Ze Frank could do a TED Talk about pivots, but his TED Talk pivot was a few pivots ago.
If you knew him only from his trailblazing forays into the video blogging realm, where he was renowned for quirky, crowdsourced art projects, you might not guess that the career of Hosea Frank (Ze for short, pronounced “zay”) has been bookended by scientific roles.
He started out studying neuroscience and now spends his days on deep zoological dives for True Facts, his popular YouTube show.
In between, however, he’s shot around like an excitement-seeking pinball, headlining a band, publishing one of the internet’s earliest viral hits, traveling the public speaker circuit, creating one of the first virtual currencies, scriptwriting for Hollywood, transforming Buzzfeed and filming a Discovery pilot that had him flying down a tarmac at 340 miles per hour in a school bus retrofitted with two Phantom F1 fighter jet engines.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Ze Frank—besides everything we’ve ever learned about killer surfing snails and more than we ever wanted to know about lizard tongues—it’s that when it comes to career changes, there’s no such thing as too much. Follow him on a journey of unbelievable twist and turns right back to where he started (sort of).
Frank grew up a “hardcore art kid” in Guilderland, New York, but gravitated toward science at Brown University and then to a lab. That got lonely. Luckily, “Dowdy Smack,” his band, seemed to be headed for the big time—until it wasn’t. At this inflection point, Frank considered law school while answering phones for the Latin American division of Travelers Insurance. (They’d misheard his birth name as José. No problem. Spanish-speaking colleagues took his calls, and in exchange, he did sketches of their babies and dogs.) Subsequently, he temped as an illustrator for a big ad agency, where he learned early versions of Flash and code-based animation. “I took to that computer stuff so fast,” Frank says. “I saw the opportunities for play in art.”
Frank’s name was etched into the history of viral videos with How to Dance Properly, looped clips of him dancing goofily that he’d sent out as a birthday invitation via his Earthlink account. Seventeen friends forwarded it to other friends. “From there it just blew up,” he says. “All I wanted to do was to figure out what just happened.” Forty million views later, Frank’s life was changed.
He was determined to publish something new every day, experimenting with text lists, games, weird short films, asking his audience to contribute their photos for Dress up your vacuum cleaner and Toilet paper fashion photo contests and to join him in transforming hate mail into “angry-gami” creations.
Process, not product, motivated Frank, and as he matured, so did his approach. March 17, 2006, marked another new beginning, as he stared into the camera and said, “I haven’t had a cigarette in three days, and nothing feels good.” Thus started The Show, one of the first video blogs, featuring Frank’s unscripted meditations on the news, his fans reenacting their baby photos or a collective remix of someone’s original song. Each three-minute episode took 10 hours to produce. “It was the first thing stylistically that looked anything like it,” he says. Other early video bloggers such as Hank and John Green and Gary Vaynerchuk cite him as an influence.
As planned, The Show came to an end after one year, but it was revived in 2012 as A Show, which began with an “Invocation for Beginnings” and followed “a line of inquiry around emotion.” Standout episodes include “How to Fight as a Couple,” “Teen Brain with Rainn Wilson” and “On Worrying Too Much.” Cue the brief Hollywood pivot, which saw Frank hired to write a movie about clowns and cast in Speed Junkie driving in the world’s most unsafe school bus.
People like hearing from revolutionaries, and the pivot to public speaking via TED Talks and related venues was fun for a while. To really succeed, though, “You either have to be an improviser that can carry loads of information in your mind, or you have to learn how to do the same thing over and over again, incredibly well,” Frank says. The retreading of territory got tiresome.
Meanwhile, the business world was calling. Years earlier he’d developed a precursor to NFTs—a duck you could personalize. Some days, the ducks would bring in thousands of dollars in tips. Now he tapped Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti, who’d also been a student of virality, and together they raised funding for Star.Me, a sticker-based, social media-linked game. When Buzzfeed acquired it, Frank went on to a seven-year stint there.
As president for motion pictures, he oversaw the site’s expansion to video, which resulted in an increase in traffic from 300 million monthly views to 4 billion. His team created Tasty, the popular video-based recipe site, and other offshoots, developing “new ways of thinking about what people wanted out of media and deconstructing the film school approach to the artistry of this medium.” But years of feverishly inventive growth resulted in an unwieldy corporate structure, which felt to Frank “like moving from an art colony into a bureaucracy in a day.”
And so, back to science. With his latest pivot to True Facts, he’s looking to “modify the tropes of the documentary”—think Ken Burns meets National Lampoon. Although the first installment dates to 2013, Frank didn’t devote himself full-time to it until he left Buzzfeed six years later. True Facts About Hedgehogs, his first stab at it, included neither truth nor facts. But by 2019, he says, “I was much more interested in the science part.” The videos got longer and better-researched as his relationship to the scientific community changed. He sources footage from, among other places, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s public domain archive, where he’s now a well-known entity.
True Facts still includes unscientific asides, but it’s also highly educational. Frank has schooled 4 million people, for instance, about ticks and lyme disease. These days he’s preparing for a segment on beavers.
To an extent, Ze Frank has discovered a secret to success in the fickle world of online creativity—don’t let conventional wisdom, or algorithms, tell you what to do, he says: “I’ve always had my greatest success making my own rules.”
Sheela Clary is a freelance reporter and writer based in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. A long-time educator and nonprofit leader, she's interested in education, income inequality, and creativity, and publishes her features and personal essays regularly on The Berkshire Edge.