Ze Frank: 2001’s Viral Success

Glenn Fleishman
5 min readSep 19, 2016

Back in 2001, I encountered Ze Frank for the first time when someone forwarded this hilarious birthday invitation he’d created for himself.

In 2001, a viral success meant you could wind up charged $1,000s of dollars, have your Web site taken off line, or melt down a server you were running yourself. It was terrible! (It happened to me. Fortunately, I skirted disaster.)

If you were very very very lucky, you could leverage a viral tidal wave into something magnificent, like a job or a large audience who helped support your work or a book deal or whatever.

Sometimes, you’d be Ze Frank, who was a pioneer in using video to make things that spoke to people and were freaking hilarious. He was probably the first YouTube star before YouTube existed. Now, he’s the head of Buzzfeed Entertainment Group. (He did a lot of cool things in the interim, and was part of a Kickstarter video I created about four years ago for a book that didn’t fund.)

Dreams come true, if you invent them!

I wrote a story about him for On Magazine, which I can’t even remember exactly what it was—Josh Quittner was the editor and it was part of Time’s empire, but it’s been so effectively erased, I have no idea if its archives exist or even who owns the content. My article that appeared in print was, in my recollection, vastly different from the draft I liked, which I reproduce below.

Death of 100,000 hits

August 2001

You’re an amateur goof, amusing friends with your rubber face and comic timing. When you buy a digital camcorder, of course you record yourself performing silly dances, and create an Internet multimedia invitation for your upcoming birthday gathering.

A few days after emailing the URL out to a few dozen friends, a torrent of response arrives from strangers. You check your site’s traffic reports: hundreds of thousands of people a day have already watched you “ride the pony.” Your ISP has shut you down to avoid charging you tens of thousands of dollars. It’s official: you’re now a professional goof, and temporarily net.famous.

The multitalented Ze (pronounced “zay”) Frank isn’t a performer by trade, a publicity hound, or a Web entrepreneur. Rather, he’s been touched by the invisible hand of Internet popularity, where word-of-mouth emails combined with a little good press can turn a thin thread of a creek into the mighty Hudson. (Not the Amazon — there’s not that much money involved.)

Frank’s Shockwave-based invitation shows him performing several dances: “Basic Swirl,” “Stir the Pot, of Love,” and, in a tip of the hat to to “Seinfeld” spastic dancer, “ ‘Elaine’ Ripped Me Off.”

There’s something appealing goofy and earnest about his actions that led my girlfriend and perhaps millions of others to forward the URL. (I, of course, received it, laughed like a hyena, and sent it on to another dozen people.)

Frank had some trepidation before posting the invitation. “I definitely remember, right before I put it up, definitely a little hesitant: ‘Man, you look such an idiot.’ ”

The traffic built so quickly that Frank exceeded his free bandwidth allotment at Earthlink. Steve Dougherty, a director at the company, remembered an automated report that showed Frank’s traffic heading through the roof. Typically, sites on this report contain pornography or pirated software.

Frank’s site was clearly different, and they halted it temporarily to ensure that he didn’t wind up with an enormous bill. “He’s got a lot of the best stuff the Internet was originally designed for,” Dougherty said. Dougherty and others at Earthlink opted to give Frank free bandwidth because they like his work.

Earthlink continues to count zefrank.com as its almost-always number one site by traffic. “It’s rare that there’s a quality site like his that many, many people are interested in and have some legs to it,” Dougherty said.

The site continues to get from 10,000 to 30,000 visitors a day. Several million visited during its peak period. On a recent day, it served up five gigabytes of traffic, or about 5,000 times more than an average individual home page’s bandwidth.

Although there were ways to cash in on the traffic, Frank chose to keep his site free of paid ads and other promotions. “Anything that’s funny, becomes just clever if you add a logo on it,” he said. He features an Earthlink logo as a thank you; both he and Dougherty said there’s no quid pro quo.

Frank is starting to sort out patterns from the 13,000 to 14,000 emails he’s received; he’s answered about 8,500 of them. The similarity of much of it surprised him. “Some of them are verbatim: they say exactly the same thing. They have the same sort of insecurities,” Frank said.

Using the mass numbers of ongoing visitors, Frank is conducting his own public-art experiments. With some donated digital cameras from Eastman Kodak to use as prizes — they said, he could do whatever he wanted, “as long as it’s a random giveaway” — Frank created two contests.

The first invited people to imitate one of his particularly challenging facial expressions. A group of seven in Seattle submitted a well-produced short film showing the attempts — mostly feeble — to stretch their mouths in opposite directions while bugging their eyes out.

One of the participants, Seth Broweleit, said the group was in Hawaii and wanted to do something memorable and fun. “Trying to make that crazy face and knowing that it would be seen by millions was reason enough,” he said via email.

The current contest asks participants to design and wear clothing created from toilet paper. It has to be seen to be believed.

Unlike other Internet supernovas, like Psycho Girlfriend Phone Messages or Mahir (“I kiss you”), Frank’s invitation pointed to an actual event on March 30, 2001. His natural reticence kept him from identifying himself at the bar. He said, “I’m really not very interested in creating or dispersing information about my personal life.”

“It was hard to tell who was there for the [party]. A couple times I ran into people who were looking at me funny.” Later, he received a number of emails that said, “Well, I came and I think I saw you.” Frank estimates that as many as 300 people came.

Frank thinks that more people didn’t seek him out because, he said, they arrived, and “thought to themselves, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ ”

His fame may be fleeting, but he’s philosophical about his own celebrity. “It’s a completely subversive kind of fame,” Frank said. “It’s not something that you and someone else look at, like you and your neighbor can look at the cover of People magazine when you walk by on the subway platform. The Web seems so large that you’re surprised every time someone has seen something you’ve seen.

At the end of the day, Frank said, “The most interesting thing on the Net is still going to be ‘Am I Hot or Not.’”

This originally appeared in almost entirely different form at On Magazine.

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Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning