Monday, May 05, 2003

Good Experience Live VIII

Ze Frank: Participative Projects and Popularity

Ze Frank is an interactive artist and humorist, as well as co-founder of the design collective MediaBrand. Frank's freelance Web design and animation has been featured in Print Magazine and Communication Arts. In 2002, Frank's personal Web site won the People's Voice Webby Award in the best personal Web site category. Here is a rough transcript of his talk at Good Experience Live:

Radically inclusive environments. That's amazing. I dread any alternative. Since 1997 the porn industry is the only sector that has posted more than a 40% growth rate. I apologize for some of the terminology I'll be using. Hardware. Software. Embedded objects. Under the fold. Unix. Layouts. Mounting a drive. Web logs. GUI. Flash. I'm a little flustered today.

In March 2000 I created a poignant flash piece that was an invitation to my 29th birthday party. I sent it out to 17 people. Within four days, 750,000 people a day were coming to this site. For those of you not familiar with numbers, that's about the number of grains of salt that will fit into a toilet. I'm apparently some sort of viral marketing genius.

I was contacted by Kodak three weeks later and asked to fly down to Atlanta to talk to them about heading up their viral marketing department, The meeting went really well. It's been really great being poplar. You become fascinated by what is popular and, more importantly, how to remain popular. I maintain the site as a place for my own personal experimentation in new media. Two, it's really pretty cool. And three, it's interesting to interact with people. In the last few years, I've responded to 30,000 emails.

In the beginning, I was really, really interested in developing new content. I began to rely on audience suggestions for new content ideas. One woman emailed me to say that if I ever came out to Boulder I should rock out with them. This is me rocking out.

Oh! I have a cat. Another young woman wrote me that her mother was extremely interested in kaleidoscopes. She had a collection of more than 100 kaleidoscopes. She asked me to make her mother an online kaleidoscope. It's also a drawing tool. It was my first opportunity to interact with an audience. People could send me screenshots of images they made. I now have a gallery of thousands of images.

That's the opportunity that I have. To interact with thousands and thousands of people. These aren't designers. But I can motivate people to create things and become part of something bigger. For one project, I created an online interactive alphabet. That's the letter project.

I've done a lot of these, trying to figure out the boundaries of participative projects that end up with something that's somewhat aesthetic. In the fiction project, there are thousands and thousands of posts, and about 50 completed stories. And this year I've partnered with the people who run 24-hour blogathon to develop a 24-hour fiction writing contest to raise money for charity.

The important thing when starting a project is to know what you want to do. Before I did the letter project, I did the word project. I ended up with 2,000 words I didn't know what to do with. I wasted a lot of people's time. I apologize.

I'm also interested in games. A lot of us spent a lot of time indoors playing Zork. We felt like we were mastering something, but there's a lot that happens in the game that's totally random. You feel like you're getting really good at something, but it all comes down to a random number. I've created some games: Atheist, it's misspelled; Buddhist; and a racing game in which at the end, I subtract a random number from your score -- that quadrupled the amount of times people would refresh to play the game.

A lot of what I've done has been random, but there are a few things I've held true to. One is intimacy. I email everyone back who emails me. I talk in the first person on the site. The other thing is that I don't use any humor that insults anyone else but me. I'd rather see more humor that's self-deprecating than sarcastic and biting. Simplicity, obviously. Having limitations. And also ambiguity. I've experienced this site as a linear process. A lot of people come to the site and experience it as a whole. I have an nsFAQ, not so frequently asked questions in which I list all of the questions but none of the answers. You can make up myths about yourself. You can work on your own self-perception in a way.

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