Think Tank: The Future of Vine and the Internet

(This is still my favorite Vine.)

A few months ago, I wrote about Vine, the joy it brought to my life and its cultural significance — focused around its announcement that you could start posting longer videos. Vine is and was a gem of the Internet, and I am still floored by how six seconds of looping video can be so mesmerizing and hilarious in a way that speaks much deeper than traditional comedy ever could

When I first found out that Twitter, Vine’s parent company, was shutting the social network, I was pretty upset about it. My family can attest to that — I walked around the house saying “What am I gonna do without Vine?” for at least three or four days. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m actually really concerned about what Vine’s shutdown suggests about the future of the Internet.

It brings up important questions about the Internet’s permanence. 

The first thing we need to lay out is our understanding and expectation of how these social media networks fit in with our lives. It’s hard to think about a big company, like Facebook for example, ever leaving our cultural stratosphere. The pull is too strong, and billions of people use their products every day. But everything has some kind of expiration date, whether it’s brought on by a decline in usage or a pivot in company direction. The audience’s wants and needs is the most important component for longevity, but in theory the company can ignore the audience and discontinue their product. Vine showed that that was possible.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, et al. are really only interested in one thing — monetizing their platform. They first get people to join under the guise that it’s easier to stay connected to people and informed about things they’re interested in, but after awhile the company has to figure out how make their platform profitable and grow their audience. Vine has had this problem from the very beginning. Six second looping video is pretty cool, but the platform did not offer monetization and had a hard time gaining larger user numbers.

But anyway, archiving the platform also costs money in the longterm. The Vine team at Twitter has said that while they’re shutting down the mobile app, the desktop version of Vine will still be available. In their press release on Medium, they said, “We’ll be keeping the website online because we think it’s important to still be able to watch all the incredible Vines that have been made. You will be notified before we make any changes to the app or website.”

I immediately have several questions. They didn’t specify an amount of time that they’d keep, so does that mean the desktop website will eventually come down? Will there be a searchable archive in perpetuity, and will access always be free?

What I’m most concerned about in this turn of events is whether or not Vine’s shutdown will set off a trend of this Internet erasure. Beyond being an entertainment depository, the Internet serves as a digital archive of information that everyone has the right to access — for scholarly purposes or otherwise. To all of a sudden say that the content, which was a cultural barometer for the millennial age group with unfathomable reach, won’t be available anymore because it costs too much isn’t fair. It’s like losing the library of Alexandria all over again, except that this time it’s in a dumpster fire.

You might be thinking, “Zoe, you’re reaching.” But I don’t feel all that bad about making that comparison. Let’s look at the “what are those” Vine, for example — “What are those” became a signifier that Vine users could understand and assign meaning to. They created variations that are pretty funny. It became a facet of a culture and several subcultures (see black youth culture) that will eventually be dissected and analyzed, in the same way people today recognize and trace the trajectory of “To be or not to be” from Hamlet.

The best case scenario, and I don’t know how feasible it would be, is that Twitter gives the database to the Library of Congress so that the Vines are recorded and accounted for. I read a headline this afternoon that suggested Twitter was open to selling Vine, but as far as I’m concerned the cultural damage has already been done.

This complicates the relationship between technology and art.

The art that lives on the Internet derives a lot of its context from its digital medium. You can interpret a carefully composed Instagram shot differently than you would a painted portrait hanging in a museum. You could use different analytical criteria for a poem written on Tumblr than what you’d use for a long epic published in a book, and a 140-character tweet may have different layers of nuance than a print story in the New York Times would. It’s what makes the Internet so interesting and wonderful — it’s the primary form of record in today’s world, and it helps us derive meaning from our daily lives.

But when you think about how much power technology has over our lives — what it can giveth, it can taketh away — it’s kind of scary that we’ve come to rely on it for our most intimate confessions and artistic expressions. What would we do if it all just evaporated?

The Vine shutdown also makes me reconsider both how I use the Internet as a creative outlet, and how I feel about Internet culture. I had never really thought about what it would mean for a part of the Internet to be nonexistent or inaccessible, and how that would affect its future shaping. Now when I look at a piece of Internet art, I’m hyperaware of its level of permanence and more appreciative of the fact that for now, our culture still has it to admire and understand.

Let’s have a conversation about this in the comments. What do you think?

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