Why are vines so funny?

 Investigating the comic power of the six-second videos that took the internet by storm. (Warning: contains really funny vines.)

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It’s often said that limitation breeds creativity – the success of Vine corroborates that truism. The video platform had a simple premise: it would only host videos of up to six seconds. Aside from that one restriction, Vine was built around freedom from constraint: anyone with a smartphone could film, edit and share their vines anywhere on the web.

It quickly became one of the most democratic, creative, and funniest places on the internet. Comedy, in particular, flourished, and Vine hosted some of the world’s best viral content, often from young, black Americans (especially teenagers). As one Twitter user noted, “Vine did more for high schoolers’ creativity than anything the American public education system has ever done.” The influence of these videos spread far beyond their six seconds of fame – forming a vibrant creative community setting trends and shaping American culture at large.

Less than four years after its launch, Twitter, the parent company behind Vine, has announced that they would soon be discontinuing the mobile app, perhaps because vines are difficult to significantly monetise. Viners and vine connoisseurs alike mourn the death of a truly unique platform. But what is it about vines that makes them so funny?

The key to all good comedy is timing. Vine’s strict formal constraints inevitably mean that it must become the viner’s first priority. As a result, the punches must come more quickly, the cadence of a joke more finely calculated, any surprises more deftly hidden.

The six-second limit can encourage a return to simplicity and physical comedy. (Who can argue with the perfection of “There goes the milk”, or “grandma loves ping pong”? You can’t, you’re too busy laughing.) It can encourage shoving as many silly jokes into one vine as possible. It can encourage a build up to a moment of dramatic slapstick, or encourage Viners to start with a shock, and play with the ensuing anti-climax, hence the endurance of “WAY TO GO, PAUL”:

It can encourage a sudden change of direction: a jarring shift can be the funniest and most surprising punchline to a vine that begins by offering you something familiar – see “bring the beet in”. Sometimes it can encourage abrupt endings, the form’s inability to contain the content key to the beauty of the joke. In the most professional cases, it can encourage sharp, neatly structured jokes that milk every second in the approach to a punchline, like JoJoe’s The Struggle.

The editing tools inherent in Vine also produce a particular kind of comedy. Instead of needed to edit post-production, Vine gives users the ability to stop and start the camera as they film each video – there’s already a degree of editing built into the process. The overall result is slightly more disrupted than traditional editing styles – instead of a sense of seamless, simultaneous action between shots, vines can be more disjointed. Editing can also rely on a phone’s inbuilt tools –the slightly wobbly zoom feature on an iPhone, too, is an opportunity for comic editing. The rough and ready style of these tools means they provide fertile ground for the parody of classic editing techniques and tropes.

The automatic looping of every video, too, is crucial to the success of the form. Most vines get funnier the more you play them, but some are designed to be replayed, flowing back into themselves seamlessly. Some play with music hooks, others exploit the limitless rhythms of comedy.  Some contain loops within themselves – like the immortal Wii bowling joke and it’s descedants. Some are so hypnotic, so catchy, that you can’t turn away.

One thing Vine had over its competitors, too, was the sheer sharability of its content – its videos are easy to embed in any social feed, in which they auto-play. They can be shared quickly and easily, and once they are, they’re irresistibly eye-catching. From the beginning, many viners were aware of this, making relatable vines specifically designed to be shared.

In terms of their place in internet conversations, vines can sit somewhere between a reaction gif and a self-contained joke, which gives them a wonderful elasticity. They’re digestible and versatile: they can be funny on their own, sometimes even funnier in the right situation – there are a whole subgenre of vines born to be re-contextualised, which makes them prime memeable content.

Out with your friends and feeling fine? There’s a vine for that. Fed up of people’s interest in your life? There’s a vine for that. Don’t know how to ask someone out? There’s a vine for that. Irritated by people talking about you behind your back? There’s a vine for that. Crushed by the unrelenting pressure of a tormenting world? There’s a vine for that. Hence the international success of the immortal Why The Fuck You Lying? vine:

At its core, Vine is more democratic than most video sharing platforms. You don’t need to be a professional, or even know how to cut and paste footage to make a great vine. You can just shoot, pause, and shoot again. That opened it up to a whole world of creatives. More funny people = more funny content. As Hannah Giorgis writes for the Guardian, the result is that black comics thrive on Vine: “At a time when barriers to entry in Hollywood and formal creative industries continue to be almost insurmountable for black media-makers, the ability to simply record a video with one’s phone and share it widely presents a more widely accessible opportunity for creative ingenuity.”

Vine’s demise is a great shame, and an odd response from a company that has been struggling to sell itself lately, at least partially due to its reputation for failing to tackle an abuse problem. As the writer Alexandra Erin tweeted, it seems as though “Twitter would rather play host to a cesspool of racists, rapists, and terrorists than to a vibrant community of artists of color.” Let’s hope another platform fills the ensuing void sooner, rather than later.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.