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What is Vine, Twitter's Hot New Thing?

The return of the Long Photo.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.