Lessons we must learn from BuzzFeed, GIFs and Captain Picard's facepalm
A view from Russell Davies

Lessons we must learn from BuzzFeed, GIFs and Captain Picard's facepalm

One of my internet heroes is a chap called Ze Frank. Older readers may remember him from way back when, before the dawn of YouTube.

Back then, he decided to make a couple of minutes of video every day for a year. This, at the time, was rather strange and radical. It was a real challenge, technically and creatively, but Frank did it with considerable aplomb. In doing so, he invented many of the techniques and tropes you see uploaded millions of times a day on to YouTube and pioneered all sorts of interesting ways to interact with his audience.

He has been thinking about the phenomenon and "virology" of online video longer than most and he has useful theories. Frank is now running the video team at BuzzFeed – a site devoted to a precise understanding of what makes something popular and clickable. You will know it for its lists. If you make online video and/or want to understand how to make it popular, you should pay attention to his ideas. He has done a fascinating interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab blog.

Frank explains his central theory with reference to the famous animated GIF of Star Trek’s Captain Picard sinking his head into his hands, shared on the internet every day: "Captain Picard facepalming is the best way of describing disbelief in something. Not just disbelief, but utter disappointed disbelief…

This kind of repurposing of media not for consumption but for communication is, I think, the underpinning of this social age."

GIFs express something you want to say. I've always maintained that the web is for doing, not viewing

That’s why GIFs etc are so popular on Tumblr – not just because they resonate with you but also because you think they will resonate with someone else. They express something you want to say. I’ve always maintained that the web is for doing, not viewing, and here’s another aspect – a great GIF or viral video is not a communications product, it’s a communications tool.

Frank breaks video down into three categories of social role – emotional content, identity content and informational content. A video with emotional content might, for instance, be one called "how to restore your faith in humanity" and you might share that with someone going through a hard time. It’s not complicated, but it’s a usefully different frame from the standard question – what will people like?

It’s another way of dodging assumptions about target audiences and funnels, not thinking about the audience you’ve bought but about the individual relationships you might help along. Good discipline these days.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service