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Ze Frank: The Internet’s Answer To Willy Wonka

by Rebecca Lomax
2 December 2011

He'd rather be compared to Willy Wonka than Don Draper, but what drives 'master of the meme' Ze Frank to bring people together online to play games?

You may not have heard the name Ze Frank, but chances are you will have seen one of his many ‘madcap’ ideas when surfing the web. You just might not realise he was the man behind them all. Creating memes, virals and online projects since 1998, he chanced upon his first big hit in 2001. A simple invitation for his 29th birthday featuring animated gifs of Ze dancing, titled ‘How to Dance Properly’, reached 10 million people within the space of a week. It was a bizarre experience which saw Ze receiving thousands of emails a day.

“Most of them [were] asking me why I was such an idiot,” says Ze. “But still, there was an amazing connected experience. You know, just witnessing at that early stage the kind of power that the internet could have.”

It gave him the motivation to continue to explore the possibilities of the web. He spent time creating content and trying to find out why things spread. “During that time is where I cut my teeth on a lot of the things that I’m interested in now,” he says. “The second major learning point was a year long video blog I did in 2006 called ‘The Show’ in which the audience was really responsible for doing a lot of the work. They wrote episodes and we did very, very aggressive projects. For example they made a sandwich out of the earth, putting two pieces of bread perfectly opposite each other on the globe at the same time. That renewed my faith and interest in the ways that audiences can come together to do amazing things.”

One audience collaboration project Ze is particularly proud of is the ‘Chill Out Song’. A girl named Laura, struggling with anxiety, contacted Ze though his site asking for a song to help her, in her words, ‘calm the fuck down’.

“I asked [fans of the site] to help create this song by singing,” says Ze. “I mixed all the voices together in this chorus from around the world, telling her to just breathe. I think it’s a simple but quite nice song. The reason that I’m proud of it is less that, but more the impact that it seemed to have made.” Downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, Ze continues to receive emails from people who have been helped by the song. “That’s kind of like a gold standard,” he says. “Trying to find things that resonate like that emotionally and actually serve a real purpose in peoples lives.”

Ten years on since the success of ‘How to Dance Properly’,  it seems it’s a desire to replicate the effect of  the ‘Chill Out Song’, that motivates Ze to continue.

“One thing that I’ve been struggling with, and trying to figure out how to accomplish, is embodied in that chill out project that I haven’t really been able to replicate to the same depth,” he says. “We have a lot of engagement, participation based projects where a lot of people come together to form something that is appreciated by a lot of people, but I think there’s a real interesting opportunity for a lot of people to come together to solve a single person’s problem or to make an impact on a single person’s life.”

As well as his personal website ZeFrank.com, Ze has recently set up Star.me. Created by a team of “talented folks” in LA, the site offers users mini missions, such as remixing a song, doodling on a window or recalling a memory. In the online community you can receive stars “just like in Kindergarden”. You can also gift a star to a complete stranger if you like how they’ve completed a mission or share your creations with friends. It sounds simple and almost purile, but for Ze, there’s something much deeper at the heart of it.

“I’m very interested in people who don’t consider themselves artists, he says. “Often times this might be one of the first things that they ever do in those spaces.” A recent Star.me mission involved creating a picture out of condiments and uploading a photo of your creation. “I really strongly believe that taking the time to try to learn how to do something very simple like upload a photo gives you the opportunity to pay attention to something that you’ve never paid attention to before,” he says. “That very act of paying attention changes the way that you perceive the world.”

He compares the experience to learning a musical instrument. You may only learn a few basic guitar chords, but, “in a sense, you’ll never hear music the same,” says Ze.

“When you start doing things like recreating photographs, handling media or even thinking about responding to someone in a debate; all those are moments that you pay attention to something that you hadn’t paid attention to before. Suddenly the world around you includes those things. It’s like when you learn a new word and all of a sudden you see it everywhere. These things may seem trivial, but I think that the overall effect of it is incredibly powerful.”

Another hook Ze uses in his projects is to invite people to complete a task which evokes a feeling of nostalgia. He describes it as one of a number of tools he uses to break down barriers which may prevent people getting involved.

The question is, is what sort of activities are you going to do to connect yourself with the world around you?

“My goal is to get people to do things and to give people the confidence to do them,” he says. “One of the hurdles is that you need a way in to make you feel comfortable about the value of the information, the value of your experience. One way to do that is to do something about nostalgia, because in a way you own your own history. No one’s going to tell you you’re wrong, no one’s going to say you’re not doing it right.”

A project which has used this principe to great effect is ‘Young Me, Now Me’. The challenge was to find a picture of yourself as a child and recreate that image now. Ze describes it an example of a situation where, “you are uniquely the only person in the entire world that can complete that project and you’re going to be the best in the world at it.” The project has been so successful that a book has been created out of the best submissions. The results are oddly fascinating. “People put a lot of energy into things like clothing and surroundings,” says Ze. “Sometimes it can get to the point where I am amazed that people literally sew their own clothing, but the thing that makes those photographs so powerful are actually the very, very subtle gestures in the face and the arms and the hands. Things that you can’t really put work into, they are just things that are you.”

With all this effort going into what some may see as ‘pointless’ tasks I ask him if people have too much time on their hands.

“Ultimately we’re talking about life, right? We’re talking about what you do with your life,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t call it too much time on their hands. I’d call it time on their hands and that’s a wonderful luxury that you’re afforded if things like food and a roof over your head are taken care of. The question is, is what sort of activities are you going to do to connect yourself with the world around you?”

“I think that participatory projects are kind of connective, they make you feel part of something else they allow you to put a piece of media out there and have a representation of yourself somewhere.”

This ability to engage an audience and encourage them to participate has seen brands and individuals team up with Ze and Star.me to create missions for ‘fans’. With viral and social content increasingly being exploited by the advertising industry, I ask him how he may respond to people that may be becoming jaded by this type of experience.

“I would question why that is,” he says. “Most of the entertainment that they have consumed in their life has been done for profit. People don’t tend to be jaded when they watch a blockbuster movie that they love, even though the forces that contribute to the making of it are solely interested in making a lot of money, unless they happen to love obscure Bulgarian art films.”

“What I think it sometimes represents is the hope for something that is very free and democratic and even. It’s almost a hope for fairness people have when they become jaded because they find out that marketing dollars or capitalism is behind something. As long as the quality of the content is good and is enjoyable I don’t think that there’s necessarily a reason to feel crappy about it.”

Ze has captured this spirit of hope in his recent collaboration with Johnnie Walker and the Keep Walking Project. Using people’s statements of hope written on the back of a photograph, Ze will make a mosaic from their contributions of an image relevant to a particular city.

“I like it because it just encapsulates a lot of the things that I think are really important, especially when we have a kind of world in crisis,” he says. “You need something to hang your hat on.”

“It occured to me that the future of a city is defined by this bizarre and crazy collection of individual hopes and dreams that people have about their own futures. So, I wanted to think about a way that that could be visualised. In my original concept I wanted all of the photographs to face the sun so all of the pictures themselves would fade and only the hopes on the back remain. I thought that would be a great way of showing the difference between the hope and the physical, but not every place is sunny.”

With so many projects on the go and many more to come I wonder how he maintains the momentum of creating new ideas.

“I think that’s just the trick of it right there is keeping the momentum going,” he says. “Committing yourself to a creative life is in someway committing yourself to a life where you feel like you’ve run out of ideas, because that’s just the reality of it. It’s not like you’re born with tens of thousands of them and you just pluck them off a tree it’s just a constant searching process. Most of your life is filled with the disappointment of not having something. But the pay off of living that way is you do come up with quite a bit along the route.”

I finally ask him if, as an ideas man, he would describe himself as a modern day Don Draper.

“No certainly not,” he laughs. “I think that Mad Men overall is more of a character study on the ethics of ideas. If I were to be so brash as to compare myself with or hope to compare myself with someone, it would be more like Willy Wonka than Don Draper.”

Whisky brand Johnnie Walker is working with Ze Frank on the Keep Walking Project, a new campaign encouraging the people to show their support for a series of pioneering initiatives which the brand will bring to life. Ze has proposed a unique art project involving public participation which fans of Johnnie Walker can vote for – visit www.facebook.com/JohnnieWalker for details.

Young Me, Now Me is available from Amazon.co.uk

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