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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.