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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.