary to focus on negating mass culture. Instead, it is time to reclaim the public sphere by creating a public space outside the machines of advertising and the media. That project has many facets: teaching and learning technical skills, plugging in the infrastructure, building Web sites, and so on. But I want to discuss one element of the larger project of reclaiming the public sphere: having a public voice.

What is a public voice? A public voice is the synthesis that lies halfway between two extremes: a private voice and a commercial voice. A private voice makes no concession to others: the only priority is honest expression, regardless of whether anyone will comprehend or identify with your words. A commercial voice wants only to produce a predetermined effect in the audience: study the audience and then tell them what they want to hear. Private voices and commercial voices both have their place, but they serve no useful purpose in the public sphere. To have a public voice, you must learn to combine two seemingly contradictory goals: being true to your own experience and values while also serving as a consciously designed intervention in an ongoing public debate. In other words, having a public voice means saying what you want to say while being confident that your audience will understand it.

The role of the audience is central in another context: MP3. MP3's explosive growth is fueled by the appeal of free stuff, of course, but at a more basic level it is fueled by musicians' fervent desire to circumvent record companies and their onerous contracts. Record companies do roughly three things: production, distribution, and promotion. Production can already be bought by the yard, and MP3 promises a new distribution system. That leaves the most complicated of a record company's functions, promoting records. Recording contracts are onerous because promotion cannot be bought by the yard: promoting a band requires all kinds of intangible and subjective strategies that cannot be easily specified ahead of time. The standard recording contract is one-sided precisely to give the record company an incentive to promote the band. When negotiating a contract with a record company, therefore, a band's only real negotiating leverage is an established audience. Whereas a band that has already built an audience is effectively contracting for production and distribution, which are commodities, a band with no existing audience can only sign the form contract and hope that the label will invest its promotion dollars in them and not someone else. In order to circumvent record companies completely, it follows that bands must learn to use the Internet to promote themselves -- that is, to build an audience.

I want to put these pieces together, and suggest that building a voice and building an audience are parts of the same process. I will focus on the area in which I have the most experience, political writing, but I believe that my comments will also apply to other kinds of writing, and to online expression in sound and images as well.

What is a voice? I will start with an important idea: that we know ourselves by internalizing others' perceptions of us. This starts with the earliest formation of the self, and it continues throughout one's life. (See, for example, Kaye 1982; Vygotsky 1978; Wertsch 1985, 1991.) That is why you are best advised to associate with sane and perceptive people. In particular, when you speak, you do not know what you have said. You may know what you *intended* to say, but you cannot know how much of your intention was actually conveyed by your words. As a result, you only know what you have actually said by listening to your interlocutor's responses. Once you internalize those responses, be they understandings or misunderstandings, you can anticipate them, and as your voice integrates the various anticipated responses it will become more complex. Faced with the rhetorical challenge that those potential responses pose, you will automatically grab hold of useful fragments of voice from your environment -- others' words and phrases, turns of speech, and so on. You appropriate these fragments and make them your own, to serve your own purposes. This is the complex relationship between individuals and their cultural surroundings: it is hard to escape the discourses around you, but you can use the elements in ways that nobody expects.

That, at least, is the situation with face-to-face conversation. The voice you develop through conversation is specific to the kinds of people you converse with, and those associations will be shaped in part by the social structure: poor kids don't internalize the responses of bankers. But at least your conversational voice develops more or less automatically. With a public voice, on the other hand, the situation is much harder. When speaking in public, you do not have the same immediate feedback from your audience. The public audience is diverse, you only hear from a few of them, the ones you hear from are not representative, and you don't get their responses in real time. As a result, where the internalized interlocutor in your head should be, instead you have a vacuum. The natural mechanisms for internalizing an audience don't work, and the results can be painful. You may sit down to write an op-ed column for the newspaper, and find that nothing comes out, or what comes out sounds nothing like an op-ed column. You aim, but you shoot wide, and the result doesn't even sound like you. You *feel* that vacuum, and it sucks all kinds of paranoid fantasies into it. That is where stage fright comes from, or freezing up at the idea of contributing to an online forum.

What to do? The solution starts with understanding the problem. Don't blame yourself. Ride out the paranoia. Don't retreat into silence, or into a private or commercial voice, if that is not what you want. Instead, get a strategy. Don't wait for your public voice to grow automatically, because it won't. Build it. Consciously choose to start out easy, get comfortable, and ramp up. (See generally Vico (1990 [1709]).) Some of the possible strategies should be obvious by now:

Those few strategies are easy enough. To consider the matter more deeply, however, we need to back up and consider why you would want a public voice. What the Internet mostly does is connect people who have something in common. Take the case of people with cancer. In the old days, if you had cancer then you were all alone. It was you and the medical establishment. Today, however, if you get cancer then you get an account on an ISP and join a community of people who have experience with the situation. And the same thing applies to law librarians, stamp collectors, and gay kids in small towns: each can get online and find a community of others like them. Call each of these groups a community of practice (Agre 1988, Lave and Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998). Every community of practice has its collective identity and its ways of thinking together: rumors, associations, griots, newsletters, and so on. And the Internet is here to amplify this effect. Some communities have strong mechanisms for this kind of collective thinking, and others have weak ones. Our job is to strengthen them.

In order to have a public voice, you have to care about something. So figure out what you care about. A provisional guess will do, since your interests and identity can only be discovered as your voice starts to grow. Caring about something is a big deal, and it's hard for some people. It's not just being against something, and it's not just wanting to have a community. It means having values that make the world make sense. Once you know what you care about, then you can hunt for a community. Maybe that community already exists, or maybe you have to build it. The point is that your voice is not just your own voice -- it is also the voice of a community.

That is the key: you are not alone. You may feel alone, but that just means that you haven't found your community yet. Although you are surely unique in many ways, you are also human, and you are a product of places and times. Whatever you care about, no matter how personal it feels, lots of other people care about it too. Your job is to imagine that community of practice out there, its members all thinking together, however quietly, about the topic that most concerns you. Your community needs a language, it needs an association, it needs a clubhouse, and it needs a voice. Your voice. That's how it works. Your zine is your hook in the ocean, your magnet attracting all of the other people who share your values. As you hear from them, you will have the interlocutors you need to develop your voice. You'll never hear from most of them, but you can imagine them. Imagining your community also prevents burnout: your community's members are all out there doing great things, and so the whole weight of the world is not on your shoulders. Burnout helps no one.

Having set out to build your community by circulating your zine, what should you say? Here are some rules of thumb:

(1) Say something interesting right away. You can't noodle around with ten paragraphs of prefatory throat-clearing. If your readers don't know who you are, you'll have one paragraph to say something. Otherwise they will move along to the next page, or the next message. Interesting to who? To you.

(2) Say something new. Meaning, new to you. If you've heard it before, so has your audience. It should be real and spontaneous, so that it's your voice and not someone else's. Notice the tension between this rule and the strategy of copying someone else's voice for a while.

(3) Have a point. Know what it is.

(4) Talk about current events. If attention in your community is focused on a breaking news story or an ongoing controversy, use that issue as the point of departure for your reflections. That's what pundits do.

(5) Give voice to the community's values. Give people words to explain what they care about. These words should communicate clearly to members of the community, and they should also communicate to others. You can provide a public service by learning how to explain your values to people who don't yet share them, thereby developing a public voice, and then sharing your voice with others.

(6) Speak to the healthy part of the person. Maybe your audience has bought some propaganda, or maybe they are wounded and acting out a trauma. Don't talk to those parts. Don't fight with them, don't sympathize with them, don't persuade them. Talk to the parts that share your values. Find ways of talking to the healthy parts of the person without pushing the buttons of the other parts. If your audience has developed antibodies against a certain word or phrase, find some other word or phrase.

(7) Don't flame. Ranting is okay, but not flaming. The difference is that ranting communicates a coherent and original argument, whereas flaming is pure redundant negativity. If you do rant, be sensible most of the time.

(8) Try things. Find a voice that you're comfortable with, but keep pushing it in different directions. See what it feels like. Keep doing the things that feel good.

(9) Let it become part of your life. You'll find yourself spontaneously rehearsing things to say. Say the good ones. It gets much easier with practice. The vacuum and paranoia will dissipate.

(10) Let it take time. Keep sending your voice out there. As time goes by, one by one your audience will drop you simple notes to say how much they like your work. One by one your audience will drop you simple notes to say that you've changed their life.

//* References

Philip E. Agre, Designing genres for new media, in Steven G. Jones, ed, CyberSociety 2.0: Revisiting CMC and Community, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1998.

Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, London: Verso, 1997.

Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kenneth Kaye, The Mental and Social Life of Babies: How Parents Create Persons, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Giambattista Vico, On the Study Methods of Our Time, translated by Elio Gianturco, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. Originally published in 1709.

Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman, Harvard University Press, 1978.

Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

James W. Wertsch, Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind, Harvard University Press, 1985.

James V. Wertsch, Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.