Ze Frank

Ze Frank at the Buzzfeed studios in Los Angeles. Photographed by Austin Hargrave.

They say you can't manufacture virality. But Ze Frank is getting pretty darn close. An initial brush with internet fame in 2001 (when a funny birthday invite he’d made racked up millions of views) sparked a fascination with the nature of shareability which in turn led to a decade-long career as an experimental internet performance artist/comedian. Infused with a dry wit and hallmark sense of play, Frank's work pioneered everything from vlogs ("The Show With Ze Frank") to user generated content ("Young Me/Now Me”). In 2012, his friend Jonah Perretti, the CEO/founder of Buzzfeed, tapped him to run the company's video division, where he oversaw initiatives like the wildly successful Tasty. These days, he heads up Buzzfeed’s newly formed Research & Development department. He’s also creating new episodes for his popular Youtube weird animal series “ True Facts.” (The most recent offering features nifty sea worms with anuses that turn into other sea worms, yay!) Below, Frank talks all things internet.

Ze hello! A belated congratulations on your new job. What does being Buzzfeed Chief R&D Officer entail?

It's actually a new discipline for us. Buzzfeed is a company that thrives on innovation so it's certainly not meant to be the sole hub of research and development. But we have a bit more flexibility to explore things that don't have direct connections to a particular brand or business. It gives us the flexibility to connect the dots between multiple parts of our organization. Some work is related to developing new kinds of formats, shows and content categories. We’re also doing stuff with data. I just got back from a trip to Beijing to get a look at Microsoft’s work in artificial intelligence.

And then there’s animation, which is kind of an R&D project in itself. About a year ago we started to think about how to introduce characters without building shows first. Because they run a deficit, right? You have to test them out and bring them to pilot and by that time you’ve already spent a lot of money. So we thought, what if we build the character IP with just very short animations—like 10 seconds or less? And then we could build them up to a point where we could bring them out to market for licensing and then use the licensing revenue to fund a sort of deeper dive into the expression of the work. We’ve got this really fun character called The Good Advice Cupcake which was created by Loryn Brantz. We just recently got to over a million Instagram followers and we're out in market with licensing right now.

So you’re testing the popularity of a character before investing in a larger narrative vehicle, like a cartoon show.

Right, so falling in love with a character might not necessarily entail telling a great story in the beginning. You have to think differently about how you are trying to get the audience to care about an animated character if you don’t have five to 10 minutes to set up a fictitious world and create different kinds of emotional states in that way. I also look at it as the chance to come up with alternative labor models for the internet age, where the cost of distribution and awareness can be a lot lower. Anyway, I could talk for a long time about what my job is. Having come from running the entertainment division, it's a really nice chance for me to get back into the creative work directly.

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“Jonah turned to me and said, 'So what are you going to do when you're irrelevant?'”
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Working at a media company on the forefront of innovation, we bet you encounter a fair share of strategy jargon and next-big-thing-isms. What’s currently being bandied around the offices? Like, what’s the new “pivot to video”?

It think it depends on what time scale you’re talking about. In terms of the immediate future, the big question is how to make the economics of the social platforms work in a way that can support great publishing. So, you know, trying to understand how Facebook Watch is going to develop and how the business model for something like an IGTV is going to come together. VR and AR… they’ve dropped a little bit. And I think that’s a good thing. We were in the trough of disillusionment, which eventually stabilizes and then can build up into a mature business. I think that Magic Leap coming out is a step forward even though it's very expensive and a limited release. AI is certainly of interest but it’s difficult to approach because it’s fairly complex and there are many different implementations. For me, there's a lot of interesting stuff coming down the line, especially from China.

Like what?

Xiaobing (or Xiaoice, as it’s known in the US) is just incredibly powerful. She’s a conversational bot you can interact with on a variety of different platforms. She recently made the jump to where she can call you on the phone and have a conversation. She's released pop songs, she can write poetry… I'm very impressed by the playful approach they've taken. I brought back a device, which is sort of like Alexa but powered by Xiaobing and gave it to one of my producers who speaks Chinese. I can't understand what's going on, but they just go back and forth. She gets frustrated and argues with the bot when she refuses to do things. It’s really wonderful to watch.

What do you think of AI’s role in publishing?

I look at the future as being human-assisted AI publishing or AI-assisted human publishing. At Buzzfeed, we empower our employees to make front-line decisions about content and we have pretty simple data loops that inform them about whether their content is doing the job that needs to be done. So in a sense we have this very bottom-up organization of creative labor that has allowed us to be very successful, especially when a new challenge comes into play. For example, Tasty was born when we realized that people weren’t listening to sound on Facebook autoplay. So we had to look for audio-independent work. And the length people seemed to be watching was somewhere around a minute and a half or so. So given those two constraints, our front-line folks tried tons of different things. And what worked was food. So that grew into Tasty. And that’s a very different model than deciding you want to get into a particular vertical and going into it with some sort of plan.

But when you’ve got a massive amount of data and brainstorms are happening everywhere, there becomes a data connectivity problem. One group might be thinking of exactly the same challenge as another group, but you don’t have the portability of those brainstorm spaces or knowledge of how similar things perform. AI can start to bridge the gap. It can get pretty exciting.

In what way?

Imagine a technology-mediated meeting space where you’re brainstorming on Father's Day and there’s a conversant bot in the room which is listening and can say things like, “There have been 10 other brainstorms that we've had around Father's Day, would you like to see some of the ideas that they had?” and not only that, but here's all the performance metrics around that topic.

Another challenge is that we use data in the form of words or numbers to measure the success of a piece of content but the work that we're doing is increasingly in the form of images and audio. So that feels like a pretty big disconnect. It essentially means that our metrics are overly biased towards rational constructs like titles, frames and words while the content itself is moving more to sub-rational and emotional states. And I think technology-assisted idea spaces can help there too. But that’s, you know, farther out stuff.

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You mentioned that BuzzFeed employees use data loops to determine whether their content is doing the job that needs to be done—what sort of jobs are you talking about?

So one of those data loops might be sharing—like we want to understand how to make content that people share. And then we can go deeper and say we want to make content that makes people share in a particular way. We kind of categorize a whole bunch of different jobs that content can do that are not just about consumption—it's not just content that can make you feel a particular way or think a particular way. It can be content that gives you an excuse to reach out to someone or allows you to express a certain part of your personality.

Historically, storytelling has been a one-way art form—you make something and then go present it to the world. At Buzzfeed, of course, content creators are consistently tweaking their work according to real time audience data feedback. What happens to the concept of authorship in this environment?

I appreciate how difficult this problem is. As a creative person, I worked for many years in a more conceptual space where I really focused on my particular synthesis. But I was also keenly aware that so much of the work that I did as an individual creator was building off the backs of trends. I think it’s just a continued tension. As I've gotten older I see it more as a philosophical problem, you know, how do you think of your own value while still appreciating how much your idea space is influenced by others? And then there’s just the reality of, you know, people want credit for things for their resumes and want to be able to point to something they’ve created. It’s very complicated.

After being an independent creator for so long what enticed you to take the Buzzfeed job?

I’d known Jonah [Peretti, Buzzfeed CEO] for a long time. We went to Dublin together to give a talk about virality and we were riding up the airport escalator and Jonah turned to me and said, “So what are you going to do when you're irrelevant?” He said it with humor but it was a great question because the business of being talent is, in a way, the struggle for relevancy. And in the meantime, I wasn't developing other skill sets like how to work in groups of people or understanding the complexities of the economy. Eventually, I approached Jonah with an idea of how Buzzfeed could faithfully translate the work they had done around viral content into video. And so that ended up in the acquisition. So it was, to some extent, a purposeful transition. I wanted a broader understanding of the mechanics of content.

Why did you gravitate toward the internet in the first place? You were a neuroscience major right?

Yes I worked in a lab and left to be in a rock band. I toured for a while and then that fizzled. So I found myself in my mid-20s with not much job experience. So I bought a computer and got hired to be a digital illustrator at an ad agency. It was the late 90s, right around the time Flash 2 came out and I guess I just happened to have the right skill sets at the right time to play. It's funny because it wasn't about how advanced the coding was; it was actually that it was so radically constraining that it led to this explosion in creativity. I figured out early on how to create these essentially Chaplin-esque videos that you could watch on browser. And that led to my first sort of viral hit, the birthday dance.

It was just supposed to be a birthday invite to friends, no? How did you feel when it went viral?

It was experiencing a viral moment that was so pure… and then the subsequent series of questions I had to ask myself about the nature of content and the internet and creative work that was tuned to this new opportunity were just incredibly exciting.

A lot of projects you went on to work on from there, like “Young Me, Now Me,” were really user generated content before such a thing existed. As an early champion of the web’s capacity for connectivity and shared experience, what is your attitude toward social media? Was it the snake in the garden?

It’s difficult to say. Social media platforms have kind of calcified now. Most of the work I did around shared creative labor, or UGC, was at a time when websites were more dominant and links seemed much more portable between platforms. The decisions that social media companies make about the way things are presented and the buttons you have to click essentially create a framework for a certain lens on the human experience, but it usually means that other parts of that experience are left out. And if you're not careful, you can start to think that these are expressions of our social capacity and that's just not true. They just happen to be a very focused lens on a particular collection of values. I almost think about it like a landscape where a platform kind of builds these mountains in the middle.

And then, on top of that, there's a desire for social media to participate in the sort of traditional economics of content which pushes you towards television and or broadcast. I feel like there’s a little bit of a restriction going on, but that's not necessarily a bad thing either. It’s just it's a little harder for me to play in the way that I used to.

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"For me, optimism doesn’t come easily. Optimism is work."

Why did you decide to start doing “True Facts” again?

Well surprisingly, BuzzFeed is not massively strong in animal content.

Really? You guys haven’t cornered the market?

Well, we have a good amount of it and some really excellent content. But not nearly with the clarity and focus that we have in other categories. We have a genius in our organization who has put a lot of his energy into that space. His name is Jack Shepard, he’s in Austin now. He really thinks very deeply about how animals are a proxy for talking about humans and at that time he was just on fire. So “True Facts” for me, number one, felt like a really good place to try to build more of an animal-focused initiative. In addition, I think that voiceover in general is a big opportunity. I mean obviously, there's podcasting. Voiceover and videocrafting are pretty hard, surprisingly, but I’d love for more people to do it. And then I just like to make things and write jokes. So maybe there's a little bit of a mental health piece to it too. But it’s been a ton of fun. I just adore the project.

Do you have any other individual projects in the works?

Mainly just “True Facts” right now. I've been kind of toying around with the idea of narratives that you can put on top of stock footage. You can just go to Getty or Shutterstock or any of those places and search for something like “couple walking on the beach” and it's just a goldmine of ridiculous stuff.

In a TED Talk, you spoke about “tech joy.” What’s bringing you tech joy these days, Ze?

I'm not sure. I don't have anything in particular that I’m focused on. I am close to level 1500 on Candy Crush so that must be worth something.


Ha. I think you mean condolences. Wait! Actually there is something that brings me great tech joy. It’s just an Instagram account but it’s so special. I’ll send you a link so you can share it with your readers.

After more than two decades working on the internet, you still seem pretty bullish about its potential. That said, are there any issues that keep you up at night fretting about the future?

For me, optimism doesn’t come easily. Optimism is work. I mean, if you look at the political climate, especially as it's mediated by technology, there's a lot to be worried about. I have moments where I feel pretty disillusioned but you know… I think of waves a lot. Waves to me are this great metaphor. If a wave is coming, you don't argue about whether it should exist. It's just a wave, it’s coming. And you can choose to do a number of different things at that moment. I usually try to figure out how I can get on that wave and do something really cool that connects to humans and the good things that we that we value. And I try to do it first.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be talking about the potential ramifications for our future and figuring out the kind of work that needs to go in. That’s just not my job. I’d rather try to get on the wave and surf. If you adopt that kind of viewpoint, you’re not trying to make the world something in particular, you're looking at how the world is moving and where it's moving towards and it's not very clear a lot of the times, but you just try to use that potential energy to get somewhere a little earlier and build something that can be a beacon in some way.

Ok, last question, what advice would you give to somebody who wanted to start a digital media company in 2018?

I'm gonna say pass on that one.

Keep up with Ze:

Youtube: zefrank1
Website: zefrank, Buzzfeed
Facebook: True Facts