Ze Frank on Imaginary Audiences

If there’s anyone who knows how to marshal an online audience, it’s Ze Frank. Ze is best-known for his 2006 program “The Show,” in which he made a new 2-3 minute video every day for 1 year. Topics ranged from “fingers in food” to the mysteries of airport signage to a tour de force summary of creatives’ addiction to un-executed ideas, aka brain crack. Ze constantly sourced ideas for The Show from his audience, and since then he’s gone on to toy with group collaboration in new ways. 52 to 48 with Love called on McCain and Obama voters to exchange messages of reconciliation, while the summer camp-like Color Wars harnessed Twitter to bring ad-hoc groups of users together to complete large-scale, creative projects in limited time frames.

These days, as ever, Ze is executing lots of ideas and seeing what sticks. A pilot for the Discovery Channel is in the works, “The Show” has been reincarnated (in a slightly more buttoned-down fashion) for TIME magazine, and he’s collaborating with a team of developers on the next iteration of Color Wars. In a wide-ranging conversation that encompassed everything from a discourse on 5th-century theologian St Augustine to a brainstorming session on “zombie golf,” we talked with Ze about how he gets his ideas off the ground and the art of designing for mass participation and collaboration. These are the highlights:

I’ve heard you speak about “morphological synthesis” as part of your idea development process before. How does that sort of free association function for you in taking the first few steps on a project?

Morphological synthesis is a way of trying to segment your thinking process into parts. I definitely use it quite a bit. (Though not in the strictest sense of the word.) You take 4-5 adjectives or characteristics and then brainstorm in that direction.

Generally, when I have an idea I start with a sense of scale. Let’s say Procter & Gamble has a new toilet paper. If I’m trying to generate ideas around it, the first thing I’d do is take a general imagination run into scale. What happens if you have no toilet paper? What happens if you have way, way too much toilet paper? What’s the smallest type of toilet paper that you would ever use? What would an incredibly large toilet paper look like? Who is someone that never uses toilet paper? Who is someone that uses it constantly? What can you do with 10,000 rolls of toilet paper? What would a world with no toilet paper look like?

I flip back and forth between the extremes until something interesting comes out of it. And then you repeat the process based on that new idea. It’s a super-cool exercise only in that it forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.

What kind of a role does collaboration – for example, how you interact with your enthusiastic online audience – play in your ability to keep producing work?

I don’t feel like participating and collaboration is fundamental. But I do feel like it’s certainly one of the more exciting parts of the digital age. And I think that there’s a lot of really cool stuff to do in that arena.

For me, there are two facets: one is creating the work fast, and the other is publishing the work fast. Those are two different things. Publishing it fast, for me, certainly in the early stages from 2000-2006, was super-important, because I was trying to understand the relationship between the genesis idea, the work itself, and the audience – and how those three things interplay with each other.

I say make it as quickly and faithfully as possible. ‘Quickly’ and ‘faithfully’ kind of pull in opposite directions. I find that that’s a nice tension to work in.

What I was finding was that there was an opportunity for me to explore this creative process that normally all happens internally, in a different way where you release work, and then you allow the frameworks that emerge from the way people respond to the work as some kind of feedback cycle. It’s incredible, and it gets talked about a lot now, as people try to open up the work that way, allowing people to react, respond.

The second thing is making the work fast. I usually try to say ‘make it as quickly and faithfully as possible.’ ‘Quickly’ and ‘faithfully’ kind of pull in opposite directions. I find that that’s a nice tension to work in – try and get it out as fast as possible, but don’t take shortcuts just for time. Try to stay true to the original concept. I find that that is important because you end up making more stuff. And for me, the most difficult part of the process is the first 50%.

Do you find it harder to complete work when that audience isn’t present? Or is the process just different?

If there is one sea-change that’s happening in the world of creativity, in a broad spectrum kind of way, it is the awareness that more and more people have of the fact that there IS an audience. When people become aware of some sort of sense of audience, it changes the dynamics of making things. What I’m interested in is how your imagination of the potential audience changes your work.

For me, audience has become what Walt Disney would call that third voice, that critical voice. As I’m working, I’m using my impression of all the different times that I’ve interacted with the audience, all those voices that I’ve heard over time, and they come back into the work. It’s like I’m bouncing the idea around between all of these different factional voice-blocks. The people who think you suck no matter what you do, the people who obviously just want you to feel bad, the people who like what you do regardless, the people who are constantly thinking your work is bigger than it is. So all those kinds of voices become these critical frameworks, or lenses, to look at your work through, even before you publish.

For me, audience has become what Walt Disney would call that third voice, that critical voice.

You look at the random YouTube or you look at the random blogger, and you can almost reverse engineer what that notion of audience was. Some people think the world is populated by people just like them, some people imagine their audience to be far, far greater than it really is, some people seem to be completely unaware.

It’s almost this pastiche of internal representations of audience that’s creating such a confusing media landscape right now. You look at one single comments train on a political blog and it becomes so jarring. Some people are speaking to the world, some people are speaking to just one other person. It’s almost as if, with each comment, the size of the room changes.

I long ago stripped away the notion that a creative person’s life is just about satisfying oneself. I don’t think that that’s a reasonable way of going about your work. And I think it’s a very romantic and broken way of thinking about creativity.

Read thoughts from Imogen Heap, Ben Stiller, Clay Shirky, and more creatives on their relationship to audience, courtesy of Ze.

Photo courtesy of Scott Beale/Laughing Squid.

More insights on: Collaboration, Interviews, Iteration

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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