At the very outset of video blogging, Ze Frank was the vlogger. He began his intensely interactive, entirely unpredictable series The Show in 2006, put it out five days a week for a full year, and wrapped. Now he’s back with A Show, an enthusiastically Kickstarter-funded follow-up that seeks to find its form as it goes along, while fostering genuine interactivity and connection with viewers. "Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else," Frank says in "An Invocation for Beginnings," his opener to A Show, now several episodes deep. "And if it is, let me become fascinated with the shape of the stone. And god let me enjoy this; life isn’t just a sequence of waiting for things to be done."
We spoke with Frank about the origin of the new show and how’s he’s looking at returning to a much more crowded web.
CO.CREATE: What’s the motivation behind starting up a new web show?
ZE FRANK: There’s a couple reasons. One is just that I love doing it. This kind of creative challenge is pretty awesome. There are so many other ways of making connective media—media where you’re really trying to reach out to a lot of different people in the audience and play with them—than having a centralized media outlet. My interest in the last couple years has been thinking about what are the platform features that can enable the sorts of participation and audience-focused tools and missions that I think are missing to a large degree in a lot of the shows that are out there.
What have you been doing in the interim to investigate that?
I started this company, Star.Me, or Ze Frank Games, and developed this platform, and the point up front was really to facilitate audience engagement with either brands or people that had audiences. I just saw a lot of promise for working directly with audiences.
It feels like there’s been this huge social media promise that’s gone largely unfulfilled. We’re supposed to be more connected than ever, but something isn’t adding up.
There is a very big difference between building a tool set that facilitates certain kinds of experiences and actually having those experiences. Because having the experiences is really going to be down to the participant, but also whoever is going to try to organize the platform to do a very particular thing. So in the case of Facebook, for example, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and you do have incredible moments where the emotive possibility and the participatory possibility align with the capabilities of the platform. Now with the rest of the experience of life, like all the subtleties of our emotional experience and our emotional desires and our hopes for collaboration and reaching out to people, that just takes work.
Can you talk about launching A Show through Kickstarter?
The most interesting and exciting part of the show is the relationship that I have with the audience. So in thinking about doing this again, that was certainly the first place that I looked. And thinking about, "Well, if I’m gonna do this, it’d be nice to get a little bit of a gauge of if they’re interested and whether they’re willing to support the effort." The Kickstarter video was a little bit of a test in that way, saying that it was going to be different than the original. And it was just an amazing thing. I set kind of an arbitrary goal of $50,000 and we hit that in, I think, eight hours. And it ended up a little shy of $150,000. I ended up using Kickstarter as a background to actually start brainstorming about the show itself and reconnecting with folks who were interested in helping. I actually wound up meeting an animator through that experience; he’s now animating user dreams for a segment.Becoming an even smaller fish in an even huger sea can be terrifying to any creative type. Is there a positive side to it?
Yes, very much so. I just tweeted that it is fun to feel like a noob again. I like the challenge, I like the not knowing. I am not so scared of how big things are. Most of what I do doesn’t require massive scale, just a strong connection with an audience. I’m also old enough to have faith in my ability to adjust to my surroundings. I am also fortunate to have influenced some of the top content creators online right now so I am able to reach out for advice pretty easily.
How is all this content interacting with the commercial side?
There haven’t been too many really exciting new ways of establishing relationships between content creators and advertisers and brands. I think that there certainly was a hope—the bigger, broader question of "how are we going to think holistically about the value of creative goods and creative labor"—but I don’t know if that conversation totally happened yet. There has to be a more rigorous conversation about how a large population that’s moving over into the production of creative goods can sustain themselves financially. What I see is more aggregation both on the platform side with YouTube, and also with these specialized agencies that are making a few people a lot of money, and then the curve drops off really significantly really, really quickly. I still feel like there’s a potential for more people to have their livelihoods based on this stuff. We have to move away from the giant centralized network model.
Do you have a solution in mind?
I don’t, unfortunately. I know that the kind of work that I’m trying to do is trying to—besides having videos and product placements and pre-roll and overlay ads—create another marketplace which allows brands and advertisers to come into an audience space and do some actual work, like make projects, make stuff. Show that the brand understands the audience and that they want to play with them, they want to have fun, they want to make stuff. How that translates to all those users making money, I don’t totally know yet. But I know that that kind of strategy opens up a lot of small producers who have notably smaller audiences to have real relationships with brands and advertisers.
Is there an interactive accomplishment from The Show you hope to expand upon or revisit somehow with A Show?
More audience projects on a bigger scale. I would also like to try more projects that cross the virtual/physical divide—making tangible things, people have offline experiences and bringing them back online. Getting a brand that makes things to back one of these projects or a series of them and to be part of the conversation.
In 40 years, what have you come to understand about creativity?
There was a philosophy that I kind of outlined a little bit in the first show called brain crack. And that was that I’m suspicious of how your rational mind can hold onto ideas to make itself feel like it’s still creative. I consider creativity to be a more non-rational, subconscious thing. You have a relationship to your creativity—you can feed it with content, with some rational prodding and sleep and things like that, but the mechanisms by which your creativity work are largely unknown. So one way people combat that is they have an idea and then they hold onto it forever and it starts growing in their mind to the point where they never execute it because it’s never gonna be that good.
What’s your creative process look like, with that in mind?
I have a general workflow, which is, if I have an idea I try to execute it as quickly and faithfully as possible. That means that if I have a number of ideas all at once, I’m gonna bundle them together. I don’t like sitting on an idea and squeezing it till every little last drop comes out. I’d rather get it out there and move on to the next thing. I don’t want to get too philosophical, but in a sense you’re given this gift, this sort of creative force in you, and I think everyone has it, and it’s completely unique to you. And you as a person have a little bit of a responsibility as its shepherd, if you choose to incorporate that into your life. The other thing I learned is it’s really good to be undeniable. So if you want to get into the creative world, you have to just keep flogging away even when nobody’s paying attention. Because then when somebody finally does pay attention, it’s certainly a lot more interesting when you have a ton of stuff to show.
How does flexibility interact with all that? You’re spontaneously taking user comments and turning them into episodes on a dime.
In this brain crack model, the agreement was I get ideas out as quickly and faithfully as possible. Those two things actually pull in opposite directions. "Faithfully" tries to pull you toward really doing what you set out to do, and "quickly" puts a totally different mandate on it. It doesn’t give you a very clear path, but it keeps those two aspects of what you’re doing in mind. And I think flexibility is the actual tool you use to do it. Having a kind of open awareness to what’s happening around you and being willing to try to incorporate all these things that are coming in and say, "Well how does that relate to what I’m doing?" whether that’s a user comment or a piece of news that happened that day, keeping that flow of open-mindedness is sort of crucial. And that’s also where the great magic tricks of media lie, when you have a theme you’ve been working on establishing, and you’re open and aware of your environment enough to see connections to that theme. And then when you put it all together it just seems like it was there from the beginning. That’s an amazing thing.