What is Vine, Twitter's Hot New Thing?

The return of the Long Photo.

Twitter has launched a new app, Vine, "that lets you create and share beautiful, short looping videos". The company is taking a interesting stance with the service, launching it as a standalone app and network — albeit one with strong hooks into Twitter. Its success, and failure, is less guaranteed than it might be otherwise.

What is it?

At its heart, Vine lets you make and share six-second video clips. The app is clearly heavily influenced by the rebirth of the animated gif, because the videos automatically start playing, are muted by default (though a click turns sound on), endlessly loop, and must be between three and six seconds long. You aren't going to be making movies with these, or even any sort of narrative video clip at all — it's purely for sharing "moments".

The idea hearkens back, for me, to when Flickr added video support in 2008. The company branded its videos "long photos", and capped them at 90 seconds. The motive was clearly to encourage the same non-narrative video creation as Vine, but Flickr messed up. In an extraordinarily prescient post, Matt Jones argued that the key to turning a video clip into a "long photo" isn't the length, but the looping:

Think about all the tiny clips you’ve played again and again on the internet just to see one aspect, one moment, act out – a goal or a dramatic chipmunk.

Not stories, but toy moments.

Think about those moving photos imagined in cheesy science fiction films or Harry Potter movies.

Tiny loops of video perhaps are the real long photos…

Remember that that was written four years before the animated gif made its resurgence. Vine's plan is to make good on the promise of the gif, and it could work — unless the venerable file format (it's older than I am) has the market stitched up for good.

The other area of genuine innovation that Vine offers is in its recording technique. Rather than hitting a "record" button and snapping six seconds of video straight, the app asks you to touch the screen to record. It lets you make pseudo-stop-motion videos with ease, and doubles-down the focus on moments rather than narrative. (That's not to say that there isn't the possibility for micro-narratives, however.)

The limitations are as important as what is included. Vine offers no option for editing after you've recorded, nor does it let you import videos taken or downloaded elsewhere. And (though this may be an oversight) only the person who made the video has the option to share the link to it — if they decide to keep it in Vine alone, there is no way (that I can tell) for anyone else to get the link to it.

How do they work with Twitter?

Just as curious about the service itself is its integration with its parent company. Vine was acquired by Twitter in 2012, but the acquisition was assumed to be an "acqhire" — the site was still in private beta, but the founders already had pedigree even then (one of them had created travel site Jetsetter). There is still a chance that that is the case, of course — Twitter may have felt they'd acquired a product so nearly ready for release that there was no point scrapping it — but it seems the company has high hopes for Vine.

It's possible to use the service without Twitter at all. One can sign up with an email address, and then not export any video from Vine. But Twitter is clearly hoping that most users will integrate the two services fully. You can also sign up with your Twitter account, and share every post to Twitter by default (interestingly, Facebook is also supported, as the only other sharing partner). Twitter has implemented Card support, allowing Vine videos to auto-play on the Twitter web client itself.

Still, it's a curious decision on the part of the company to allow Vine to continue as a company-within-a-company (seemingly similar to Facebook's relationship with Instagram). There is no pre-existing network of users to placate, and surely requiring an app download and new account, no matter how frictionless it is, will limit uptake of the service. There may be contractual or technical reasons for the decision, of course, but it seems odd nonetheless.

Does it have a hope?

The real question for Vine is whether or not Twitter will put its resources into encouraging its massive user base to join the new service. If it does, it's guaranteed at least a modicum of success; if it doesn't, and limits its cross-promotion to just a post on the company blog, Vine's job will be a lot harder.

I think the service has a lot of potential. For whatever reason, other people's videos tend to be far less appealing to us than other people's photos. By encouraging us to treat the former like the latter — in both creation and consumption — there's a chance that Vine could capture a niche that no-one else has quite been able to. But it relies on its users learning a new way to record and share their lives — and on feeling that that is something they need.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.