By Rebecca Schuman for Ironminds.com
Right this second, Ze Frank is massaging his face with a pancake while making out with his water glass, demonstrating the nuanced art of date-time "listening." This "demeanor," in case you're wondering, "whispers, 'I'm hearing you, I am here for you.'"
Sure, you could spend a few hours pondering that, but there's no time : because also right this second, Frank's bleach-headed and be-jeaned figure is on permanent loop, elucidating the proper execution of the "Smackin That Ass." "Smackin That Ass," along with "Hanging Out... Casual," "Old School," "New School" and "Basic Twirl" are all part of the now infamous "How to Dance Properly," which, this past March, fried keyboards 'round the globe as a result of snorted morning beverages, brought an extra 150 guests to his birthday party and, in a 24-hour span, turned Ze Frank into The Dancing Guy, Internet Persona.
Frank is a self-taught designer with an Ivy League science degree whose current tax forms bill him as a freelance Interactive Consultant. He became a digital celebrity and brought countless hours of joy to cubicle-drones everywhere in the following manner:
One: He bought a nice digital camcorder as a tax write-off.
Two: He made a zany little invitation to his March 30 birthday festivities, which took him about four hours, and which he sent to 20 friends.
Three: He left his apartment.
And when he got back six hours later, he discovered that the viral possibilities of the Internet had become quite real. He visited the design portal Kaliber10000, one of whose members he had sent "How to Dance Properly," and saw that the front page had linked to him, "and it hadn't been posted by the guy I sent it to. That in and of itself was exciting for me." And then he checked his e-mail : to find over a hundred messages from strangers and one slightly surprising one from Earthlink, his ISP, saying he'd already exceeded his monthly 750 MB of allocated bandwidth and they were planning to shut him down : which, for a short time, they did. (Luckily, thanks to the deft load-balancing maneuverings of some friends and Frank agreeing to put an Earthlink banner on his site, along with the Earthlink bigwigs confirming that Frank wasn't running ButtDickChixxx.com out of his parents' basement, he's been able to keep the site up and running pretty much uninterrupted : and, though it was at one point a distinct possibility, he doesn't owe Earthlink over $100,000 in bandwidth charges.)
In 24 hours, "How to Dance Properly" was visited by 64,000 viewers; in the next five days, that number would multiply by 10. Soon, "Stir the Pot (of Love)" and its instructional brethren would bring Frank's hits into the 10s of millions, exceeding his Earthlink-allotted bandwidth exponentially, and turning the wacky-dancing creator into a sleepless recluse, hell-bent on answering his thousands of e-mail messages and adding new, wacky content to keep up with the droves of unexpected guests. (Interestingly enough, the e-mail itself turned into one of zefrank.com's most fascinating bits of content, "stats," "stats #2" and "stats #3"). "It can get really addictive," he says. "I pretty much didn't sleep for a week." "A lot of people didn't know what to think about it," Frank says. "They didn't know whether I was making fun of someone dancing or whether it was really me : whether I was another Mahir or Peter Pan." And that's the real beauty of zefrank.com : because unlike Mahir, Peter Pan, the fucking Hamster Dance or Psycho Ex-Girlfriend, we love "How to Dance Properly," "How to Behave," "For Ella," "Meine Kleine Drawtoy" and all the rest with complete sincerity. We're not making fun of him. He's having fun : and he's inviting us along for the ride. "I dig doing weird stuff for humor's sake," he says. And, judging from his hit count (which at press time was over 62 million : "I have no idea why"), the rest of the world is a willing participant in this digging.
"A lot of people write me very purposefully weird e-mails, and I think they're hoping to become part of the site ... and it's kind of strange because I don't really know what to do with them," he explains. "Most of it is very angry humor. I don't dig any stuff that has to do with killing or potentially injuring someone or calling people names ... I think that that kind of humor carries with it a seed of discontent. If you have a lot of aggressive humor, people can walk away with a bad feeling." And that is precisely what's so goddamned refreshing. Zefrank.com is infused with this relentlessly infectious whimsy, this downright good nature, this unabashed sense of fun : and you don't leave feeling stupid or dirty. You just want to hug someone and do the Cabbage Patch and buy them beer.
Ze Frank may not realize it, but for all intents and purposes he is a goddamned superhero. And not a moment too soon : in a year when the phrase "Web content" brings about cocky, we-told-you-so snickers from tie-clad drones justifying another day in middle management Cubicleville, he is a one-man Web-content rebirth. Frank's taking the concept of the Web site back to its essence : personal recreation. Though he's received over 30 resumes from hopeful would-be summer interns and a few inquiries as to who the president of his company is, zefrank.com is his hobby. Sure, he's received some interesting job offers and opportunities from it, but even before "Hanging Out... Casual" made CEOs consume their lunch martinis through their noses, he was a self-sustaining freelance Web developer, building sites, screensavers and CD-ROMs for the likes of Bennington College, Nabisco and Motorola. Zefrank.com isn't his business; it's his fun. He updates it constantly, but it's completely voluntary (and usually, he admits, right when he wakes up in the morning. "You're catching me un-showered and in my boxers and a T-shirt, usually.").
And though we know how straight his teeth are, his rather frightening hip flexibility and the agile capabilities of Annie, his "little kitty-cat," zefrank.com is far from being your typical reveal-o-fest blog. "I'm a big fan of diary sites and things like that, but I've never participated in one," he explains. "I try to really condense what people actually want to know. A lot of people want me to write about myself and say who I am." And it's true : the site doesn't tell us what Ze ate for breakfast today (or the hard-hitting existential ennui that resulted from it, in laborious detail), and doesn't let us know where he went to college (Brown) or what he studied there (neuroscience!). All we glean from zefrank.com is that Ze Frank has created his own universe : a serendipitous, zany, relentlessly creative and fucking spit-the-Starbucks-on-the-keyboard funny one : and we are all welcome in it.
"I'm just going to keep going. For me it's really fun, coming up with things. A lot of these little projects imply larger projects," he says, referring to the installations-in-progress like "my hood," which he hopes to turn into a fully functioning interactive map of the Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn. "If the viewership dies significantly," he says, "I won't update it every day and my focus will be on spending longer periods of design developing new stuff." He's also planning to start the MFA program in computer arts at New York's School of Visual Arts in the fall : after all, he spent college learning how the brain works and "working on an old Mac classic," and has no formal computer training. As to the nebulous future of the Web, Frank's outlook is, not surprising, easygoing and unadorned, funny and true: "It doesn't matter to me where it goes. I enjoy the fact that I got to experience it, and that the porn industry got to make so much money off of it."
And in a few years, when the shrapnel of the dot-com collapse is buried, the million-dollar lofts have been sublet back to sweatshops and 27-old ex-CEOs are falling over each other for Editorial Assistant work at Conde Nast, Ze Frank will probably still be here, playing with his cat, coming up with new projects, and smackin' that ass. "A lot of people didn't get that one," he says with a laugh. "They were like, 'Wait, you're not smacking your ass.'"