Looping on repeat
Stories & Ideas

Thu 28 Jun 2018

Vines: looping on repeat

Internet culture
Jim Fishwick

Jim Fishwick

Curator, ACMI

Assistant curator Jim Fishwick looks back at the golden age that was Vine.

Vine was a social media platform where people shared short, continuously looping videos. It was also much, much more than that. Acquired by Twitter just before its launch in January 2013, Vine quickly became the most-downloaded free app on the App Store, with over 200 million monthly users at its peak, watching over 40 million videos.

It quickly emerged that the main use of Vine, what it became iconic for, what its community was there for, was comedy. Many Vines were scripted and sketch-like. Some wouldn't have been out of place on Funniest Home Videos. Some were clearly the result of youngsters making goofs while alone and bored, or from happening to recording life at a juicy moment. Although pockets of people used the Vine medium to create visual art, or musical experimentation, they were vastly outnumbered by users making, watching sharing, and celebrating funny videos.

Then in October 2016, Twitter announced it would be shutting down the platform, citing a lack of profitability. A million internet voices cried out in terror, and were silenced. Vine founder Dom Hofmann hinted at plans for a follow-up app called V2, but in May 2018 announced development would be on indefinite hiatus. Given that Vine appears to be gone for the foreseeable future, it’s a good time to ask what Vine was, what it meant and what made it so unique.

The most notable thing about Vine was its time limit; the platform only allowed videos to be a maximum of six seconds long. When Vine was launched, this restriction went against a trend of increasingly longer video. YouTube had lifted its maximum video length of ten minutes in 2010. Snapchat’s trademark ten-second photo feature didn’t expand to video until December 2012, and Instagram didn’t support video until June 2013, which was presumably added in response to Vine’s sudden success.

Creators working within Vine’s time restriction were forced to strip their work back to its bare-bone essentials, focusing on one moment or micro-joke rather than a whole story. Where YouTube is a five-minute sketch or stand-up routine, Vine was a one-liner. In the words of notable Viner Griffin McElroy, Vine was “explicitly an exercise in concision” (Wonderful! Episode 34, 2018). You can only fit so much into six seconds.  

This short-form media has its predecessors. The cultural currency of gifs was on the ascendancy after the Tumblr boom of 2008-2010, introducing looping, autoplaying visuals to the collective consciousness. Another stylistic influence was the proto-Vines of 5 Second Films, who had been producing these kinds of one-shot jokes in video form since 2008.

Although still working with one-joke moments, creators began to push at the boundaries, working out ways to make those moments increasingly elaborate. Dialogue and audio would be inserted in advance of their corresponding visuals, to create an interlaced illusion of the entire line being there. Actors conveyed huge emotional beats in half-second reactions. Vines like Chris, is that a weed or how i feel when i wear glasses vs how i feel without them demonstrate a surgical understanding of timing and minimalism, like a painter conveying whole landscapes with one brushstroke.

The six second restriction also left little room for creators to corporatise. Today, YouTube’s advertising algorithm gives more revenue to videos that are over ten minutes long, and as a result we see Youtube makers expanding their shorter videos with fluff, adding minutes-long intervals to meet that magic ten-minute marker. Yes, the biggest Vine stars would get paid by companies for product placement, but these endorsements always seemed slightly awkward and out of step with the Vine community’s weirder and more nihilistic ethos.

The stylistics of Youtube have flattened out over the last few years, and production values have increased. Youtube channels have expensive camera equipment and complex production setups. The threshold of looking legit has been raised, making it harder for new creators to get started. By way of contrast, Vine creators relished in the aesthetic of using phone cameras, embracing internet brutalism. Even realistic costumes fell by the wayside; multiple characters could be indicated by the one performer simply putting different objects on their head.

Creators would work with existing professionally made video, but only ever to comment on it, repurpose it, disfigure it. The highly successful Viners who had means enough to use quality cameras and employ post-production SFX (Zach King, late-era Thomas Sanders) still leaned in to the handheld phone aesthetic.

This discrepancy underlies Vine’s core power: it wasn’t a social media platform, it was an entertainment platform disguised as social media. Unlike Youtube, you couldn't be (too) self-indulgent on Vine. Unlike Instagram or Snapchat, Vine wasn’t for communicating updates on your life (Unless of course you wanted to let people know that it is, in fact, Wednesday my dudes).

This sort of distinction has precedence. In his 1962 docu-soap Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, philosopher Jürgen Habermas traced the emergence of the public and private spheres of society in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in England. The public sphere was made up of spaces where people could gather to debate and discuss as a heightened version of themselves in the view of others, in places like public houses, cafes and theatre foyers. The private sphere, by contrast, consisted of meetings, conversations, and interactions that took place in the home, in alleyways and exclusive clubs, away from the eyes and ears of the rest of society.

Habermas’ distinction has since been problematised (primarily only middle-class white men were able to take part in the public sphere, few conversations were ever really private in the home), but it provides a useful way to think about Social Media. The private sphere broadly maps on to messaging platforms, DMs and inboxes, the intimate personal communications we make directly with others online. The public sphere is the posts, tweets, videos we present to a general audience, to see who will respond, performing an authorised, preferred version of ourselves.

There’s a small gap between our IRL selves to our online private selves, and an even bigger gap to the public selves that we construct online. This distinction is perhaps most clearly expressed in the Rinsta – Finsta phenomenon, where Instagram users will have one account for the public, and one secret account for their friends. Most social media platforms seemingly pretend this gap isn’t there, insisting that we’re definitely expressing ourselves authentically online all the time. Vine had one of the few social media communities willing to not only acknowledge the performative nature of online existence but actively embrace it.

And herein is the beautiful contradiction of Vine, a platform that unabashedly celebrated the construction of online performance, while digging its heels into the rough neodada aesthetic of Internet Ugly. In a way, these are the forces we see at play in the Internet as a whole, authenticity and performance, sincerity and irony, accessibility and exclusivity, culture and counter-culture.

Vine was also notable for its outstanding creators of colour, and it stands alongside jazz and hip hop as a black artform, one that (like jazz and hip hop) had its vernacular, its grammar, its ethos appropriated by white people. Aria Dean’s Poor Meme, Rich Meme explores in detail the inherent blackness of memes, and it’s not hard to see that same pattern of adoption at play in Vine.

After Vine closed, its creators moved on. Some went to Instagram, to keep making Vine-like sketches that now sit in feeds between yoga photos and top-down pictures of coffees. Others went to Youtube, expanding out into longer videos, building media empires, and creating some of the top-ten most-disliked videos in Youtube's history.

The one mercy in Vine's death is that almost all Vines are still available on the old website, as if frozen in amber. From this corpus, the ex-Vine community began creating R.I.P. Vine compilations, which began as simple collections of the most popular hits, but have since evolved into their own artform. Vine compilations now feature similar selections of classics, with each assemblage revealing the taste of its curator from the style of their more esoteric picks. The same hits come up again and again, replacing the micro-loops of each video with macro-loops of an established canon.

Ultimately, the end of Vine is hard to accept because Vines themselves don't end. They go on forever. The platform may be frozen for now, but the moments of joy, slapstick, absurdity and humanity remain, perpetually looping on repeat.

Looping on repeat.

Looping on repeat.

Looping on repeat.