Slick 'n' Scruffy

An Akron pair tries to get some sparks out of Friction.

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Allen and Melissa, unfazed warriors in a smoldering dot-com world. - Walter  Novak
Allen and Melissa, unfazed warriors in a smoldering dot-com world.
Unless you're Mister Bubble, charm, candor, and a case of free bath products will only get you so far in this world. Melissa Hostetler and Allen Harrison know this, but they don't actually believe it.

Last winter, during the darkest days of the dot-coms, the pair of partially grown-up punk rockers launched an online magazine from their Akron home. What they lacked in financial backing, they made up for in wild ideas and willingness to sacrifice countless hours to their endeavor.

"We're just two kids without a million dollars," explains Melissa, an emphatic 26-year-old with cropped, red-tinted hair. Their only concession: They wouldn't give up their weekly bowling night, which is sacred.

Called Friction, the cyberzine is like a Salon for the skateboard generation, with pointed commentary on Bush's New Consumerism just clicks away from a spirited review of the latest Electric Frankenstein CD. Updated three times a month, Friction promises content for "people who can't stand mainstream culture and the zombies it creates."

Their cuddly stable of contributors includes a reformed methamphetamine dealer, an award-winning puppeteer, and a graduate of the Ringling Brothers Clown College. Melissa doesn't have any money to pay them yet, but she'll occasionally send them complimentary bottles of bubble bath as tokens of her appreciation. The suds came from a mail-order site called DaFridge, in exchange for free advertising.

Attracting an illustrious lineup wasn't hard, because Melissa and Allen already had ample publishing experience. In college, they cut, pasted, and stapled together a homemade punk-rock 'zine for about 1,000 of their closest friends.

"You're not allowed to read those, though, because they're kind of embarrassing," Melissa confesses. "It started out as teen-angst ranting. Which is how a lot of 'zines are. A lot of people just have things they need to tell everybody -- and they do. What punk-rock band is cool today and which one tomorrow.

"It was Allen and I growing up. All the things that we went through and pissed us off." Like their brief tenure as punk promoters in the apple-pie town of Hartville, near Kent, where Melissa grew up. The gig went great until a speed-metal band stole $600 worth of their sound equipment.

"They were really mean," Allen says earnestly.

"Yeah, they beat people up," agrees Melissa.

Considerably more soft-spoken than his girlfriend, Allen works as a graphic designer for corporate websites. His gaze serious, his brown hair parted tidily to one side, it seems implausible that he's ever set foot in a mosh pit.

But he was playing guitar in a thrash band called Bipolar when he met Melissa. Bipolar was pretty big in Canton, performing at the local YMCA. That really impressed Melissa, a self-described sheltered country girl whose grandparents owned a popular campground and putt-putt course.

"Until I went to college, I didn't even know you could do things like be in a punk band," she says. "I just thought 'Wow!' It was a whole new world. We started listening to all these bands, and we would go to the shows."

At the shows, kids would hand out their homemade magazines. "I was like 'Oh my goodness -- what are these things?' I was in journalism school, so a silly light bulb went off inside my head, and I was like 'Oh, I can do this.'"

The paper 'zine quickly impoverished them, costing $600 per issue to print. It took them a year to scrape together that kind of change, so they cranked out only three issues.

Cyberspace turned out to be a lot cheaper -- plus, they could post new stuff every week. As a result, they didn't have to reject that article on bullfighting in Spain to make room for the one on the joys of sumo wrestling.

Once they made the online leap, the sophistication quotient rose considerably. The diatribes on parental uncoolness disappeared, replaced by short fiction and professors' Marxist interpretations of the Middle East conflict.

Not everybody likes the change. "This is the exact same pretentious bullshit as all the rest," wrote a reader in their feedback section. "Try doing something really different. Your ad for writers says you can't pay yet. Don't hold your breath -- you'll never make any money with this crap."

They do hope to actually make money on the magazine, at least in the misty, far-off future. Twenty thousand dollars a year would be nice, Melissa says dreamily, so she could quit her job and work on Friction full-time.

"That would be really cool," she says. "We didn't go out thinking we would be rolling in it. We know if we ever make any money, it'll take a really long time."

Chip Rowe, an avid 'zine publisher who's now an assistant editor at Playboy, warns them not to expect too much from the online scene.

"The magazines that make money are the [trade] publications," says Rowe, whose own 'zine is called Chip's Closet Cleaner. "Like Oil and Gas Driller probably makes a lot of money.

"Just have a good time doing it -- that's what I'd tell 'em. I'm sure [Melissa] loves doing it and that, when she's waiting tables, she's thinking of her 'zine." Rowe admires the magazine's crisp, cosmopolitan design, even though it gets dissed by kids who think it's too slick for the punk-rock crowd.

In June, Melissa and Allen had their first really big thrill when Yahoo featured them as its Site of the Day. "It was like a miracle," says Melissa. "We were just sitting around, looking at our traffic. We were getting 800,000 hits in one day. We were like 'Woooo!'

"The next week, we did a story on Wal-Mart, and it got linked to the PBS website. Then we were like 'Wooo-Wooo!'"

Since then, life has calmed to a generalized exuberance. Waiting tables is a little less monotonous, and bowling night has gotten more sparkle. No one's any richer, but thanks to all that bubble bath, at least they're squeaky clean.

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