Why Vine Was a Bad Match for Twitter
On Sunday, October 23rd, Michael Pachter and a friend took out the boat they jointly own, a Boston Whaler, on the Pacific Ocean, to watch the final day of the Breitling Huntington Beach Airshow. Like most air shows, it promised to entertain spectators with the sight of gaudily painted fighter jets performing impossible stunts in close formation. After the show, as Pachter was motoring the eight miles back to Long Beach, four F-16s—part of the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, known as the Thunderbirds, which had headlined the show—rocketed past, flying low overhead on their way back to Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base. They flew past “literally a hundred yards away—so loud it was earth-shattering,” Pachter said. His immediate impulse was to pull out his phone and record a video of their booming flight.
He promptly uploaded the video to Twitter. It was the first video he had ever tweeted.
It struck him only later that what he had not done was open Vine, the mobile app for Twitter’s social video-sharing service of the same name, to record the footage. It’s true that Pachter, who is sixty years old, is not in the target demographic for Vine. But he does follow Twitter as a financial analyst for Wedbush Securities, and his little revelation drove home the point that Vine had become, in some sense, obsolete. For some time now, Twitter has allowed users to post ordinary smartphone videos, and it could hardly be easier to do. “You’d have to be a technological idiot not to be able to figure out how to do it,” Pachter told me.
When Twitter acquired Vine, in 2012, for thirty million dollars, there was no Periscope, Twitter video, or Facebook Live—there was no easy way to broadcast video. And, as Mike Isaac pointed out in the Times, its six-second limit was developed when mobile video was new and people worried about running up the cost of their phones’ data plans. But now video is everywhere on social media. Vine has become superfluous, and Pachter was not surprised to learn that Twitter plans to shut it down in the months to come. The news, announced last Thursday, the same day the social network reported dismal third-quarter earnings, was greeted, on Twitter, with the hashtag #RIPVine and a cavalcade of people’s favorite Vines—clips of endlessly repeating pratfalls, reality-TV-show bloopers, awkward singing and dancing, and, in at least one case, a potato hanging from the whirling blade of a ceiling fan.
It was an instance of mass nostalgia, the sharing of bittersweet artifacts from the very recent past. In a blog post announcing the shutdown, Twitter prepared to milk the mood for all it was worth. “Nothing is happening to the apps, website, or your Vines today,” the post read. “We value you, your Vines, and are going to do this the right way. . . . 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.”
What is incredible to me is that so many people ever used the app at all. Six seconds is too short for a speech or an instructional video but the perfect length, as it turned out, for a vast array of inanity—much of which, like the spinning potato, would never have existed had there not also existed a means for widely sharing it. Vine creators, who had no way of being compensated until June of this year, did it purely “for the lulz”—and, of course, in the hope that their Vine fame might transmogrify, as it did for a lucky few, into real celebrity.
It takes Pachter, a man twice my age, to remind me how innovative Vine was when it débuted. In January, 2013, no other mobile app was offering short-form streaming video. Now, like most millennials awash in Instagram videos, Snapchat, and Facebook Live, I take the format for granted. But whereas National Geographic photographers use Instagram, and the World Economic Forum broadcasts interviews on Facebook, Vine has always been for teen-agers. They are its demographic, as Hannah Donovan, Vine’s general manager, told Variety in June. Vine, she said, is a place “where trends are happening, where memes are exploding.”
Teen-agers grow up fast, but Vine didn’t. It featured comedy galore, but the witty, wordy comedy of Woody Allen or Whit Stillman it was not. “At the end of the day,” Donovan said, “Vine is not a tool. It’s a toy.”
Vine’s obsolescence is the least of Twitter’s problems. The company reported a net loss of a hundred and three million dollars for the third quarter and announced it would lay off nine per cent of its workforce, some three hundred and fifty people. It has been shopping for a buyer, but recently two high-profile suitors, Salesforce and Disney, spurned it—the latter, it is widely believed, due to Twitter’s reputation as a place where trolls can harass their victims with impunity. Twitter’s revenue for the quarter was six hundred and sixteen million dollars—an increase of eight per cent over the same period last year, but peanuts compared to Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s company, which will report its third-quarter earnings next week, earned $6.24 billion of ad revenue in the second quarter, and Pachter expects the company’s ad revenue for the period that ended September 30th to be just under seven billion dollars. To put this in perspective, he says, “Facebook is growing by a Twitter every quarter.”
Twitter’s platform remains the rare corporate product that feels like a public good. But its business model is “dicey,” as Curt Nickisch, of the Harvard Business Review, said in a radio interview recently. “It’s not working, and so it seems like what the company has to do is figure out how to make it work before people will step up and buy [it].”
While Twitter was popular from the get-go with “influencers”—celebrities, business leaders, and gurus of various sorts who want to reach a mass audience—it is relatively bad at attracting ordinary users, who “mainly want to interact with their friends,” Nickisch said. Both he and Pachter identified this as a major obstacle to the company’s long-term success.
In some sense, Vine was always a strange bedfellow for Twitter. Despite its hundred-and-forty-character limit and the recent explosion of video on the site, Twitter is still primarily a medium of words. On Twitter, I can absorb Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s insights about ISIS, discuss literature and ideas with intelligent strangers, debate new scientific breakthroughs. Vine’s mass adoption and use for purposes alternately ridiculous and mundane struck me as a sign that we’re regressing from what we have been since Gutenberg—that is, people of the Book, to people of the Picture, almost pre-literate in our tastes and entertainments. Vine’s demise, however, does not signal the renewed primacy of words. “Video is quickly becoming the future of communication,” as Donovan remarked, and social media today bears ample witness to the truth of her statement, like it or not.
Vine has more than two hundred million users—it is, in other words, incredibly popular. It failed because its popularity couldn’t be sufficiently monetized. No one was ever going to sit through a fifteen-second ad in order to watch a six-second Vine. By the time people began posting all those video loops in memoriam on Thursday, the medium already seemed quaint, outdated. As Brandon Stosuy, the editor-in-chief of the Creative Independent, a Web publication backed by Kickstarter, put it, “My kids will grow up not knowing what Vine was.”
There is some solace in this. While early adopters of new technology have traditionally lorded it over the rest of us, secure in the knowledge that they know something we don’t, there are now times when these self-appointed ambassadors of the future—devotees of Vine, of Google Glass—wind up looking foolish. At the present burning pace of technological change, ignoring something new and popular until it withers and dies can be the most forward-looking move of all.