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Vine videos grew into a phenomenon six seconds at a time

Vine, which now has some 40 million usuers, like all other successful web-based services, is a uniquely digital form that has its own style, culture and function

Why would anyone want to take, let alone share a six-second video? Last year, before the arrival of Vine, that would have seemed like a perfectly reasonable question.

Today, however, the increasingly popular app – which lets users take, edit and upload looping six-second clips – is starting to become a mainstay in the world of social media, taking its place alongside such stalwarts as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. How then to explain the popularity of what at first glance seemed like another silly fad headed for the digital dustbin?

At least one answer is that Vine, like all other successful web-based services, is a uniquely digital form that has its own style, culture and function. It represents another sign that it is not only digital-native platforms that are important, but mobile ones. Vines are exclusively created on smartphones, and are very frequently viewed there, too. Just as cheap, bound books gave rise to the novella or detective fiction, more and more, our smartphones and tablets are enabling cultural forms unique to the small screens we carry around with us.

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When Vine first launched, I argued that it would become a big deal because it was essentially the visual version of a tweet. Twitter's 140 character tweets are great for short bursts of information and opinion, providing up-to-date snippets of what is going on and what people are thinking, while also being a platform for creativity and discussion.

Vine works in much the same way. Whether quick, ambient shots of on an event your friend is at, artistic or funny videos, or even hard news like clips of the Boston Marathon bombing, Vine is actually very good at letting people quickly get a sense of what's happening in the world and online culture. What's more, there's something about how the videos automatically loop that seems designed for sharing and virality, as if the repetition in the clips themselves somehow prefigures how it will be scattered and repeated across the broader web.

That fast-paced, oh-so-contemporary vibe means that Vine has seen a burst of creativity from many of its 40 million users. It has fostered several subcultures, from the strange, abstract videos of rapper Riff Raff, or, as Mat Honan at Wired pointed out, the work being done by queer and African American artists on the platform.

When it comes to thinking about new digital forms, however, it's also important to avoid thinking of little units in isolation, but instead looking at how people use and experience them overall. Vines are shown either in a chronological feed in the app itself, or when shared on other services like Facebook and Twitter. So the question:"What can you get from only six seconds?" is really better asked as "What can you find out from tens or hundreds of six second videos?" Like Twitter before it, part of the appeal of Vine is the aggregate effect of getting a slice of so many different lives and viewpoints.

Like any quickly developing digital culture though, you can truly tell that Vine has made it because advertisers and branding agencies are starting to be found there too. While no-one is yet a millionaire thanks to Vine, it's easy to see the appeal for marketers: because Vines are so short and easily shareable, they lend themselves to spreading, but have the additional benefit of being multimedia too, making them perfect for what one might call "micro-ads." Clearly, the arrival of the mainstream means the service's vibrancy and counter-cultural ethos might quickly dissipate, but it is an indication of how popular it has become.

It isn't just single Vines, or the app, but how the clips, app and experience of watching the results all form a dynamic, quickly-evolving ecosystem. By contrast, though Instagram's new video feature is also popular, clips there don't repeat and clock in at 15, rather than six, seconds. It sounds like a miniscule difference, but scroll through someone's Instagram feed and you'll see the contrast: The clips there are often far more earnest, more akin to short home movies or postcards than the quick, discombobulating, and frequently weird tone of Vine.

Vine appears to be succeeding because it is truly its own thing.

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