Ze Frank invented Youtube.
Not literally, of course. But if you wanted to make the argument through a passionate video essay, you’d have plenty of evidence to make your point.
It might even go viral. Ze Frank sure did: he went viral before going viral was a good thing. His quick-cut, face-to-camera confessional style now forms the foundation of digital videos as diverse as political commentary and make-up tutorials.
Ze Frank is, and was, a creative monster. Watching his videos, you feel like you know him—he’s the funny guy from class. But then you watch a few more, and you realize no one can be this original, this razor sharp, this poignant, this often, without being a genius.
Ze Frank is no funny guy from class. He’s one of a kind.
His web shows, conceived with production values lower than many a family reunion filmmaker’s, likely inspired millions to start making content.
He made making viral videos look easy. And in that sense, perhaps we should call him the father of the influencer. That title might get more clicks.
Like all influencers, Frank struggled with the delicate—and very public—dance between pure artistic creation and, well, untold riches and worldwide influence.
On September 14, 2012, Ze Frank abandoned his status as an independent creator, joining BuzzFeed to help lead the king of listicles’ effort to make its binge-worthy mark on Youtube.
That decision rippled across the entire community. Stephen, the creator of the fast-growing Youtube channel, Coffee Break, had been a huge fan of Ze’s.
“That was the mark of the end of [his] influence on me,” he said. “He had a remarkable influence on me when he had a smaller channel where he talked about more personal things, but then he kind of sacrificed this at the altar of views so to speak, where he decided, I actually care more about just getting impressions.”
Stephen didn’t seem to blame Ze for going to BuzzFeed. And to be perfectly clear, he has no problem with any creator chasing a larger reach—he does so himself.
But in 2012, Ze Frank going to BuzzFeed just felt like a bridge too far. The site’s content strategy revolved around “stories” like “12 Reasons Why Sam, The Cat With Eyebrows, Should Be Your New Favorite Cat” and “20 Things That Will Make You Say NOOOOOOO!”
It was as if Miles Davis decided to make elevator music because millions of people ride elevators.
To BuzzFeed’s credit, they’ve changed quite a bit since 2012, focusing more on long-form, original storytelling and journalism. It’s almost certain that Ze, who now serves as BuzzFeed’s Chief Research and Development Officer, had something to do with that. But back then, the company represented everything that many creators found wrong with the Internet.
Clicks, views and impressions were all that mattered. Quality was irrelevant. Lasting value, a worthless pusuit.
“If you watch the early talks about what BuzzFeed was, it was, we’re trying to optimize purely for virality,” said Stephen. “[Ze going to BuzzFeed] had a profound impact on me as far as how I think of myself, and when I think of my audience, I try to … optimize not for views, but for impact.”
In the algorithmically driven world of social content creation, where mass numbers are still the only way most people survive, that’s no small challenge.
Stephen’s first Youtube channel featured videos of himself playing the piano, and if they were optimized for virality, well, it didn’t work. “They were all horrible,” he said with a laugh. He toiled away in obscurity for three years as a side hobby, never reaching any real audience, before deciding to look for another path forward.
“I just realized, ok, more and more, professional operations are entering the Youtube space. If I want to get in on this whole media side of the world, then I need to do it now, and I just kind of need to start something.
“I’ve been pretty ok with words my whole life, so I decided, ok, let me start a show where I talk to camera, like maybe the vlog brothers do.
“Then I realized, the most interesting and kind of informationally rich part of this video … is the images and the pictures. And so I kind of iterated my way into the video essay and then kind of discovered it was a genre already. So I said, well, I guess I’m a video essayist.”
Regardless of its origins, Stephen’s Coffee Break owes a debt of gratitude to the video essay world for introducing audiences to the concept and whetting their appetites for more.
The genre has exploded in popularity over recent years, thanks in large part to stars like Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter1) and Tony Zhou (Every Frame A Painting), whose critiques and analyses of popular films, TV shows, music and art have attracted millions of subscribers and views.
Their videos, a mix of intelligent and thought-provoking commentary laid directly over the relevant footage, are a revelation in the world of film criticism. It’s perhaps the most natural format ever invented to discuss the mechanics of moving pictures.
“Casey Neistat revolutionized the vlog and he had a bunch of copycats coming after him. Nerdwriter and Tony Zhou kind of revolutionized the video essay. Or maybe kind of invented the video essay. And you had a bunch of people coming after them and largely copying them and doing the same thing.”
What sets Coffee Break apart from those copycats?
“Because of the popularity of that style of video, a lot of people have thrown video essays into that bucket and shortchanged what the genre could be,” said Stephen. “I think the sooner we can detach it from that idea, oh, this is about films or even primarily about films, the better.”
Coffee Break’s videos cover subjects as diverse as the power of advertising, the origins of profanity, human behavior, music, interrogations, and how Youtube’s algorithms make it harder to discover new creators.
Stephen’s the first to admit his catalogue isn’t spotless: “I look at my old videos and think, wow, this was so opinionated and was reliant on very little, maybe, facts.”
On the whole, though, Coffee Break’s videos are well-edited, researched and written. Most run in the five-minute range, but because of how Stephen deftly edits a diverse, creative range of source material, they feel even faster.
He has a knack for interesting subjects, and his videos have exposed viewers to whole new worlds of thinking to explore on their own.
To that end, Stephen includes a thorough list of links to his research material with each video, inviting further exploration and conversation.
Perhaps his best videos are the ones where he turns his lens on Youtube itself. “The Shouting Youtuber Phenomenon, Explained” is a good example: Stephen takes an obvious element to anyone who’s seen even a few videos on the platform and illustrates the dynamics beneath the surface they might not have considered.
"The Shouting Youtuber Phenomenon" offers sharp commentary on the current state of Youtube
The video deals with the curious case of overly excited Youtubers: “Welcome to the excitement wars,” he begins, “where fake excitement and hype draws in more viewers and gets people to watch longer.”
He illustrates how the outsized individual behavior so characteristic of Youtubers (and Twitch stars, for that matter)—screaming, yelling, flailing about and generally overplaying every reaction as if it’s once-in-a-lifetime—demonstrates a flaw in the system itself: that Youtube, cable news and mass media in general is actually calibrated to favor screaming tantrum-throwers over more nuanced and varied presenters of information.
He uses Beethoven’s 5th symphony to demonstrate how proper use of dynamic range puts swells of volume into a context where they can be far more meaningful. The seamless transitions between Stephen’s written argument and effective source materials is a wonderful example of what makes video essays such a powerful device, and Coffee Break such a potentially influential platform.
The video asks its viewers to think differently about the content they watch and the Youtube ecosystem as a whole, and it positions Coffee Break as a champion for more original thinking in a world where original thinking can be hard to sell.
That could be valuable ground for the channel to claim. Because in the crowded world of video essayists, meaningful differentiation can be hard to achieve.
In a very short period of time, Coffee Break has begun to find a significant audience. Its two newest releases, “How T-Series Conquered Youtube” and “Why Cops Beat You In The Interrogation Room,” have already cleared 1.5 million views each.
This quick success, it seems fair to presume, is at least partly due to the increasing appetite for video essays in general.
But there’s a fine line between benefiting from the genre’s rising tide and being swallowed beneath it.
Mikasacus’s excellent parody of the genre highlights how quickly it homogenized. He captures, and appropriately exaggerates, the hallmarks of popular video essays at their worst: Monotonous, halting, self-important vocal delivery. Beautiful yet meaningless graphic flourishes. And, worst of all, an undeveloped, empty argument.
Mikasacus's parody of the video essay genre
Of course, one could just as easily parody the essay itself. The usefulness of any essay is in its argument, not its form. But it’s true that Youtube is filled with pretenders and short-cutters who focus on form to the exclusion of anything useful.
The most popular essayists, people like Christopher Hitchens or Malcolm Gladwell, use the conventions of the format to express entirely unconventional and provocative ideas.
Coffee Break’s long-term survival depends upon its ability to cultivate an audience that doesn’t just love video essays, but loves Coffee Break.
I got the sense that Stephen was aware of this, and that with every new video—no matter how successful it might be in the short-term—he either further defines Coffee Break as a new and original property, or ties it closer to the fortunes of video essays as a whole.
In an interview with Digiday shortly after joining BuzzFeed in 2013, Ze Frank shared something rather startling: “only 10 percent of BuzzFeed video users come from their subscribers. ‘Most programming from a video standpoint thinks about the audience that you’ve already captured – and then you program against the people you’ve already captured, which is what major television studios do,’ he said.”
BuzzFeed didn’t care whether you were loyal or not. They didn’t care whether you’d watch one video and want to come back for more. They just wanted your eyeballs.
This strategy has proven to be a killer of individual creativity in service to the success of the platforms as a whole. We see it in the utter sameness of Instagram communities like fitness and fashion the same way it’s evident in Youtube video essays.
The more a creator upends conventional form, the more he challenges the audience’s expectations, the more he depends upon an established trust with that audience. Without the trust that this person is worth listening to, worth following into unknown territory, the audience will disappear.
And so, in pursuit of immediate success, creators commoditize themselves. They optimize their output to feed the machines that deliver them audience, sacrificing their long-term influence one post at a time.
So Stephen must choose, video after video, how to balance between building an audience through attracting fans of video essays in general and growing an audience through serving Coffee Break fans in particular.
It’s a very real, very challenging dilemma.
“I try to take a long-term view and remember that what is relevant today isn’t as important of a question,” he said. “I try to care about building a long-term base of followers and fans who will watch my content regardless of whether Youtube recommended it to them, they’ll go and look me up because they’re inspired.”
To that end, it seems Coffee Break could serve as an incubator of all sorts of creativity. The diverse subjects it aspires to cover are the building blocks of original thought.
Perhaps the channel, in popularizing stimulating discussions around important topics, could help new creators see their future differently.
“It’ll be interesting in the next few years to see what happens as these kind of wild west Youtubers get sort of tamed by the media companies who are seeking to leverage their influence,” Stephen said.
“One of the best ways to get influence is to have people respect you. … So I try to carry that with me when I create videos, remembering if you create polished content, if you create really thoughtful content, people will grow to respect you, and when they respect you, the influence comes.”