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?

Think Tank: Vine Culture, Longer Vines and Why You Should Care

So Zoë, tell me about Vine. When did you first hear about it? 

I first started using Vine in 2015 on a whim, long after the social media network had emerged. I don’t remember what prompted me to download the app on my trusty iPhone 5, but it was probably curiosity — I wanted to see what people could do with only seven seconds. To this day, I have never uploaded a single original Vine. I’ve only ever used the app to watch Vines, save my favorite ones to find again later and share a select few. The easiest way for me to decompress after a tough day is to watch Vines for 15 minutes.

What do you like about it so much? 

Two things. First of all, Vines can be incredibly funny. I would rather scroll through Vine for an hour than watch most sitcoms, or a extremely popular comedy movie. Here are a few of my favorite Vines that always make me laugh. Everyday people who aren’t necessarily aspiring to be comedians or actors are able to distill deeply funny things into a matter of seconds, and make ideas or experiences universally relatable. There’s an entire meme system within Vine that has dripped into other digital corners, and it’s emerged as a eternal spring of Internet culture. It is also extremely hard to find Vines in the app if you haven’t saved them, since a lot of people don’t hashtag or caption their Vines. This adds to the ephemeral aspect of the medium, and how trends can come and go.

I don’t care for the users who have tried to monetize their content or segue Vine into a career, because 99 percent of their Vines aren’t funny to me — they try way too hard, and the emotions are contrived in a way that screams “commercial.” Here are some good examples. However, these creators are insanely popular with young teenage girls, which has helped catapult events like Vidcon into mainstream interest. This is the second reason why I like Vine as a social media network. Vine is a gold mine for sociological analysis on race, gender and communication, because it tells us a lot about what young audiences are looking for in their media consumption and whose ideas they find entertaining. Millennials would rather hear from themselves than old white people asking what the deal is with some old people aspect of life.*

What have you observed about Vine culture?

One important thing to note about Vine is that there are several types of content creators. There are people who come up with completely original content, whether that’s skits or jokes. There are people who do it to showcase their dance or musical talent, favorite sports team or a particular aesthetic. There are people who post videos that aren’t meant to be funny but are, or catch moments of animals being derpy. There are people who happen to take video of funny things happening in the world, or grab and repost content from elsewhere, and sometimes they make clip compilations of their favorite celebrities or lipsync. And then there are people who layer on music or other memes to add new levels of meaning. These types of Vines and content creators often overlap and intersect in interesting and creative ways. The only way to really understand this is to just download the app and scroll through the Popular Now or On The Rise feeds.

Viners have created their own discourse specific to their app community. Once you spend some time on the app, you’ll pick up on the nuances and how they add to the stories and jokes. For example, a user will often switch their positions on camera to visually say that they’re supposed to be two different people, even if it’s the same person on camera, to make a more complicated story and funnier bit. Sometimes they’ll change their clothes or put something on to heighten the comedy. Viners will also borrow other Viner’s jokes and recycle the audio / credit in the caption with the abbreviation “IB” (Inspired By) and the Viner it came from, to add more layers of humor and meaning and create a sort of in-joke or meme. This also suggests that Viners value giving credit where credit is due, which I think partly stems from the fact that when outsiders use Viner content as marketing concepts the creators, which are often black teenagers, rarely see compensation. To operate within the 7-second limit and the nature of the free app, users come up with highly creative ways to tell jokes within stories. This becomes its own set of social practices.  And again, I think there’s a lot for academics to analyze here, especially if they’re interested in documenting the Internet.

Why is that important?

The social constructs of rules and conventions that these Viners have brought in from our own culture and the ones they’ve made themselves help the people within and outside of the community understand how it works. Discourses often overlap in many ways — for example, a user can post both clip compilations of their favorite actress and original skits on their account, and would be operating underneath the general Vine creator-audience relationship expectations and the discourses of these distinct genres.

There’s an ongoing debate about what deserves to be archived from the Internet, and if we didn’t archive Vines, for example, we’d lose a lot of valuable anthropological and sociological information to help us understand how our relationship with the Internet evolved. For example, consider the “What are those?” Vine, which achieved peak meme status. It’s more than just teenagers fooling around on the web.

Tell me about the moment where you noticed that Vines could be longer.

One day earlier this week, I hopped onto Vine after a particularly tough day at work. As I scrolled through, I saw a black bubble in the bottom right hand corner of the Vines that showed a much longer video duration.

At the same time, Vine was premiering Camp Unplug, a collection of skits made by Vine stars under the backdrop of a summer camp. Some of these videos went way past 7 seconds, which allowed for more elaborate storytelling and joke delivery. Later in the week, I found an article that reported on Vine’s move to offer original television episodes. I also noticed that the song in some of the Camp Unplug videos had its official video debut on Vine, in all of its 4-minute glory. This unveiling was obviously very strategic, and Vine decided to do a whole campaign using what their users find funniest to show how cool the new update was.

As someone who doesn’t use Vine, why should I care? 

There are a couple of things going on. Television networks who are struggling to compete with services like Netflix are going to start moving in on Vine, and I can imagine that one day they’ll have a channel devoted to full-length television episodes. We’ll have yet another thing competing for our attention. I would rather pay Vine a monthly fee to make sure that the people who are funny and thought-provoking are compensated for their work, but there have been problems with that in other similar situations.

I can also see this going down the road of users having to pay for in-app programming, and I’m not cool with that. Arguably, it could be good for the users who are on there right now — people come for the tv show and stay for the skits. If Vine is dominated by content backed with millions of dollars in production values, people who just have their iPhone will stop using the app, and Vine will just become a shitty repository for millennial-branded content. That would still be an interesting point in the Internet narrative and tell us a lot about our media consumption, but it would be a huge waste of money, time and energy when what people are putting on there now is better. I understand that Vine is a business and it has to be lucrative, but eventually it could push people out: if there’s nothing but big media power plays, why try to compete for attention? 

You should care because even if you’re not a Vine user, you’re complicit in this transaction. Our insatiability for content and having it available 24/7 has pushed media outlets and upstarts to go to the Internet and use any avenue possible to make money. This has also sparked a redefinition of what it means to be a social network, or an entertainment network, and how the original purpose will inevitably change. Traditional advertisements don’t work anymore, so production and marketing teams have to think of more insidious options. People are the worst, and we can never have nice things.

You can say that the people who don’t like it can go find somewhere else to post their videos. That’s entirely true. But eventually everything and everyone is going to monetize everything, and that brings up important questions about what we consider art in today’s world. If you ask me, Vines are an art form, and we should be protecting it for all of the best artistic and cultural reasons.

What do you think about Vine and commercialization on the Internet? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


*This is absolutely not a knock on Jerry Seinfeld.

Think Tank: Facebook’s Expansion of the Like

If you use Facebook, you have probably noticed that in the last few days there has been a significant change to your News Feed that a lot of people are talking about. In addition to just plain old Liking a post, you can now react in varying degrees of emotion:

What a range.
What a range.

The impetus for this change is that users have always complained about how limited the Facebook Like is when it comes to posts that aren’t happy announcements or accomplishments. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve maybe commented “dislike” or some variation on someone’s post to register that you’re not really Liking the post, or you’ve seen other people do this. Now, Facebook provides an expanded range of reactions to help signify exactly how you feel about your friend’s posts.

When I found out about the expansion and saw it roll on my News Feed, I thought about how I use Facebook and how it has shaped my Internet identity. I’m somewhere between an active participant and lurker. I post a fair amount: links to these blog posts, statuses where I try to seem funny, interesting articles I can’t wait to share, YouTube music videos and some of my Instagram photos. I don’t really make personal announcements, and I don’t post anything to get my friend’s sympathy — if I’m having a terrible day or something bad happens, I do not mention it on Facebook.

For the interacting part of Facebook, I’m also the same kind of user. For my closest friends and even people I don’t see regularly but really like, I like about 90 percent of their posts and leave birthday messages. For former classmates and coworkers, I’ll like the accomplishment statuses or photos of cool things they’re doing. And for people I haven’t interacted with face-to-face in years, a like from me on anything is rare — the same goes for posts from pages I’ve subscribed to. When it comes to my Facebook friends, I both want to keep up with how things are going and also have the option to virtually observe. Even though I don’t Like a lot of content that comes across my social media feeds, that doesn’t mean I didn’t see it or that it didn’t impact me in some way.

This all goes to say that I operate in a particular way within Facebook’s structure — as do you — and the choices that I make and Faceboook makes for me shape my Internet identity. I don’t think I’ll use these reactions (much in the same way I have yet to abandon the Instagram square photo format), but I can’t prevent my friends from using them to interact with my posts. It’s become part of the social construct and discourse that is Facebook, and it’s now pretty much inescapable unless Facebook decides to pull it. What you post or the way you utilize the Like and commenting systems are actions also say something about who you are on the Internet, and by extension who you are in real life. These expanded reactions now impact this shaping, regardless of whether or not you decide to use them. 

The most important thing that this Like expansion magnifies is that it is a form of social currency that validates our feelings and experiences and makes us feel that they are real. Think about when you post something on Facebook — you might expect your close friends to Like it, and you’re surprised when someone you haven’t talked to in awhile hits that thumbs up or leaves a comment. You may even feel obligated to return the favors as a way to maintain relationships. If someone you’re close with doesn’t like your status or leave a comment on your photo, you at least wonder why and may jump to conclusions that are probably not good. Facebook has made and facilitates these social constructions that have affected the way we live our everyday lives, and it is rooted in the Like.

This article hits the nail on the head of what these Likes mean: “The more “liked” a post or tweet is, the more present it becomes, and since online we are little more than the sum of our posts, the more real we feel ourselves becoming.” The acknowledgement of our posts makes us feel that we are legitimate and that we can feel things that mean something, even though it’s all happening in a virtual space. I think the leaders at Facebook are hyperaware of how their service is changing the way we live our everyday lives, and do things like this expansion in order to cement the social media network as a cultural behemoth. If it didn’t happen on Facebook, it might not have really happened at all.

What do you think about any or all of this? Let’s talk about it in the comments.