In lieu of the usual bio paragraph that would appear in this space, we just offer this list of links:
Ze Frank's New Year's Resolutions for 2006
His bio for NYU's Tisch School of the Arts
His website, zefrank.com
tompeters.com asks ...
Let's start with your name. Is Ze (pronounced "zay") your real name?
ZF: My given name was Hosea, the biblical name. I went by that until I was around 14. I was given the nickname by a friend of mine, and there was a brief period after college where I tried to go back to Hosea. It's still legally Hosea, but I haven't gone by it for quite a while. But it's kind of remarkable, you can say the word Hosea and even specify, spell it out to people, and all they hear is "Jose." I did some temp work at the time. I was touring with a band, and just on the basis of mishearing my name, I was put in the Latin American division of Travelers, trying to answer a call from Argentina when I didn't speak any Spanish.
Challenging. So what does your driver's license say?
ZF: Hosea. If you ever want to send me a check, that's what it would be made out to as well.
Excellent. I'll remember that. You vaulted to fame a few years back from your website with a piece that was called "Dancing Properly" or "Learning to Dance."
When was that?
ZF: That was in March 2001. Here's the story behind that. I had left a neuroscience major behind to tour with a band [Dowdy Smack]. When that fell through, I became an illustrator and then an art director for a web-based company. I was having fun making little websites and made one as an invitation to my 29th birthday party. I sent it to about 17 of my friends and within around three days of sending it, over a million people a day were coming to it. So it was fairly accidental.
Didn't you have some kind of server meltdown issues?
ZF: Absolutely. The first 24 hours it spiked ridiculously and I was shut down by Earthlink because it was a free site. In the intervening time of maybe 10 hours before the stop gap was implemented automatically, on a 10-cents-per-megabyte overage charge, I had already accumulated a $30,000 bill.
I frantically called the company. I was fearful that I was going to have to pay. There was a guy right around that time that a little viral thing happened to as a result of a psycho ex-girlfriend, and he had to pay.
Mostly I just wanted to keep the thing going because I was fascinated by it. Eventually this guy called me who said he was the vice president at Earthlink. He was just a renegade dude who wanted to hook me up. He could put his fingers into the command stream there and turn off my bills and turn my site back on. So he did that for me, and eventually I came to an oral agreement with them that I could host a site there if I put an ad on the site. After management changed they booted me out, and I found Paul Phillips from Phillips Data, who is incredibly generous and now hosts the site.
So who was this angel at Earthlink?
ZF: His name is John Miller. There are still little remnants of me thanking him here and there on the site.
What happened to you at that moment when this little viral piece exploded? Did your life change dramatically at that moment? Or did you just get famous and continue about your business?
ZF: Well it's a very particular kind of famous. People tend to put it in quotation marks. You have this phenomenon where millions of people are looking at something you did, but it really has nothing to do with you. It has its own life at that point. The pieces become famous but the author really has nothing to do with it.
I stayed awake for three and a half days constantly monitoring the situation. The most profound effect was that my inbox was flooded. I was getting 100 emails every three minutes from all over the world asking me what the hell this thing was. And not knowing what the proper etiquette was in this situation, I decided to answer all of them. To this day I have a policy of trying to answer all the email that I get. It's in the 40,000â€"50,000 range in four years.
At the time, I had a definite sense that I could do something with all the people that were interested. I didn't want them to go away. I decided that while the traffic was there, I would just make new stuff every day and put it online to see whether I could keep some of the audience, get them to make things, do stuff, and respond to me. I didn't have a job at that point; I had left to do freelance work. But I basically didn't do any for-money work for about eight months and just made stuff.
There was a moment where I was thinking about trying to cash in on it. But it became obvious that the $80,000 or so I might make in a year, in the first year anyway when the traffic was high, was insignificant. The damage from advertising outweighed the benefit.
So you thought about cashing in?
ZF: I did. To me, a Coke ad on a page turns something from funny to clever. There was a neat sense of discovery that I was hearing in the emails that were sent. People really felt like they were the only people that had come across it. I would get these really great emails where people would say, "I just found your site and I forwarded it to all my friends, so expect a bump in your traffic." Meanwhile the site was being served out of multiple machines.
That sense of discovery is an interesting point. That is the web, in a way. You're sitting at home on your computer, you find something, and you have no sense of the rest of the audience.
ZF: Absolutely. There are two points to make about that. One is, yes, counters don't do a very good job. Unless you're very, very deliberate about showing the other footprints that are there simultaneously by using some kind of imaging, there's very little way of feeling the other bodies.
The other point is, I make a lot of stuff that's consumed by a large audience, but I rarely get an opportunity to watch them interact with it. This is different than someone who hangs a painting in a gallery who can watch people stroll by, or people that put installations in museums where they can see how long people play with something.
You do have a lot of interactive things. One could spend days doing all the stuff at zefrank.com. For instance, you can record a Christmas request through the microphone on your computer.
ZF: You mean asking Santa for something? Well that's fake. [Laughter] The joke is that this elf doesn't understand you and just repeats back something idiotic.
Oh, I see. There are a lot of things where people are participating, so in a way you are seeing people interact with it.
ZF: But there's a difference between seeing the final product and seeing people interact with it. And that's fairly important for what I do. One thing that has congealed in retrospect, it wasn't a premise that I started out with, is what the minimal criterion for authorship is. Understanding what the minimal gesture is that makes someone feel like this thing that they made is theirs. The minimal part is because I'm interested in garnering an audience and keeping it. We work with an increasingly short span of time. So yes, absolutely, I'm interested in what the small steps are: How easy can you make it to have people create something that transitions from passivity to activity and then hopefully to interactivity after that.
The point is that there's a big, big difference between seeing a drawing that a little kid made on one of the tools and sitting in front of a computer with that little kid and watching them playing with it. Watching them actually interact with the piece yields so much amazing insight into how to make it simpler, better, how to create the rewards for just pressing a button.
So you are trying to explore how you can be with somebody who is interacting with your creativity tools?
ZF: I'm not actively pursuing it to the point where I bring people together in a room and user-test something, rather, anytime I have the opportunity to watch people play, I do. At a certain point in the process of making something, an important step is to bring myself out of the role of an author and transition over to a player. I have to forget the goals that I set as an author, "I want people to do x," and try to experience it from the outside.
Right. On the one hand you're an author of these things that enable other people to do—let's use the word creative here—creative things. But on the other hand you're an entertainer. Or do you not like to think of yourself as an entertainer?
ZF: Absolutely. I think we should go back to your loaded statement there about what creativity is at some point, because it's of extreme interest to me.
Let's go there now. What is creativity?
ZF: Well to back up, the interest that I have is how people self-identify as creative, and how that self-identification ends up molding what they do. I just taught a course related to this at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for the graduate level technology and design program, ITP. It was a course called "The Creative Act," and you can see the course description on their site.
The idea behind the course concerned people that self-identify as creative. People who are rewarded for their drawing or their music through school come up with this idea of themselves as being artistic. What is remarkable to me is that the question that you just asked me, "What is creativity?" is never posed to these people. So they surf on this very, very amorphous term and it grows into almost a mythology.
The purpose of the class was to examine how different disciplines look at the term "creativity." The course was divided into critical studies and practice. The critical studies side looked at how it is written about by artists like Twyla Tharp and Marcel Duchamp, managerial psychologists like James Adams with Conceptual Blockbusting and Edward de Bono, philosophers like Foucault, Heidegger, and Marx, traditional psychologists like Robert Sternberg, Mihali Csikszentmihalyi, and Arthur Koestler, and also emerging disciplines like games structuralism: Huizinga, Caillois, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.
Simultaneously on the practice side, I had them make stuff every day and post it online. There were 23 students and by the end of it they made over 1,800 pieces of work. Once a week they would have to do something called an Impossible Project. The Impossible Project was to do something they had never done and was probably not feasible to do in a week's time. For example, write, illustrate, and publish a children's book in a week. Or learn to play an instrument you've never played, write a song and record it.
The end product was less interesting to me than how they approached it; to use these opportunities to confront some of the stereotypes they had about media, the kind of blocks they had, and also the processes that came naturally to them. It was fascinating. I didn't want a whole bunch of hindsight narratives of their successes to drive their idea of what their creative process was or what creativity means for them. I wanted them all to get broken down to the same level and push against something as a class. It was really wonderful.
Personally, I don't really think of creativity as a noun. This romantic post-enlightenment notion of an essence being endowed to people that's responsible for their ability to produce novel things is weird to me.
Meaning that it's not a special thing and that everyone has it?
ZF: I would grant that there's probably an innate portion and a learnable portion. But like anything, the degree of variance of that innate portion is probably nothing compared to the potential that one has to exercise, practice, and learn. There's probably an order of magnitude difference. Obviously there are going to be outliers, people who have an extraordinary amount of innate sense. But for most of the population, that difference can be swallowed up by just study and practice.
Right, like what Gordon MacKenzie (Orbiting the Giant Hairball) observed when he was traveling around the country visiting schools. In first grade he'd ask the kids, "Who is an artist?" and everyone raised their hands. But by the time he got to the sixth grade, only three kids in the back did.
ZF: Right. This is something we can spend hours on, this notion of self-identification and these conceptual structures that imply a certain kind of activity. You say that you're an artist, that means you do X, and not doing X seems to imply that you're not an artist. What interests me is this juxtaposition of things that we do naturally that are highly creative but we don't deem creative.
For example: lying. We impose an internal ban on the conceptual formation of lying. We say to ourselves, "Don't even think about lying." The more difficult ethical choice is to allow yourself to go there and have the ability in your mind to lie about everything but then not perform it.
In my mind, that's where the ethical responsibility should really exist. You should let yourself lie if you want to lie, just don't perform the lie. It's pretty amazing when you ask people to brainstorm and not show it to anyone, and you find later they inhibited themselves from writing certain things down because they'd hit some sort of an ethical line, even though they weren't going to show it to anyone. That is a big hurdle.
Meaning we should allow ourselves to lie more? In a way, by not allowing ourselves to lie, at least to ourselves, we're editing the way that people edit themselves when they're writing. In any creative writing class, the first thing a good instructor tries to do is get people to learn how to and allow themselves to write freeform. Along the way we all have been trained to edit even our thoughts.
ZF: Right. I'm not saying that you shouldn't edit, but I think it should be on the performance side, not the thought side. I'm not advocating lying here, but I point it out as a limitation we give ourselves.
For example: writing comedy. When I'm writing ideas for a sketch, I catch myself very often thinking of something, saying to myself, "No, that's too obvious," and then not writing it down. Over time, that becomes a serious block. I'm negating things based purely on my conception of it being too obvious. That is an arbitrary decision because to other people it might not be obvious.
Good point. On the other hand, in writing comedy you have to amuse yourself. Clearly you're interested in a more complex kind of humor, from what I saw in your act at Pop!Tech this past October.
ZF: I think that's a great example. The whole bit on airplanes came about when I was sitting in an airplane. When I write humor, I try to pay incredible attention to commonplace things. So I'm on a plane all the time and I realized that I wasn't writing anything about those experiences because the airplane joke is the red-headed stepchild of the comedy world. A plane joke spells death.
At that point I said, screw it, I'm going to try to write a whole show on planes. It's the most obvious kind of space to work in, but let's see if we can do something unusual. That meant going to a lot of obvious places, writing them down, and then looking at them again to see if there was anything unusual about them.
So you decided to fight through your obviosity editing mode.
It is very funny. You start with the airline safety card, so you're grounded in a real thing that, as you say, everyone has seen. You went right to the first little picture on the card where it shows the airplane having landed on water. And anybody above the age of nine looks at that and says, "Wait a minute. This 727 ain't going to land on the surface." [Laughter]
ZF: I think it's only happened three times in history and that was within 60 feet of the runway.
So what comes to my mind is the picture of the 727 cart wheeling across the ocean somewhere near a Caribbean island that tried to land on the water.
ZF: Right. Breaking apart into little bits. Now I'm trying to develop that show further by looking into the blanket notions of what safety is. Because I think this idea of safety is, again, another wispy, amorphous, mythological construct. You ask people to define what safety is and the second they start talking it kind of falls apart.
Good point. We have a notion. The first thing I think is seatbelt.
But you're safer just not getting into the car.
ZF: True. There's a guy named Dan Gilbert who is a professor at Harvard who does a lot of really interesting stuff, not necessarily on safety but on our ability to forecast as humans. He told me about a study where people are given two options, they can either have a smoke detector that one in a thousand times will not go off during a life-threatening fire. The other one will actually start the life-threatening fire one in a million times. Eighty percent of people choose the one that has a thousand times more likelihood of killing you, because we have this sense that the things that should protect us should not harm us.
ZF: I think that there's a really interesting parallel, for example, to the response to Katrina and 9/11. In terms of the damage and the overall impact on the city, 9/11 was far less catastrophic than Katrina, but there was a direct moral outrage associated with it. As a result, we have this massive restructuring around the globe centered on anti-terrorism, whereas the danger from things like tsunamis and hurricanes is much more dreadful in a way but we don't attribute the same kind of psychological horror to it.
Well, we give nature a lot of leeway. We can't control nature, but we like to think we can control humans.
ZF: Exactly. All of this is interesting to me, especially when it comes to creating graphical representations of safety instructions. [Laughter] There's an interesting memorandum that went around the FAA, which said that too much information is a bad thing. By supplying too much information on this subject, it works against the notion of trying to make people feel safe. You have to strike a balance. When you look at these cards, I would say the balance overall has been struck far towards the minimal information side. Although I heard that one airline, I don't know which, maybe a Philippino airline, has a supplementary card that tells you what all the little sounds are that you hear. "Two minutes after we take off you'll hear a whirring sound and a thump. That's the landing gear retracting." I thought that was such a nice gesture on their part.
I think that's a great idea. I've always thought that was the landing gear coming up. But then I wonder, is that a cargo door opening up and stuff falling out?
So you're interested in humans and foibles and psychology and how we think and how we delude ourselves, but are there applications in the workplace? How do you make a living, Ze? I like your '06 resolution that you promise to come up with a better explanation of what you do for a living than "making stuff." [Laughter]
ZF: I get money in a variety of ways. My main interest at this point is packaging information in ways to get people to see ordinary things in a different way. It doesn't really matter to me how that's done, whether it's a live show or a video segment or a written piece. It's infotainment, putting a personal spin on information. I'll talk a little bit more about what I'm trying to do now, but up until now, the money came in from consulting. I don't do very much design work any more; a couple of years ago, that's where I got most of my money. I was working with ad firms like Saatchi and Saatchi or ChiatDay. I made little mini-sites and toys for them, or licensed content.
Things that were in effect an extension of your website?
ZF: Sometimes. Sometimes I would make new stuff for them and then after the fact play a version of it on my site. Like the snowflake-maker, which is a little fakey 3-D snowflake-maker, was first made for ChiatDay. But over time I've done a lot more consulting about building communities on the marketing side. Companies are interested in what I do because I have such direct access to a large community of people and have been trying to understand what gets them to make stuff and do stuff and talk. I've worked with MSN and did some marketing work for Sony.
"Learn How to Dance Properly" featured you as this crazy-looking character that's easy to identify with. How do you translate that into marketing techniques for a mass audience for an organization like MSN?
ZF: "How to Dance Properly" is one of the least interesting things really. What people call viral marketing or contagious media is subject to a very weird set of rules. The idea that I could coach people on becoming viral is almost absurd. I have my own thoughts about why things become contagious. It has very little to do with the content itself. By showing people the way I've come to that space, I think I can help them understand it.
I think participatory projects are more interesting. Like the Fiction Project, for example, on the zefrank.com message board. There are around 40,000 posts of people writing collaborative fiction. Or the contests or any of the toys that have gotten people to draw 3,000 or 4,000 drawings. It makes me think about how people communicate, how they get a sense of authorship, how they get a sense of loyalty towards the site or an interactive space, and how they present themselves as individuals in that space.
Have you, for instance, thought about writing a book on whatever it is you're doing?
ZF: I think that the first step is to just write some papers. Not academic papers, but collections of these thoughts and publish them. In terms of a book, the book that I'm interested in writing is actually about using the process of writing humor as a way to come up with new ideas, for whatever business you're in. I've been doing that increasingly in consulting. It begins by teaching people about the dynamics of writing jokes. The process of coming up with something that's funny or that stands out or reverberates; to me it's a great entrance into this world of creative thinking.
Over the holidays someone gave me a CD of Terry Gross's interviews with comedians. Apparently Drew Carey had tried being a stand-up comic, and he was awful. Then he said he bought a book that told you how to write a joke. He just followed that formula and that's how he's written all of his jokes ever since.
ZF: Wow. I should get the name of that book.
I don't think he mentions the name.
ZF: What I find fascinating, to use the marketing world as an example, is that you walk into a space where they're grappling with a failed marketing effort, you sit down and write jokes about the products and you immediately discover areas that are taboo. For example, we were doing this exercise with a very high-end line from an electronics company. They're gorgeously engineered pieces of work. We're talking about $2,000 headphones, televisions that start at $10,000 or more. The marketing effort up to that point was nature shots. [Laughter] When we started trying to write jokes, it became pretty obvious that nobody wanted to touch the fact that these are items designed for snobs. Nobody wanted to touch the question of who the potential audience is for these hyper-gorgeous but ultimately useless objects. That's probably not the best way of describing it.
ZF: But I stress, they're absolutely beautiful. The CD player plays a very particular kind of CD. The amazing thing is that you throw the disc down on the tray and it auto-stirs the CD with these gorgeous pistons that come up. It's beautiful to look at and it hovers in mid-air as it spins. Just by writing jokes you come to realize that this audience might be snobs, but they're experience junkies. So if you can figure out how to talk about that population in a way that's funny but is also respectful, you can come up with a lot of neat ways to communicate with them. If you don't, they talk about you behind your back. You're not in that conversation.
People always talk about the positive ends of viral communication. There's certainly the negative aspect, too. Look what happened with the Sony rootkit stuff or the Kryptonite lock. That's viral propagation that companies don't want.
I had this old Kryptonite lock and it was funny, all I could think every time I used it was, oh Kryptonite really screwed up. But maybe they survived.
ZF: Yes, but their stock took a huge hit because they refused to get in on the conversation. They pretended that nothing was going on. The same thing happened with Sony. There was a malicious piece of software that was installed on Sony CDs. But Sony was so late in responding.
Right. The old corporate mindset was hide, hide, hide, protect, protect, protect, lie, lie, lie. Now, with the webification of the world, information is so instantaneously dispersed. A lot of people don't understand that yet. I think it will be a great thing for the world, to realize you'd better just get out in front of the issue. Think of the coal mine tragedy in West Virginia. At least the head of the company was out there and talking to the media right away. I think people are beginning to understand that first, you've got to communicate, and second, it's best to do it in person. That was a big lesson of 9/11 with Rudy Giuliani. He was there, he was on the street, and he was visible.
ZF: You're hitting on something dead-on—the difference between broadcast and conversation. When you say communication, what you're really talking about is developing a knack for conversation. Conversation is not towing some line, but being reflexive. A real-time conversive quality needs to be developed in a lot of companies. They're modeled generally around a slow-release process with a fixed goal to release the product and then measure against that goal. Yet more and more things happen that they have to deal with immediately, which can totally reframe their product. I think of it as reading the hack. If you release a product that's designed to do X, you find out that 50 percent of the audience is doing Y with it; your product is also about doing Y.
Philip Tetlock [Expert Political Judgement: How Good is It? How Can We Know?] argued, do you want a person or an organization that's only good at one thing, or do you want the person in touch with a lot of different things and who can move quickly? The old '50s, '60s mindset of work was that we want one person who knows one subject area really deeply. It's taking us a long time culturally to come out of that.
ZF: For a concrete example, I see this with the emerging online video market. Companies are having a very hard time figuring out how to approach this space. Is it going to be consumed like television content is consumed? People are making products using old models. The reality is they really have no idea what the usage patterns in this space are going to be. They don't even know what kind of devices will be used for viewing content. They think cell phones, but who knows? What about projective screens? I think Bill Buxton is doing a lot of work on screens that can be projected onto walls and then interacted with by multiple people. We just have no idea what this space is going to look like in five years, let alone ten years. I think it requires people who are incredibly flexible and are constantly reframing how they think about that space.
I think of it as the transition from rapid prototyping to rapid release. You've got to get your product out there and used and then learn from how people are using it.
It's like when I was a kid, my friends and I played army games. This was in the '60s and we were still in the hangover from World War II, so we were out killing Nazis or doing spy stuff with James Bond. We would just start acting out something together and then one kid would say, "Oh no, wait a minute, this isn't working. Let's go back and start over." And you don't have any problem with that as a child. It's starting the story and then reinventing. Saying, "You know what? That's wrong; we've got to do this instead." What you were saying, at least for me, sounds like that ability of kids to just keep reinventing, blowing it up and saying, "Oh, no, we can't do that," or "I can't die that way," or "No, you've got to save me later." It's just totally fluid.
ZF: Right. I think in that particular example, it's important to note that everyone in that game was supplying new context on the fly. If somebody shifted the context by putting an imaginary submarine in your path or something like that, you would have to adjust.
ZF: That constant shift of context is exactly what you have to be sensitive to in the market now. Friendster.com is a favorite target of mine because of what I see as classic mistakes on their part. In the beginning this Fakester thing started happening where people would sign in as "The Hulk" and then people would sign in as "Ralph Macchio" and the Hulk would write a testimonial to Ralph Macchio, talking about going out for Chinese food. It was hilarious and weird. There were tons of people signing on. Friendster completely shut it down. It was a wonderful use that got people excited, but it didn't fall into Friendster's idea or goal of how it should work. A few years later they introduced The Fakester mentality back into friendster. They actually introduced it as a PR move.
Also, instead of using Friendster as the social networking tool it was designed to be, people were using it as their homepage. That's sort of obvious now that you have MySpace.com coming into this area. It's ostensibly a social networking site but it's really about people building homepages. MySpace has been very good about understanding people's desire to decorate.
So, there was a time on Friendster where people were uploading photographs into their space that were of things like their cats, their hometown, and maybe a drawing that they made. Friendster put up a little notice before you could upload, "This site is not supposed to take the place of traditional photosharing sites." But it was! Friendster at that time was not this amazing social networking site, it was the place where people in the Philippines learned how to crop jpegs and start their first homepage. I think they missed the boat on that.
Yes, that's a hard shift for people. You've got somebody who started their thing, they're very invested in an idea and they think it's brilliant. That's part of the problem; we like to think that our ideas are so fabulous. And then you can't see the change. You can't even comprehend what's going on.
ZF: Right. A big part of it is the source of your confidence. A lot of people get their confidence by leaning on a "good idea" and recycling it and regurgitating it as long as they can.
There's another kind of confidence which has to do with this reflexivity. You have confidence in yourself as an individual because you have reacted to so many different kinds of situations and come up with so many different novel solutions. You've built up a real-time vocabulary, and you're confident even when you're at the edge of things. That's the kind of confidence that needs to be developed now. We need to have people that are confident in the way they approach things, not in their content.
That makes a nice ending point for us. I think that brings us back around to where we began in some small way. I would love to talk all day, Ze, maybe we can talk another time.
ZF: Sounds great. Thank you very much.
Blog: Ze's blog