Monday, August 31, 2009

I Miss Ze Frank

"For me, experimentation is not about the technology. In an ever-changing technological landscape, where today’s platforms are not tomorrow’s platforms, the key seems to be that any one of these spaces can use a dose of humanity and art and culture.”
- Ze Frank

I think this quote speaks a lot to what These Gentlemen is about.

Born Hosea Jan Frank, Ze Frank graduated from Brown University in 1995 with a degree in neuroscience. Despite majoring in the hard sciences, Ze's primary career path would take him to the internet where, after forwarding this online birthday invitation to all of his friends in 2001, his personal website was flooded with hits and internet popularity. His little "e-card" exploded down the information superhighway and gained him some momentary notoriety. Seizing the day, Ze expanded his personal website to include animated shorts, flash-based video games, audience participation, and children's "educational" videos to accommodate the sudden web traffic. In 2006, Ze launched his main and most successful claim to fame - a daily web series titled the show with zefrank.

the show [sic] was a year-long project which primarily focused on Ze talking into a webcam and providing Daily Show-esque recounts of the news and media on a daily basis. As the project evolved, extensive features outside of the show's original scope were added and this little creative endeavor eventually became a prototypical model for creating a successful and enjoyable website. While the internet continues to expand, the show still serves as a virtual "how-to" in accumulating and affecting a constant fan base.

*Written by John Ozkirbas

1. Big Idea, Itty-Bitty Title
While the most flexible standard - short, sweet, and simple is typically a good idea. Small and simple are easy to remember, easy to say, and easy to spell. You don't want to give your future fan base a harder time talking about your website than is necessary. However, longer titles aren't a death sentence by any stretch of the imagination. Long titles are blessed with the gift of abbreviation, allowing fans to refer to their new web obsession as some sort of faux inside-joke. Ideally, the purpose or mission of a website is paramount and easily reflected in what a designer decides to call his creation. the show with zefrank itself is akin to the concept of "truth in advertising" where a product is called by exactly what it is or contains. The title can easily be shortened to "the show," allowing it to be referred to quickly while still encapsulating its core concept. A mascot, while not completely necessary at first, helps significantly, as well.

2. Gotta Keep It Regul-ah!
Given the "purpose" of your website, this is more or less important. However, regular content on a daily basis is rarely, if ever, a bad thing. Most fan bases (and especially web fan-bases) tend to have the attention spans of five year-olds on speed. You want to provide reminders that you're here, that your existence is worth noting, and give them incentives to return on their own. So, part of your goal is to provide enough material to keep your fans coming back regularly without overwhelming them. Part of the show's concept was to provide absurdist, humorous, but knowledgeable commentary about various news items on a daily basis. Each episode had a simple format, including an introductory tag line and a closing byline, lasted approximately 5 minutes, and featured nearly all original material (including writing and composing songs). Ze provided this material consistently - whether through sickness and health, at home and traveling. Given, Mike Chapman and Craig Zobel's Homestar Runner is still fairly successful while presenting most material at whim, but their weekly Strong Bad E-mail segment is certainly their most popular and definitely keeps their fan base coming back on a regular basis.

3. Community + Togetherness = "Cometherness"
Part of what keeps the fan base coming back is being a part of the collective and identifying with said collective over the website. In my personal opinion, this was the show's greatest asset and Ze executed it with absolute perfection:

First, he gave his fans something to call themselves by attributing to them the moniker "Sports Racers," thereby crafting a collective identity. Now, when audiences returned to watch the show, they weren't just detached third parties looking for a laugh - they became a part of each episode and were now somewhat committed. Next, Ze instituted "Fabuloso Fridays" - a weekly holiday where Sports Racers could send in written episodes from the day before for him to select and perform during Friday episodes. Not only were fridays "special" days for Sports Racers to check in on, but people who actively participated with Ze in this manner became "Fabulosos," as well. The Fabulosos would continue to participate directly with Ze in various other activities, such as a contest to find the ugliest MySpace page (the "I knows me some ugly myspace showdown"), as well as a month long, long distance chess game against Ze himself ("Fabuloso Chess"). An additional holiday was also added to fridays, called "Ride the Fire Eagle Danger Day" ("RTFEDD") where Ze would fill us in on any news that he missed that week that still caught his fancy. the show would take RTFEDD a step further when Ze allowed fans to send in homemade video intros to RTFEDD as a form of celebration. Ze also instituted a movement for something he called "Power Moves" - an undefined set of martial-arts styled moves that were, really, just about letting Sports Racers be themselves on camera. Sports Racers had the chance of having their Power Move showcased and - if so selected - they were presumably indoctrinated into something called the "League of Awesomeness."

There's more, but I'll stop here. You get the point - forming, maintaining, and having fun with the community surrounding your site is extremely important.

4. Extra Content, Extra Credit
Eventually, if you're doing well, your website will grow and your fans will want more. Or, maybe you're just having a lot of fun and you simply want to share that with your fans. Either way, adding attractions outside of your website's core concept allows fans to stay around and invest more time on your webpage. It provides both an increased incentive for fans to return and items to hook in web surfers who weren't particularly attracted before. In addition to his daily feed, Ze created his own wiki where the audience explains the show's jargon and history (in a very Ze way), and an .ORG version of the site to heighten audience participation in the multiple projects Ze organized. He also put together a picture, video, and .mp3 gallery for fans to upload and use material relevant to the show and a forum where fans could freely discuss similar topics. Most of the extra content was very community centered and allowed Ze to interact with fans as directly as he could.

5. Audience Participation is Key
One of the most impressive things about the show was its propensity for organizing a mass collective across the world to participate in Ze's projects. His most notable projects (and my personal favorites) were called the "Remixes for Ray" project, where Sports Racers hunted down a man named "Ray" who sent Ze this .mp3 just to thank him for the song he sang with CD's full of different remixes of the song, and the "Earth Sandwich Project," where the League of Awesomeness called all Sports Racers to attempt to simultaneously place two slices of bread on the ground on exact opposites sides of the globe for the first time in history. I'll let you see the challenges and results below:

- "Ray" Challenge Episode

- Meet Ray

- Earth Sandwich Challenge

- Earth Sandwich Achieved <--- watch the Earth become a sandwich

Ze excited people about being audience members of his show in a way I haven't seen many other places. While I wouldn't call this step absolutely necessary, it's the mark of a truly fantastic concept.

Needless to say, there hasn't been much else like Ze Frank's the show. I mean Phillip DeFranco tries and, although it's cool he raises money for Polycystic Kidney Disease, he seems like a bit of a pissant with a limited world view. Ze's absurd aloofness was a blatantly transparent mask behind which was a wealth of knowledge. the show with zefrank was funded primarily on donations and, when asked how much he made after the year was over, Ze responded "Enough to pay rent... and then some." Currently, Ze Frank is a public speaker and adjunct professor who talks about web media and social networking, and is signed with United Talent Agency. I hope he returns to the web soon. I miss him.


Jstone said...

I suggest you create a TG forum.

these are free, phpBB is pretty standard and it would allow discussion to continue beyond a handful of comments that get lost once another post is made (usually).

Stephen said...

To me, DeFranco's formula was entertaining for a little while. But before long the novelty of picking on easy targets wore off.

I like this Ze Frank character. His eyes are oh so very intense.

And I also like Ray. I didn't realize how long Ray's segment was until I was done listening to it, but he's just extremely interesting to listen to.

And these tips make a lot of sense.

Ozkirbas said...

@ Jstone - I like that idea. I'll check into it. I like the ideas of having a forum - I just don't know how I feel about moderating one.

@ Stephen - Yeah, "Philly-D" was funny when I first found out about him. I'm glad he's doing what he's doing - and some of his episodes are funny - but, others are just kinda like, "Oh. What a douche."

One of Ze's pupils is always larger than the other.

Yeah, Ray was a good choice.

Thanks! I think the rules change according to the overall goal of a given website. But, I also think this particular set of guidelines applies very universally and is one of the best ways of going about running a website.

Fitzhugh said...

New web video bits on the Time magazine website. Search for Ze Frank. It's called "Make me think about"... or something. Not the gold that the show was, because he is a bit more confined (it being a Time Magazine thing). But you'll be glad i sent you.

Ozkirbas said...

@Fitzhugh - much appreciated. I did stumble on to a few Ze Frank projects, the Time series included. I wrote an "epilogue" post to this one, if you're interested. It's short, look for it in the September postings!