Ze Frank and the poetics of Web video
First Monday

Ze Frank and the poetics of Web video by Michael Z. Newman



Abstract
This article initiates a poetics of Web video by considering the central features of one kind of video on the Web, the amateur videoblog, in terms of its functions, which include various affordances of use, and constraints, which include economics, technology, and viewing conditions. It takes as its central example an American videoblog called The Show With Ze Frank, which ran from 2006–2007, and which drew a passionate community of fans into collaborating in its creation. This article considers amateur Web video as a potentially democratic space for media production, offering an alternative to commercial media that involves ordinary citizens as participants and champions their creativity.

Contents

Art of the videoblog
The Show With Ze Frank
Interstitial video, cognitive styles, miniature form
Web videos as DIY media
Ze Frank’s style
Cultivating a collaborative audience

 


 

Art of the videoblog

The Show With Ze Frank was a series of short videos by an artist from Brooklyn, New York, that appeared on weekdays for a year during 2006 and 2007 [1]. The Show combined the aesthetic of topical TV comedy, responding to news and trends with a critical, humorous tone, and the personal form of the blog, an individual’s running commentary on his life and on the world around him. Basically, The Show was a do–it–yourself TV program. But because it was an Internet do–it–yourself TV program, it was able to exploit the affordances of the Web and included the audience as creative participants in myriad ways, from engaging with its comments and suggestions onscreen to incorporating its videos, songs, and projects. To people immersed in Internet culture, someone like Ze Frank can function like a commercial television personality, a familiar TV friend we know so well. But the form of Frank’s art is in many ways a departure from traditional broadcasting. Its compelling qualities are products not only of Frank’s talents as a performer but also of the culture and technology of the contemporary Internet — both its inherent limitations and possibilities. To understand The Show and the innumerable other videos available for viewing online requires a sense not only of how they work as audiovisual representations, but also of how the Internet, as both a delivery technology and a network of users, shapes their creation and experience. It is my purpose in what follows to initiate this kind of inquiry, a poetics of Web video that seeks to understand these audiovisual texts in the contexts of their production and use (Aristotle, 350 BCE; Bordwell, 2007) [2].

Videos produced for the Web take many forms [3]. Like blogs (and zines), they vary in the degrees to which they are personal and in the specificity or generality of their scope. Some are nothing more than an individual’s spontaneous reflections on life and responses to other similar videoblogs. These are most typical of the videoblogs produced by and for the community at YouTube [4]. Some address narrow topics. GeekBrief is about new electronic gadgets and is addressed to an audience of early adopters [5]. Some are more omnivorous. Rocketboom is a daily show hosted by an anchor sitting behind a desk and ranges in its material from politics to technology to social trends [6]. It includes many field reports shot on location and often captures clips of video from elsewhere on the Web to quote. Many Web videos are fictional narratives, basically short films or TV shows in miniature. Chad Vader is a series of comic shorts about Darth Vader’s underachieving brother who works in a supermarket [7]. Many, like Chad, are funny. Ask a Ninja takes the format of an advice column, with each episode showing a ninja in full garb addressing a viewer’s question [8]. Some are more in the vein of citizen reportage, offering interviews with newsworthy subjects or covering significant events. Amanda Across America followed its host on a cross–country tour in which she met with notable Internet personages such as the founder of Craigslist, Craig Newmark, and an outspoken blogger and new media evangelist, Jeff Jarvis [9].

Whatever subjects and formats they follow, these texts have in common that they are brief, non–professional, and free to watch. They are the video equivalent of blogs and podcasts, a form of DIY media open to anyone with access to some basic tools for creative expression. Sometimes these Web videos are called videoblogs, though not all practitioners prefer that label. Other times they are called video podcasts, Internet TV, shows, or just videos [10]. Whatever we call them, they are among the many developments online in the later half of the oughts that have been called “read–write” (as opposed to “read–only”) culture (Lessig, 2005), a fixture in the new mediascape in which the distinction between producer and consumer is blurring (Jenkins, 2006).

 

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The Show With Ze Frank

The Show with Ze Frank appeared at zefrank.com/theshow in the late afternoon, Monday through Friday, from 17 March 2006 to 17 March 2007. It starred Ze (Hosea) Frank and was essentially a one–man show. Typical episodes are about three minutes long. They begin with a brief introduction: often, “Good afternoon sportsracers, you’re watching The Show With Ze Frank.” At first, Frank himself delivered this line but during the late summer, he began using clips of his fans (“sportsracers”) introducing him, which they would record on their own cameras and upload to his Web site. Episodes end with an even briefer conclusion, usually some variation on the tagline “This is Ze Frank, thinking so you don’t have to.” Beginning in the summer, the episodes began to run ads at the end, usually still frames and occasionally very brief video spots.

The majority of an episode of The Show is typically made up of close–ups of Frank addressing the camera directly. He often frames his face uncomfortably tightly, truncating his chin and brow, and he likes to open his eyes wide.

Figure 1: The Show with Ze Frank, 6 May 2006
Figure 1: The Show with Ze Frank, 6 May 2006.
A typical close–up framing cutting off Frank’s chin and forehead,
with his eyes wide and unblinking.

He makes a point never to blink (though he occasionally does in the first month of episodes), but he often cuts in the middle of a point to a similar setup, usually a few inches closer to or away from the camera, flouting the Hollywood continuity style that forbids edits with less than a 30–degree shift in camera position. This technique creates mildly jolting jump–cuts, and the jump–cut is The Show’s standard cut. Sometimes Frank takes his own reaction shots — nerd laughter or mock outrage. Often Frank includes songs which he composes and records himself; typically they are clever, silly, or both (e.g., “Where the Fuck do Ideas Come From?” [11 July 2006] and “Condoleeza’s Magic Satchel” [25 July 2006]).

Although they are quite short, episodes typically address more than one idea. Frank discusses topical issues like the Iraq War with a questioning or satiric tone as in the genre of “fake news,” and responds to viewer comments in a regular segment, “S–s–s–s–something from the comments.” Much of the show is made up of Ze’s interactions with his viewers. He starts contests for them to take part in. They initiate projects like making an “earth sandwich” by placing two pieces of bread on exactly opposite ends of the globe and passing a “human baton,” a student who traveled from Oregon to New York and back using volunteer transport provided by sportsracers. Viewers collaborate against Frank in chess; they plot their moves in their forum and he gives his during the show. At one point an upper echelon of sportsracers, known as the fabulosos, scripted an entire episode collaboratively on a wiki and Frank performed it to the letter and in its entirety (9 June 2006). The format of The Show, Frank says, “is a conversation between the host and the viewers of the program.” [11]

The experience of The Show for many viewers may be casual or passionate, but for many it offered an immersion in a dense fan network of shared references and interactive community. Some viewers might watch using iTunes or another video aggregation tool, but the optimal viewing situation is at zefrank.com/theshow, where the video frame at screen center is flanked left and right with inward links to pages in Frank’s Web site. In addition to an “about” page and links to popular episodes, there are numerous opportunities for participation. One can join discussions in a forum, read about or build up site–related knowledge in a wiki (including transcribing episodes), and view or post photos, sound recordings, or videos to galleries. There are links to pages offering The Show merchandise (ringtones, t–shirts — designed by sportsracers) and to a donations page where viewers could sponsor an episode of The Show with a custom message. The Ze Frank fan community also has a social networking site called the ORG through which sportsracers have continued to make connections with one another online and off even after the end of The Show’s run. Casual viewers might watch the daily video and be satisfied with that, but many avid enthusiasts invested more of their time and energy in The Show — to be rewarded with social bonds forged with other sportsracers and occasionally by a mention onscreen by Ze or even an appearance on the show, for instance in an uploaded sportsracers intro in which a fan becomes Ed to Ze’s Johnnie, announcing: “You’re watching The Show with Ze Frank.”

In one episode (29 July 2006), Frank somewhat sarcastically comments that videoblogging is “about turning the camera on and off and talking.” This simplifies the form, but not in a way that distorts its essential quality of direct address by an individual to an audience. Like the lion’s share of videoblogs, The Show is a profoundly personal form of expression. It’s a video equivalent of a diary or sketchbook or blog. Although a video camera can be used in myriad ways, the typical setup for a videoblog uses the camera like a microphone, as something for you to talk into. In the standard setup, the videoblogger looks into the lens and speaks his or her mind. Ironically for a text that is so much devoted to sustaining connections among people, Frank himself — one person — is ultimately The Show’s central subject.

 

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Interstitial video, cognitive styles, miniature form

User–generated video on the Web tends to maximize its appealing qualities while minimizing its length. It is ideally short and sweet, in the slang sense. Whether in clips captured from television or movies or original material, video viewed online needs to be brief enough to consume in a fleeting interval between other activities. Edgar Allen Poe argued that a poem or short story is best when it can be read in a single sitting; a Web video is something to be experienced in a single moment (Poe, 1850). Some heavily viewed clips on YouTube are barely half a minute, and most are only a few times that long. There are several reasons why this is so, and these reasons have to do with economic, technological, social, and aesthetic functions and constraints.

Web video is an interstitial form. It fills gaps between other activities. The typical scenario for computer use is defined by work: schoolwork or job work. The time for viewing clips online may be during breaks between more focused and purposive tasks that are more socially legitimated than personal Web use. Even activities that are hybrids of work and non–work, like e–mail, are legitimated by their potential to have work value, and indeed many if not most computers are purchased with the notion in mind that even if they have secondary non–work utility, the justification for their purchase is as an instrument of work. Web video is short in part because it does not function as an evening’s entertainment, like cinema or television, but as a momentary diversion in the context of another activity — a digital–age improvement on playing basketball with crumpled up office paper and a trash can.

Because personal computers are made to keep many applications running and available at once, and because applications such as e–mail and messaging (as well as word processing and other office apps) are increasingly Web–based, the time for work and the time for leisure are now increasingly continuous, overlapping, even minimally distinct. As I research (online) and write (online) and prepare to teach (online) and correspond with colleagues or students (online), I might also keep tabs on blogs and news and social networks (online), correspond with friends (online), track traffic to a few Web sites that I administer (online), and watch video clips (online). Occasionally I play games (online), shop (online), or search for movie times (online) while doing these things too. Often I listen to music or podcasts (online) all the while. I move fluidly from one activity to the next, from work to play and back again. As a media scholar my play is often also my work, but this basic scenario obtains for the vast majority of Web users who are not media scholars.

Every medium has its own cognitive style, a term Cory Doctorow uses to distinguish the way books and Web sites, two distinct systems for delivering text to readers, each prescribe their own mode of engagement (Doctorow, 2007). Doctorow argues against the notion that people don’t like to read off a screen, noting that many people now typically do that all day long, and insists instead that people don’t like reading long–form prose like novels off a screen because a screen, when connected to a multitasking, Web–connected computer, offers too many alternative claims for the user’s attention. We can extend this distinction to audiovisual media, too. Film and television have cognitive styles that are products of their consumption by spectators in a state of relaxed leisure. Movie theaters offer no competing activities for the spectator’s attention. Web video has a cognitive style that is shaped by its own specific context of viewing in a Web browser, surrounded by alternative activities, by a bevy of potential rewards to the viewer who diverts attention from one window or browser tab to another. Interstitial media fit the cognitive style of Web browsing because they are made with the tacit assumption that no activity claims the computer user’s total attention for long. Web video has to fit the viewer’s situation.

Watching videoblogs is just about nobody’s work, and non–work uses of the Internet are often interruptions in the flow of work. Since work is the reason to sit at the computer in the first place, work always wants your attention back and you always feel you owe it your focus. Viewers of The Show and other videos are often engaged in what corporate America calls “stealing time” from legitimate pursuits. The fact that new episodes of The Show would appear online in the late afternoon (Eastern time, North America) and that they often amassed hundreds of user comments within an hour or two of posting, suggests that many viewers would watch during the time of day socially sanctioned for productive accomplishment — during business time and study time rather than personal time. This convergence of daily tasks creates a scarcity of user time and attention, which is a fundamental constraint on Web video form. The form of the videoblog is a product of this constraint, of the fact that the computer is not just for the user’s amusement or leisure. Many users have to sneak in such uses (in addition to other social Web apps, like Facebook and Flickr) while a boss or co–worker or parent isn’t looking, or while they are trying not to procrastinate or slack off.

Conditions of Web video experience are also a product of the technological affordances of the Internet as it is experienced in today’s standard computer interface. New media evangelists distinguish between leaning back and leaning forward postures as an emblem of the difference between old entertainment media (film and TV) and those available on computers. The old forms are leaning back media; viewers ideally give their full attention to a text as it unfolds before them. The computer is a leaning forward medium and it affords the user an experience of navigating a multifaceted domain with the agency to direct the experience as desired. Another way of capturing this distinction is with the contrasting metaphors used by marketing experts of push and pull. The media entertainment companies push old media products like movies and TV shows and 30–second spots toward us and we supposedly gladly receive them. By contrast, Internet users pull media texts toward themselves. They are able to stop and start at will and to select from a practically infinite menu. Increasingly the digital age is turning all media into pull media, but for the time being and for simplicity’s sake, let’s grant that the Internet currently holds a significant advantage over the others on the push–pull spectrum.

The difference between a pull medium and a push medium is not only a matter of the user’s typical behavior and psychology; it is also something that creators factor into design. Authors of Web videos instinctively conceive their texts for pull users rather than push users. The texts themselves are evidence of this sensitivity to conditions of use. The brevity, speed, and eagerness to please and captivate of much Web video is a product of design measured to the conditions of online media spectatorship. Knowing that users are in a pull position and that their time and attention are scarce, the creators of Web video shape their media to suit modes of consumption. Like so many Web videos, The Show is short and punchy, maximally engaging, because short fits interstitial viewing and punchy compels attention. Some in the Web video community describe online shorts like The Show as snacks, tasty treats rather than more elaborate meals (Newsweek, 2006; Wired, 2007).

As an interstitial form, Web videos must dispense with some old media conventions. Because Web video has to command the user’s attention at once, there is scant time for introductions. If things start slow, few will keep watching. The movie spectator might sit in her seat for twenty minutes before the story really starts, watching commercials, trailers, politeness announcements, and credits. Television talk shows begin with a minute or two of introductory matter before their hosts get around to saying anything charming or funny. Videoblog intros are ultra–brief by comparison, perhaps five or ten seconds. The Show With Ze Frank begins with fresh material at once and never lets up. Each begins with a never–before–seen viewer working to attract Ze’s attention as they deliver his introduction so that he will choose their clip to start off an episode of The Show. When time and attention are scarce, every instant counts — and Web video artists make every instant count. Like ringtones and 30–second TV spots, Web videos such as The Show have no choice but to fashion their art on a miniature scale.

Scarce time and attention are constraints that shape the form of Web videos and make them more likely to be snacky; so are economic and technological forces. Until quite recently, the technology for distributing video online was insufficient to make it a viable mass phenomenon. In the first few years of the 2000s this changed, and streaming video no longer requires a load lag time. Ideally, you click play and it plays. But hosting and serving video still requires memory and bandwidth, and neither comes in free or infinite supply. It is for this reason that YouTube, which hosts for free, limits uploads to a maximum of ten minutes (though this limitation is circumvented in some cases). Web video has developed under a technological and economic constraint that encourages artists to make their movies as short as can be. If every extra bit takes up more memory and bandwidth, then every extra bit costs. The interstitial aesthetic of Web shorts is the product of several forces. Some of these are cognitive, some are social or cultural, some are technological and economic, and all are interconnected. All are significant in producing the miniature form of videos online.

 

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Web videos as DIY media

In contrast to the industrial setting in which “old” audiovisual mass media are made, Web videos are products of an artisanal organization of labor and capital. The conditions of Web video production are more like atéliers than like American movie studios with their stratospheric budgets and extensive division of labor. While the major media industries are quickly getting into the business of production for the Web, the prototypical video online as I write in 2007 is still the amateur video. Amateurs have access to less and different technology and personnel than professionals, and to significantly smaller sums of cash. These are crucial differences.

Amateur can be defined three ways: one who pursues a passion for personal pleasure; who lacks the knowledge or means to produce professional–quality work; or who toils without expectation of pay. Many YouTubers are amateurs in all senses, but the creators like Frank who do realize some advertising and viewer–donation income from their videos are amateurs in the other senses. Those who might have some production expertise still seem to prefer an amateur aesthetic with noisy sound, over or underexposure, crude editing, and other stylistic indicators of authentic DIY expression. Even videos by the A–list of videobloggers use amateur techniques. Steve Garfield’s Video Blog uses jerky handheld walk–and–talk moving camera shots with the on–screen figure holding his own camera as he moves down a sidewalk [12]. Amanda Across America, a widely seen videoblog that starred the most Internet–famous of all videoblog personalities, Amanda Congdon, was technically quite poor, with frequent overexposures and awkward framings. Amanda would leave in bits of interviews that more professional operations would edit out, seemingly to reassure the audience that they are getting total access to the material being covered. Rare is the videoblog that has anything resembling the look or sound of a local news program or network sitcom. Just as punk is opposed to the polish of pop, Web video is opposed to the gloss and sheen of Hollywood entertainment. That sense of opposition is the spirit and ethos of DIY production whether in music, publishing, or audiovisual media. As Frank describes it in the episode of 23 October 2006, videoblogging is “a cheap and fast alternative to making media — that looks cheap and fast.”

A videoblog is a kind of blog, and a blog is a form of personal expression, a diary or journal made public, a net–trail of individual interests and experiences over time (boyd, 2006; Nardi, et al., 2004). The Show takes the form of a blog by being an outlet for its host’s stream of consciousness, for his quick takes on the news of the day, for cataloguing his cute little habits and prejudices, like liking ducks and sleeping “macho” (t–shirt only) and being annoyed when the barista at Starbucks learns his name and expects him to make chitchat. Amateurism is an ideal form for personal expression because it brings a sense of raw immediacy and unfiltered honesty.

The Show was created using the same tools that anyone who watches it might have: an old camcorder and the software that comes bundled in new Macintosh computers, iMovie for video editing and Garageband for sound recording and editing (3 October 2006). Using consumer–grade production apparatus adds value to Frank’s videoblog because it suggests that Ze is just like us. Rather than a purveyor of traditional, professional mass culture, he is part of our community. A technological and economic constraint, having limited means, is turned into an aesthetic advantage in The Show and many videos like it. Lonelygirl15 attracted its substantial audience by duplicating the most important qualities of amateur video: spontaneous and casual performance and authentic bedroom mise en scène. Its downfall was that, among other giveaways, its use of fill lighting betrayed that it was too “pro” and so YouTubers began to question its veracity as amateur (Newman, 2006). Producers and consumers of Web video, like zinesters and punk rockers, take a rough aesthetic to be a mark of credibility and virtue and became suspicious when lonelygirl seemed too good (Duncombe, 1997). According to its own rhetoric, the new participatory online culture needs none of the fancy apparatus of the mainstream media to create something honest and worthwhile, something that communicates citizen to citizen in an authentic and personal mode of expression. It is better off as amateur media than it would be with the means available to professionals.

Indeed, Ze Frank champions average, ordinary creative production by people without technical skill or training. In defending his “Ugly MySpace Contest” in which viewers of The Show nominated and voted on a slate of hideous user–designed MySpace pages (14 July 2006), Frank celebrates “ugly” as a rebellion against proper taste and professional design orthodoxy. He argues that with ordinary people using media authoring tools that were previously reserved for professionals, canons of taste and beauty will have to be revised in accordance with the new inclusive mode of creativity and participation in culture. His words in this episode, as transcribed by his viewers, are worth quoting at length:

For a very long time, taste and artistic training have been things that only a small number of people have been able to develop. Only a few people could afford to participate in the production of many types of media. Raw materials like pigments were expensive; same with tools like printing presses; even as late as 1963 it cost Charles Peignot over $600,000 to create and cut a single font family.

The small number of people who had access to these tools and resources created rules about what was good taste or bad taste. These designers started giving each other awards and the rules they followed became even more specific. All sorts of stuff about grids and sizes and color combinations — lots of stuff that the consumers of this media never consciously noticed. Over the last 20 years, however, the cost of tools related to the authorship of media has plummeted. For very little money, anyone can create and distribute things like newsletters, or videos, or bad–ass tunes about "ugly."

Suddenly consumers are learning the language of these authorship tools. The fact that tons of people know names of fonts like Helvetica is weird! And when people start learning something new, they perceive the world around them differently. If you start learning how to play the guitar, suddenly the guitar stands out in all the music you listen to. For example, throughout most of the history of movies, the audience didn’t really understand what a craft editing was. Now, as more and more people have access to things like iMovie, they begin to understand the manipulative power of editing. Watching reality TV almost becomes like a game as you try to second–guess how the editor is trying to manipulate you.

As people start learning and experimenting with these languages authorship, they don't necessarily follow the rules of good taste. This scares the shit out of designers.

In Myspace, millions of people have opted out of pre–made templates that "work" in exchange for ugly. Ugly when compared to pre–existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.

Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time as consumer–created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.

Happy Ugly. This is Ze Frank, thinking so you don’t have to.

Ugly is not an anti–aesthetic, not a rejection of taste or beauty; it is a counter–aesthetic, a substitution of amateur standards for professional ones. This is a potentially revolutionary stance, and is of a piece with the technical design of The Show. Frank straddles both sides of the DIY fence. As a Web designer, like many other Web designers, he taught himself to use authorship tools that allow him to conform to the canons of taste accepted and promoted among designers. His work (e.g., his own Web site) looks professional. But as a video creator, Frank is like a MySpace kid who rejects good design in favor of doing his own thing. Although he doesn’t explicitly refer to himself in this episode of The Show, he seems to be describing his own aesthetic, his preference to take the tools of media creation and see what he can do with them if he plays around. By the standards of commercial entertainment, The Show is certainly Ugly. Frank seems totally innocent of the most routine Hollywood staging and editing practices, things one might learn in an introductory video production course. But by the standards of the DIY movement, The Show is original, authentic, and worthwhile.

DIY can mean different things. It can describe a visual or sound style, the modest-means quality summed up by the punk myth that all it takes to start a band is three guitar chords. In zines this translates as crooked lines of type cut and pasted to create the signature haphazard layout of the form. In video it means jump cuts, poor exposure, noise, and other imperfections. But DIY can also mean media made using the new tools, themselves the products of professional creators, that allow anyone to set up a blog or a Web photo album, or that make graphic design into an art that any twelve year–old with a computer and an inclination to experiment can try out. Virgina Postrel (2007) compares these tools to cake mixes that allow you to bake your own cake without finding the right recipe and figuring everything out for yourself. Some of these DIY products can look quite polished, not at all like the cut–and–paste aesthetic of a zine. But the important point is that, like home cooking, they are the work of ordinary people rather than the work of professional designers or chefs, and thus they satisfy and promote the taste of ordinary people rather than experts and pros. It is the shift in taste from an assumption of professionalism as the norm and standard of quality to a position that amateurism has equal or even greater value that makes Frank’s position on DIY authorship so potent, because it portends a democratic revision of prevailing notions of art and creativity.

 

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Ze Frank’s style

What appealed to me most about Ze Frank when I began to watch The Show was its audiovisual (some might say “cinematic”) technique. I was captivated by things that might appeal to someone, like me, trained in the study of film style. I was really intrigued by the way Frank frames his own face, and the way he cuts from one shot to the next. Frank often shoots himself in absurdly tight close–ups, his eyes open wide and his expressions exaggerated. And he cuts quite frequently in a jarring, almost distracting staccato to camera setups only a few inches closer or more distant to himself. I found these stylistic choices to be odd but eventually also endearing; if you had described them to me I would likely have said they sound obnoxious but Frank has a frenetic energy and an endearingly goofy personality that suit his visual style. The tightness of the framing is also a means of compensating for the shortcomings of a medium with a small, low–res image. We feel his presence that much more when his face fills the frame. At first, watching The Show was a bit like having a conversation with someone who stands too close, but after getting acquainted with it, it was as if this social tic, this slightly uncomfortable intimacy, was actually the eccentric trait of a fond friend, and I found myself becoming more and more endeared of Ze and his style.

 

Figure 2: The Show with Ze Frank, 15 May 2006
Figure 2
Figure 3: The Show with Ze Frank, 15 May 2006
Figure 3
Figure 2–3: The Show with Ze Frank, 15 May 2006. Shifting lighting schemes within an episode: overexposure on the right side of Frank’s face and a yellowish color cast at the beginning, but in a more distant framing a short while later, the lighting is less harsh, with more contour and definition and a reddish tone.
 
Figure 4: The Show with Ze Frank, 24 May 2006
Figure 4
Figure 5: The Show with Ze Frank, 24 May 2006
Figure 5
Figure 4–5: The Show with Ze Frank, 24 May 2006. An excessively tight framing, cutting off the face right at the lower lip…and later the very same episode, with an almost identical camera setup, the colors have oddly gotten a bit warmer.
 
Figure 6: The Show with Ze Frank, 20 May 2006
Figure 6 (20 May 2006)
Figure 7: The Show with Ze Frank, 31 August 2006
Figure 7 (31 August 2006)
Figure 6–7: The Show with Ze Frank. Goofy framings making use of available resources — the face — for comic effect. The bottom shot would be especially unlikely in professional production as it cuts off the eyes and mouth in rather unnatural ways).
 

What at first seemed to me like quirks of Frank’s style quickly came to seem like The Show’s central appeal — the “bugs” recast in my mind as “features” — and at that time I recognized that the form of videoblogs emerges from a different background than the form of what I was used to watching and studying, feature films and network or cable television. The Show — and many videos like it — might usefully be considered as self–taught art, a term art historians use to refer to artworks by individuals “who have no academic artistic training and little connection to the mainstream traditions of Western art history.” [13] Self–taught describes the work of artists who lack skills standard within an art world, and connotes an absence of rules for the artist to follow, a lack of familiarity with “proper” ways of solving certain aesthetic problems [14]. One of the things people admire in naïve art is a product of its very absence of technique: because the artist is not concerned with following established conventions of a form, they may seem to use their art as a more direct and unfiltered conduit for their ideas and passions — for the expression of the self — than is possible in work that is a product of reigning norms (Cardinal, 1994). The Show and many other videos like it are not (yet) the products of formal education in media–making and they don’t arise out of an apprenticeship in the culture industries. Although they may require many kinds of skill in their creation, they come off looking like the work of artists who are not only self–taught, but who are originating a form by experimenting with its authorship.

Frank’s technique betrays little knowledge of professional conventions of framing, editing, or lighting. He often cuts from one setup to another in the same location with distractingly different lighting schemes and color temperatures (Figures 2–5). But to call this amateur, as I did in the previous section, does not capture its full effect. Among other things, amateur means the opposite of professional, and when Frank originated The Show there was no such thing as a professional videoblog. Self–taught gets at a different quality because it suggests not just passion, not just modesty of means, but also the process of learning what can be done with the tools of creation by just using them. Frank champions this approach in the 28 July 2006 episode of The Show, in which he argues that we express ourselves best when we figure out for ourselves how to use our tools for expression as children do, by experimenting with them. In this way, Web videos are like early cinema, the films made in the first decade of the medium’s emergence. In both cases, no reigning style yet exists and heterogeneity rules (Gunning, 1990; Burch, 1990). The media producer works through ideas without the resource of received templates for creation, without academies or guilds to pass on formal knowledge and without an established canon of masterworks that everyone agrees to regard as the standards of excellence in the form. If amateur means opting out of established craft norms (by necessity, typically), self–taught means innocence of artistic tradition. Although I would maintain that these concepts are distinct, they clearly have in common their support of individuals creating art outside of the circle of an established art world (or entertainment industry) and aloof from its schemes for the valuation and validation of culture.

The look of The Show is a product of this naïve approach to creativity, and also of technological and economic constraints. A self–taught artist needs to find effective solutions to problems for which they have no established solutions to draw upon, and the artist of modest means must do so within the limitations of their situation. Frank’s success is a product of exploiting his available materials and techniques, of turning constraints into opportunities. If you make and publish a three–minute video every day with a cast and crew of one and a budget of next–to–nothing, you had better make use what you have, and Ze makes use of his face. He fills the screen with it, to the point of mild discomfort and pleasant absurdity, and manages to tap the framing of a facial close–up as a mark of originality (Figures 6–7). The means available are his face and body, his voice, the rather drab mise en scène of his apartment or hotel room, and some basic computer tools for quoting, editing, and making music. He also has the videos submitted by sportsracers, which are themselves likewise constrained by available tools and funds. Out of this, he creates something people are eager to watch every single day.

Like a number of videoblogs, The Show seems to have an affinity for one pre–existing form in particular, the fake newscast like Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” and The Daily Show. Since this format bases much of its material on a single person addressing a camera, it can to an extent be replicated using the resources available to a video artisan. But rather than seeing The Show with Ze Frank as derivative of The Daily Show, which I believe it is not, I argue that both find similar solutions to a common problem: in what form does a daily program respond to current events and to the media’s coverage of them? Both work with the genre of television news, including the direct–to–camera address, the reporting of items in a series including quotes from either side of a story, and the use of declarative phrases and provocative questions. Unlike professional topical comedy, however, videoblogs are produced on a DIY scale and don’t have the personnel or technology to mimic professional news very closely. In order to respond to the news in a robust and deliberative fashion, it’s necessary to find creative solutions given the limitations of small–scale production.

One basic routine of this format is a setup–punchline series in which the setup is the report of a news item and the punchline is a sarcastic remark, a play on words, or a devastating word–image mismatch. In the case of both SNL and Comedy Central news parodies, there is often a travesty of the network and cable news convention of staging a conversation between an anchor and a correspondent or analyst. In the fake news version, typically the anchor plays straight while the correspondent says outlandish things. Frank duplicates both of these routines of fake news. For instance, in the episode of 4 April 2006, he matter–of–factly reports a news item that companies are turning to user–generated advertising to promote their products. He follows this just as matter–of–factly, gazing into the camera, with the joke: “Advertising companies are shitting their pants, while consumers are wondering how they got roped into making this crap.” In the 22 May 2006 episode, Ze describes a scandal involving a Democratic Congressman and cuts to a still shot of a donkey (i.e., an ass) in the middle of the discussion, visually punning on the Democratic mascot to ridicule the corrupt politician. Like The Daily Show’s use of graphics and music to introduce segments in mockery of the network and cable news shows, Ze Frank uses bits of jingle–like music for his segments too, such as “A Special Report on Something!” and the more frequent “S–s–s–something from the comments,” both of which he sings. A regular Friday feature, “Ride the Fire Eagle Danger Day” had its own recorded theme music, to which viewers set their own homemade animations.

Unlike Stewart, et al., however, Ze Frank doesn’t have the resource of additional performers against whom to play straight man. He cannot stage conversations with anyone but himself — which is what he does. In the 15 May 2006 episode he complains about a bad air travel experience by cutting back and forth between close–ups of himself engaged in dialogue with himself. The sportsracers transcribed it in their wiki like this:

Ze 1: What was the best part of your day, Ze?

Ze 2: Maybe when I was about to take off in an airplane and they said that the wing flaps didn’t work.

Ze 1: Awesome!

Ze 2: Yeah, awesome and then we got to just sit there and it was hot.

Ze 1: Cool, they must’ve given you information about what was going on.

Ze 2: No, it was cooler than that, they played a game called Guess What’s Wrong.

Ze 3: (leuuu–gh)

Ze 1: At least they finally fixed the problem when you took off.

Ze 2: Yeah, no, then they made us get off the plane and sit around for four hours.

Ze 1: Awesome, you love airports!

Ze 2: I sure do.

In this exchange, Ze 1 puts himself in the place of an inquisitive viewer while Ze 2 is the real, exasperated Ze relating his misadventures. In another episode, on 9 August 2006, the roles are different. Ze discusses the confession of a man named John Karr to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a decade–old unsolved case that commanded massive tabloid interest. The transcript from the wiki reads:

The New York Times reports that DNA tests refute claims by creepy–looking football head John Karr that he was involved in the killing of Jon–Benét Ramsey. County district attorney Mary Lacey asked that the arrest warrant be dismissed, saying no evidence has developed, other than his repeated admissions, to place Mr. Karr at the scene of the crime.

What was this man doing?!

He was trying to leverage popularity by attaching himself to a brand.

Jon–Benet Ramsey’s not a brand.

She isn’t a brand ... but there is a Jon–Benet brand. It’s just not one most people would want to associate themselves with.

And it worked! He got a business–class flight out of it, and the overall brand experience now includes his weird head.

(Blank sheeplike look, bleating) FIRST!

What the hell do you mean by brand?

A brand is an emotional aftertaste that’s conjured up by, but not necessarily dependent on, a series of experiences.

An emotional aftertaste? That sounds like sissy talk! But every (Max Headroom style stutter) but every but everything has an emotional aftertaste.

Right! And everything’s a potential brand!

In this exchange, Ze is taking on the role not of a viewer but of a host asking incredulous questions of a whacked–out correspondent, as Stewart often does on The Daily Show.

The Show often cuts to Ze reacting to himself, for instance, muttering “asshole!” in response to a news item about corrupt Washington politics (28 April 2006) or chuckling in reaction to his own lines (27 July 2006). In addition to interviewing himself, he also might play both sides in a conversation, as in the episode of 12 September 2006, in which he speaks the parts of both the boyfriend and the girlfriend halves of a young couple, poking fun at college relationships. All of these devices serve to turn monologues into dialogues, to expand the range of voices beyond Ze’s own to create more of a sense of variety and to maximize comic appeal. In one episode (10 October 2006) Ze even speaks for an imagined viewer of the program in a voice–over commenting skeptically on The Show and on Ze Frank.

Some of Ze’s most distinctive touches function both as means of engaging the attention of viewers and as authorial signatures. I am thinking in particular of Frank’s refusal to blink and his jittery cutting style. Beginning in April, 2006, Frank stops blinking onscreen. His eyes are always open wide in an exaggeration of an attentive stare. In an interview he has said that not blinking is a product of his intense concentration but in the episode on 23 October 2006, he advises would–be vloggers not to blink because when you blink, “that’s one less connection made” with viewers (Millman, 2007). As David Bordwell argues in relation to Hollywood stars’ (and directors’) general avoidance of blinking, blinking can even inadvertently convey weakness, a lack of interest, or “surprise, concern or bafflement.” An unblinking stare, on the other hand, conveys intensity of interest and invites unbroken attention (Bordwell, 2003). We are generally quite sensitive to being gazed at intently and interpret this kind of behavior in real life as either a sign of aggression or sexual interest, two behaviors that would ordinarily command our full cognitive resources. Whatever the artist’s intention, the device has the effect of drawing in the audience and of distinguishing Ze. Never blinking is his “thing.” As well, because one of his pupils is larger than the other, it draws attention to a distinctive element of his appearance. Ze has a face made to be studied. This is a benefit in an interstitial, miniature form that must strive to compel the audience’s potentially fleeting attention moment by moment.

The editing style Ze prefers is, he says, a product of his production routine. Ze performs The Show without a script, inventing his act with the camera running. As he works he seems to pay little attention to remaining on his mark (if he has one). So he cuts the show together out of the fragments of the performance he wants to use and cuts from clip to clip, most often with a single shot per thought. Each cut thus joins a Ze shot with another Ze shot, or with a shot of another subject, but without any of the standard professional techniques for transitioning between camera setups, like a “turn to camera 2,” split–screen, or picture–in–picture, devices common not only on television news programs but also on their parodies. Of course it is a lot less trouble to use a jump cut than to insert more polished transitions. But there are also significant advantages to doing it Ze’s way — it marks The Show off from professional productions, gives it a frenzied tone, and innovates a personal style. It rivets attention.

We must be careful to distinguish between thinking of The Show as amateur or primitive, and thinking of its creation as somehow unskilled or inexpert. Amateurs and primitives like Frank may be highly skilled. But Frank developed his skill and his form essentially by himself. He draws on some conventions of other media forms, on television shows for instance. His format is also similar in various ways to other vlogs, such as Rocketboom. But because he and other vloggers are using quite different tools from conventional media, because their productions are artisanal rather than industrial, they have had to invent their own production routines and their own conventions. Videoblogs have not had the luxury of a system. The style of The Show is a product more than anything of Ze Frank’s eagerness to work out a new form of media. This form depends on earlier forms, as is always the case. It wasn’t any individual’s original idea to talk into a camera, to create new content every day, to mock figures in the news, or to sing silly songs. But doing all of these things as one person and distributing the work online was not part of any established mode of artistic production before videobloggers started doing this in the mid–2000s. In essence, videobloggers like Ze Frank are making it up as they go along, discovering common solutions to shared problems, and this is partly what makes their work exciting.

For many decades, it has been possible for anyone with a camera to create audiovisual media. But only with the availability of a delivery system in the form of streaming video on the Web has the possibility existed for anyone with a camera to reach an audience beyond their circle of immediate acquaintances on a regular basis. Thus many technologies had to converge to create an impetus for artists like Frank to work out their forms. The delivery system is key because without it, there is no daily global audience for this kind of artisanal production. Now that we can share each other’s work, now that distribution is available to practically anyone, there is the potential for read–write culture to distribute products of everyday creativity on a large scale.

 

++++++++++

Cultivating a collaborative audience

Ze Frank began doing online video in 2001 with a Web page called “How to Dance Properly,” a combination of several shots he took of himself dancing [15]. He posted this as a birthday party invitation to send to his friends. It became a “viral” sensation when his friends forwarded the video to others, and they in turn passed it along until, after a few days, it had been viewed by hundreds of thousands of strangers (Pham, 2007). In other words, a personal, amateur media product reached a mass audience almost effortlessly. Over the few years after that, he built up zefrank.com, a Web site filled with similar oddities, games, clips, and songs for his serendipitously assembled following. He became a popular Web artist whose métier was creating brief, fun diversions. The modest audience for these ephemera followed him to The Show.

Within a short time after The Show began, it had attracted a daily following of viewers with a more than casual interest, and by January 2007 it had, by one calculation, about 200,000 viewers logging in “on a weekly basis” (Fox, 2007). Frank encouraged his audience to participate by naming them sportsracers and by asking them to upload videos of themselves doing quasi–martial arts poses called “power moves,” some of which were included in episodes.

Figure 8: A sportsracer does his power move
Figure 8: Riffing on a quote from President Bush’s press secretary, Frank dubbed the enemies of sportsracers “hard chargers” and spoke out against them to encourage the audience’s opposition (13 April 2006).

An especially active cadre of sportsracers were tagged “fabulosos” and they participated in more elaborate projects like fabuloso chess, which they played against Ze, and Fabuloso Fridays, which were the viewer–scripted episode and segments of The Show created using The Show’s wiki. All of these supporters were seen as potential members of the somewhat mysterious League of Awesomeness, or LOA, and Frank later revealed that his year–long project of making The Show was actually an internship required as initiation into the LOA.

From early on, Frank encouraged his audience to see itself as a tight–knit group with its own language, iconography, and rites. After revealing his love of duckies, the yellow duck became Frank’s mascot and eventually appeared at the top of the screen on The Show’s main page and as the icon in the center of user–generated sportsracers t–shirts. The LOA mascot was an eagle, and it too became an icon to represent The Show.

Figure 9: The LOA eagle

Figure 9 The LOA eagle

Figure 10: Ze Frank's duckie

Figure 10 Ze Frank’s duckie

 

Frank cultivated a sense of the audience as an in–group with segments to open an episode designed to alienate new viewers who would not be hip to the The Show’s insider knowledge. After a deliberately inane, slow–paced segment about the steps of his Brooklyn neighborhood, Frank looked into the camera, said, “Are the new viewers gone yet?” and proceeded with the normal, fast–paced delivery of his typical material.

After several of these “Are the new viewers gone yet?” episodes, Frank did an entire show of absurd content called “Fingers in Food!” (30 August 2006) in which he cheerfully inserted his digits into fruits, vegetables, and other comestibles. The following day’s episode began, “Are the new viewers gone yet?” (31 August 2006). Early in the run of The Show, Frank encouraged viewers to dress up their vacuum cleaners, saying this was necessary for membership in the League of Awesomeness, and viewers posted their photos to the gallery.

Figure 11: vacuum cleaners

Figure 11 A vacuum cleaner,
dressed up by a viewer.

Figure 12: vacuum cleaners

Figure 12 Another vacuum cleaner,
dressed up by a viewer.

 

Frank would often talk politics and in one early show he picked up on a bumbling phrase President Bush used in answering an awkward question, “Yes No I This Is” (11 April 2006). Frank set these words to music and in subsequent episodes included this nonsense line in a way that would appeal to regular watchers and confuse newcomers. So many of these in–group items accumulated that only a few months along, he was able to compose a song called “Summer Jamz” to include them all as a way of disingenuously introducing The Show to new viewers, who would surely be more confused after hearing the song than before (30 May 2006). Like kids in high school or summer camp, Ze and his sportsracers invented an essentially nonsensical lexicon of shared terms — inside jokes — to function as bonding slogans and foster in–groupness. This language and iconography that grew around The Show functions similarly to that of commercial media fandom. Phrases like the episode sign–off “Thinking so you don’t have to” are like “May the force be with you.” A power move is like a light sabre pose. A duckie is like a Darth Vader mask. The line “good afternoon sportsracers, you’re watching The Show with Ze Frank” is like “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.”

The Show with Ze Frank thus adopted some of the same features as any fan-friendly media text. But one significant difference between the affordances of traditional audiovisual media and episodic Internet video is that the eager, passionate viewer can become a participant not just in the practices of fandom, creating texts that draw upon the original, but in the creation of the primary text. Instances in which feature films have incorporated fan input, such as Snakes on a Plane, have done so in a much more limited fashion. The affordances of the Web permit users’ content to be integrated into the primary product such as their songs and videos in a way that would be far less likely to happen in conventional, traditional forms. In the case of industrial media that engage with ordinary people’s creative work, like America’s Funniest Home Videos, there is a stark asymmetry in power and resources between producers and participants. This is seen, for instance, in the difference between production values of the home video and the professional studio shoot, and more significantly in the power the primary text has to define the meanings of the user–submitted clips by shaping their placement in the context of the segments in which they appear, by altering them from their original form, by adding sound effects and voice–overs. The Show offers a more egalitarian relationship between primary and secondary creative personnel. In effect, the secondary personnel are less secondary. They do more than contribute bits and pieces and ask questions as prompts for humorous bits, as TV viewers have long done. Viewers of The Show initiated projects and did real creative work, writing, composing, recording, videotaping, editing, and so on. They remixed songs and shot clips, created animations, staged events, competed in contests, collected knowledge, asked questions, and supplied Ze with material.

The interactive form of the The Show is a product of the Internet’s affordance, as a network of users, of bringing like–minded but geographically dispersed people together in an common, online creative space. Furthermore, with grassroots media production, producers and their audiences typically share the same basic creative idioms and the same technologies, all being do–it–yourselfers. It is crucial in the case of Ze Frank and his audience that there was a minimum of aesthetic and technological distance between producer and fan, so that all could feel like participants in the same creative community. Frank might be a singular figure, a gifted performer, a rare talent, but the sportsracers added immeasurable value to The Show.

DIY media are engendering a shift in popular taste. No longer is professionalism assumed to be the norm and standard of quality. The notion that do–it–yourself amateurism can stand on equal ground with media industry professionalism signals a democratic challenge to hierarchies of aesthetic value. And at the same time that amateur media are gaining ground, so is the communitarian alternative to traditional, top–down mass media distinctions between production and reception. Communities like the one that came together around The Show comprise artists working in a vernacular format of creative expression, using amateur tools and a primitive aesthetic. Art is always the product of what Howard S. Becker calls a “network of cooperation,” [16] but artists and their support personnel have traditionally been seen to occupy separate spheres [17]. Our contemporary mediascape threatens this notion of the autonomy of the solitary artist, revealing ways in which creative communities can function as increasingly egalitarian networks. End of article

 

About the author

Michael Z. Newman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He earned a PhD from the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2005. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Film Studies, Film Criticism, The Velvet Light Trap, Flow, and Cinema Journal. He is working on a book (under contract from Columbia University Press) on American independent cinema. He blogs about movies, television, and Internet culture at Zigzigger: On the Audiovisual and Beyond (http://zigzigger.blogspot.com).
E–mail: mznewman [at] uwm [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Episodes of The Show can be viewed at http://zefrank.com/theshow. I cite individual episodes parenthetically by hyperlinked original upload date in the text of my paper.

2. I am using “poetics” in the Aristotelian sense of studying an aesthetic form in terms of how it is created to achieve certain effects. Aristotle, Poetics translation by S.H. Butcher, at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html. This is the usage developed for the study of audiovisual media, in particular cinema, by David Bordwell: “The poetics of any artistic medium studies the finished work as the result of a process of construction — a process that includes a craft component (such as rules of thumb), the more general principles according to which the work is composed, and its functions, effects, and uses.” Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema, p. 12.

3. There are many different kinds of Web video and one certainly cannot not hope to generalize effectively about them all. I am talking here about a specific and exemplary kind of Web video. The Show is an instance of so–called user–generated content uploaded to hosting services like YouTube, blip.tv, and Revver, which allow for easy streaming play in a Web browser and JavaScript embedding for repurposing in other Web sites (e.g., blogs). I do not mean to cover the streaming video posted to the Web sites run by major media companies like NBC and Viacom, whether they are Web–only content or television and film texts. I also do not mean to cover downloaded (as opposed to streaming) video available for purchase on iTunes or for free using p2p tools like BitTorrent. (The exception here is that many of the “user–generated” videos, like The Show with Ze Frank, are also available as downloads from iTunes in their podcasts section.)

4. An excellent compilation of these videoblogs from late 2006 is “Youtubers,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXwarrIYLJ4.

5. GeekBrief.tv, http://geekbrief.podshow.com/.

6. Rocketboom, http://www.rocketboom.com/stories/.

7. Chad Vader, http://www.splu.net/.

8. Ask a Ninja, http://www.askaninja.com/.

9. Amanda Across America http://amandacongdon.com/america/.

10. The question of what to call these videos has been a topic of discussion and debate at one central site for bringing together practitioners of the form, the Yahoo! Videoblogging group, http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/videoblogging/.

11. Ze Frank, “About the Show,” http://www.zefrank.com/theshow/archives/2006/06/060906.html.

12. Steve Garfield’s Video Blog, http://stevegarfield.blogs.com/.

13. Russell, 2001, p. 3. Alternative labels would include folk, primitive, untutored, naïve, or outsider art, and although these are not all synonyms, they do overlap substantially in the things they describe (Boas, 1955; Gombrich, 2002; Cardinal, 1972; Russell, 2001; Fine, 2004).

14. Wingert, 1962, pp. 4–5; Fine, 2004.

15. “How to Dance Properly,” http://www.zefrank.com/invite/swfs/index2.html.

16. Becker, 1982, p. xi.

17. Becker, a sociologist, argues that art is always the product of social organizations rather than just great men and women. My thinking about the community surrounding The Show is indebted to Becker’s conception of artistic production as a cooperative social endeavor.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 10 October 2007; accepted 15 March 2008.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Ze Frank and the poetics of Web video
by Michael Z. Newman
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 5 - 5 May 2008
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2102/1962





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