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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.