He has been called the Maharajah of New Media and a creative genius. He’s a neuroscientist by schooling and a performance artist by nature. As the president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and head of BuzzFeed’s video production branch since 2012, Ze (pronounced “Zay”) Frank, 42, and his team have created more than 1,600 videos, many of which have made history by being watched millions of times. Frank has a talent for tapping into the universal psyche of Internet users, teasing out their hidden anxieties, passions, and dreams and distilling them into quirky, imaginative, profound, three-minute audiovisual bites that viewers then feel compelled to like, tweet, and forward to everyone they know.
Why do we share things online?
One reason: A video might explain part of who you are better than words. We had a pretty big video called “Why It’s Hard Out There for a Lefty.” Only 10 percent of the population is left-handed, but when a group of people see a video that says something about themselves that a lot of others don’t know much about, they share it. They say, “Wow! Finally somebody gets it! Every time I write with a pencil, there’s a smudge on my hand!”
What’s another reason?
It’s what I call an emotional gift: This video made me feel this way, and I want you to feel this way too. That covers humor, but it can also cover thankfulness or restoring faith in humanity. For instance, after a tragedy, some of us go into a spiral of wondering if people are good or not. So things that can restore faith in kindness are popular.
Do some feelings spread more quickly and help people connect better than others?
Yes. Feeling awkward, for instance, is a big one. Anything that makes you feel the most alone also has the greatest power to connect you. It’s when you recognize yourself in a book or a poem or a video, or you hear something revealing that’s been hard for you to admit to. This can apply to almost anyone—say, someone with red hair or someone raised by Asian-immigrant parents. I think this is one of the greatest gifts of this era: Because of the Internet, we can start to type a question into Google and watch the question auto-fill. In that moment, we know someone else has asked that same question. The gift of realizing you’re not alone is incredibly powerful.
What can we do about bullies who exploit the desire for connection?
It’s best to ignore them. But they are a reality. You have to come to a point where you can be exposed to them but not allow them to deter you from trying to live your life.
They’re hard to ignore.
Absolutely. I once read about a psychological study that said a negative interaction has five times the power of a positive interaction.
What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen people do on the Web?
There was a point at which we almost gave the Internet a free pass—our expectations of it were so low. If a few people got together to do anything, we were like, “Oh my gosh, it’s amazing!” Now the Web plays such a core part in our experience, so I have the same expectations for it that I have for the rest of the world. I’m always glad when people come together to help each other—whether they’re raising money for somebody in a bad situation or making a creative piece like a song.
Does your background in neuroscience help you reach people?
I studied neuroscience at the cellular level, so I was looking at learning and memory in the visual cortex of rats. [Laughs] Neuroscience mainly exposed me to a way of thinking—about experimentation, about what you believe to be true and how you could prove it—and how to approach things in a methodical manner.
Let’s talk about one of your hit videos. Why do you think “Sad Cat Diary” was so successful?
BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti likes to say, “It’s not about cats; it’s about people.” If you spend a lot of time with cats, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about in each scene. I don’t say, “Isn’t it crazy how cats meow outside your door?” I turn it into the crazy way a cat might be thinking about that circumstance. For cat owners, it captures a facet of this nonverbal relationship. You are so invested in the relationship that it’s fun to hear about it in a playful way.
Why was that video so much more popular than “Sad Dog Diary”?
Cats are more popular in general [on the Internet]. What’s so funny about cats is that they have this kind of aloof, superior vibe to them. Even if you love them, they are unpredictable. Dogs are more social, and the way that they attach and bond to us is much more human.
At the end of the day, what do you think most people want to feel when they go online?
Most of us yearn for really intimate, healthy, in-person relationships. People have a deep desire to be understood, to be told that it’s OK, that you’re not isolated and broken, that this is part of the human challenge, and that there is hope. The capacity for online interactions to do that is powerful.