Web Video Pioneer Ze Frank, BuzzFeed Form Voltron Of Virality

Ze Frank has been making viral content before such a beast was named and cataloged. Now he plans to “crack YouTube wide open” for BuzzFeed.

Web Video Pioneer Ze Frank, BuzzFeed Form Voltron Of Virality

Ze Frank was making GIFs when people thought GIFs were a brand of peanut butter. He went viral in 2001, before the phrase itself did, with an animated, interactive wedding invitation called “How To Dance Properly” that he made for a friend. From March 2006 to March 2007, he posted the show with ze frank, a daily web commentary show every weekday without missing an episode. It was social before social was a thing; he floated hashtag-like catchphrases before hashtags existed; he made Earth Sandwiches. The format, his tactics, and even his personality have been widely imitated.


And yet, Ze has operated mostly as a consultant and behind-the-scenes genius since he first exploded as an on-screen personality.

Then last week, BuzzFeed announced it was expanding its efforts to understand what people share by acquiring Facebook data company Kingfish Labs) and Ze’s games company. BuzzFeed also hired Ze and two of his three employees. “Facebook and Twitter have been huge for the growth of BuzzFeed so far and YouTube has been the missing piece,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told All Things D’s Peter Kafka. “Ze will lead the YouTube charge for us.”

Frank took a minute during a flight with a nearly drained battery and spotty Wi-Fi to answer a few questions about how he plans to lead that charge … and whether we’ll see his ass-slappin’ awesome show rise to viral levels again.

FAST COMPANY: What’s different about content that goes viral on YouTube and content that goes viral on Twitter and Facebook?

ZE FRANK: First off: Wooooo Hooooo! very excited about this deal!

I’ve been super impressed with what BuzzFeed has done on Facebook with inspiring list posts and on Twitter with political scoops, but YouTube is a giant social platform that has its own quirks and oddities and will require some new approaches. In addition to the basic principles of shareable media, video as a format requires some attention to narrative; even in something simple you want an arc and a payoff. There are time constraints on holding people’s attention. The expectations of content are also unique to the YouTube community. In 2006, when I posted a silly video, younger fans would love it and older fans would lament that I wasn’t being serious enough. The reverse seems to be true today. Younger audiences have an appetite for more sophisticated media, layered contexts, more subtlety, more honesty and sincerity. I’m excited to continue playing with the YouTube community and to work with that audience to find and develop new conventions that are highly social and native to YouTube.


How has what makes web video successful changed since the show with ze frank?

So much has changed! YouTube has become more mature, both as a platform and as a community. So much content has been added in almost every conceivable category that there are no more free passes on just getting there first. I think there are greater expectations for audience participation, the kind of participation that makes a real impact in a show’s community. The audience has become much more sophisticated and capable. I think that there is a greater desire for authentic, sincere media that deals with emotional content and some of the more human facets of life. Mobile video is now a reality and a force to be reckoned with. I think it is essential to think about how people interact with their phones; how they consume content and how they share.

How have the opportunities in web video changed?

Video has become much more social, and as a result there are many opportunities to use video as a way to connect people, to give them opportunities to play and participate, to make things together and have a shared social experience. I think we are just at the beginning of really exploring what social video is and what we can make of it. It’s very exciting for me personally, because I have been playing in the world of participation and community for years and now have an opportunity to try things out on a much larger scale with some amazing people.

What do you have in mind for BuzzFeed video/what are you building?

My plan is to crack YouTube wide open! I want to make shareable content that is playful, serious, weird, exciting, and highly social. I’m going to explore the next generation of formats for social video, create participatory play spaces for YouTubers and BuzzFeeders. I’m going to hire super-talented people that are interested in trying to understand all of the opportunities that exist for engaging awesome content, and we are going to open a studio in L.A. that will be the best place to work in the universe. I also plan on getting one of those single-serve espresso machines.


How will you use data in creating it?

I think of this as part art and part science. I think you use your gut and creativity to make lots of content that you think will work and then use the data to try and get closer to your audience by focusing on what they respond to. Quickly! I love this approach. I can’t imagine doing it any other way, and what I love about BuzzFeed is that this model is central to the way they (we) think about media. Get great people doing what they do best and give them the tools to understand how to do it even better!

Do you have any set ideas about what makes a viral video?

Instead of thinking about virality, I think the focus should be on what makes something worth sharing to begin with. I think emotion plays a big role. What do people really love, what gets people to feel something, what sorts of experiences can you give people that they would want to give to someone else–could be a laugh, or a moment of feeling connected to something, a moment of a guilty pleasure, a moment of finding out something about yourself and wanting to see if it is true for someone you care about. Thinking about it on a more personal level keeps the process of making content grounded in something real and approachable, and I think that results in better media overall.

Your show was awesome. Shouldn’t it have turned into a super-successful startup that is competing with BuzzFeed?

If I competed against BuzzFeed I wouldn’t get to work with some of the most creative talented people I know! Jonah Peretti, Ben Smith, Jon Steinberg, Matt Stopera, Jack Shepherd, Scott Lamb, Doree Shafrir, Andrew Gauthier, Peggy Wang … and the list goes on. It’s just super exciting to get to collaborate with all of these amazing people and to get a chance to make something amazing! And I will continue to make new episodes for A Show With ZeFrank!


… A show must go on 🙂

Reporting by Sarah Kessler

Follow Tyler Gray @tgraydar

[Image: Aaron Salcido]


About the author

Tyler Gray is the former Editorial Director of Fast Company and co-author of the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out in fall 2014. He previously authored The Hit Charade for HarperCollins and has written for The New York Times, SPIN, Blender, Esquire, and others