Following the wild popularity of TikTok across the world, Twitter is surely feeling a pang of regret at the missed opportunity that was Vine. WARC’s Sam Peña-Taylor looks back on a bizarre and often beautiful experiment in video art.

Earlier this month, Twitter product chief Kayvon Beykpour told a gathering of journalists something everyone suspected.

“I do regret that we shut down Vine,” he said in comments now widely reported. Beykpour played down the comparison with Bytedance’s wildly popular app TikTok (Douyin in China) that has ostensibly taken Vine’s place in young people’s hearts. “I think Vine was really amazing and was on the forefront of giving people tools to experiment with video,” he continued.

It is odd that when Twitter finally pulled the plug, TikTok was just emerging – almost as if there was a gap in the market, almost as if the thirst for weird short video had never gone away.

In 2016, when Twitter shut down the platform it had acquired just two years prior, it was because of sound business sense. It hadn’t looked good for some time. Isolated over in New York, away from Twitter HQ on the West Coast, Vine had only a small team servicing it. Faced with competition from Instagram and Snapchat, it had been slow to develop and improve its offer. What’s more, its stars were moving across to other platforms where the length of video allowed them greater freedom. Users soon followed, and the advertising money went with them. That was in 2016.

Vine entered a bizarre, nostalgic afterlife. YouTube channels hosting Vine compilations have, in the last year or so, begun to garner millions of hits. The videos that do so have strange, deeply sad titles about the points of misery from which people watched these six-second videos. There are Vines that saved my life, …that cured cancer, …cured my depression, …been there for me when no one else was.

Sentimentally speaking, each generation has a medium. Where generations once had voices, that reality reflected a slower pace of change in the technology of culture. Ours – I speak as a late millennial – is an easy culture of technology; not the technology of Gen-X, who did the numbers-based heavy lifting and for whom the fixed-line phone anchored their existence. Ours was the generation that moved to Facebook in droves because we couldn’t be bothered to work out how to put a wallpaper up on MySpace.

In 2014 a Tad Friend report for the New Yorker from VidCon, when Vine was still rising, showed that heavy hitters from the old media world were present. But five years on, the scale of video’s sheer cultural – and therefore economic – force is of a different order of magnitude. Now there are lots of old media bigwigs in attendance. One light feature in 2014; rolling coverage in 2019.

Back then, before Vine had soared its short trajectory, Friend observed that YouTube’s “primacy as the place teenagers go after school is already being challenged, especially by Vine”. He detailed the rehearsal of a Vine sequence, with a handful of practitioners working together to produce a loop. The comedy vertical of the Vine app was the most popular, he reported, the velocity of the form telling. “The six-second limit didn’t leave time to do much more than establish a scenario and then undercut it.”

Vine was, in many ways, pretty dodgy. Its stars were almost all men. It played with racial stereotypes in a manner that seems outdated even today. In Friend’s piece, one ‘Viner’ he follows, Andrew ‘Bach’ Bachelor, cushions the use of stereotypes, arguing that the audience was receptive to them. “[W]hen I tried out the ideas going around Hollywood – that Asians play the smart people, white people play the rich ones, blacks are the thugs – those Vines got the most likes. So it’s not Hollywood being racist – it’s Hollywood understanding what people want to see.” There was plenty more besides.

The looping six-second video is, necessarily, restrictive. It’s hard to avoid comparisons with poetic forms like the sonnet or the limerick. The haiku is another matter – and subreddit – altogether. Part of the enjoyment comes from watching the creator pull it off, to tee up the punchline and achieve it.

Failure was common. Some Vines rushed by, unclear in their purpose and sloppy in execution. These are visible immediately. Others lean too heavily on stereotypes, saying nothing about the structure they aim to mock. Successes, meanwhile, are instantly clear, even when the subject matter is ridiculous. I don’t know why it works.

Unlike longer video platforms, though, the six-second limit and the looping function gave to creative experimentation rather than sharing reality. Though the founders, Dom Hoffman, Rus Yupov, and Colin Kroll (who sadly died aged 35 last December), had imagined the short videos resembling an audio-visual Twitter, a platform for capturing life through a front-facing camera, new uses quickly began to emerge. It gave to the experimental, but also to the situation, to directorial immediacy.

“It was surprising,” Hoffman told the Verge in 2016. “Our original beta had something like 10 or 15 people on it, and even with that small group we started to see experimentation pretty early on.” When the platform took to the broader public, experimentation and creative expression took hold. When Twitter came knocking, the founders thought they had found the perfect buyer.

There are plenty of social media platforms and all of them now have an audio-visual function. Why, then, did Vine develop into a canvas, a creative challenge in video form? A member of Twitter’s marketing team, Ian Padgham, who made films about how to use the service, and sat in on some of the early meetings between the parent company and Vine, puts it down to simplicity. He described the initial experience of the app, why it nudged users toward the weird, likening the experience to Microsoft Paint.

“It used to be the worst app ever, but you couldn’t get distracted by the bells and whistles.” The turning point, however, was the integration of the front-facing camera, which unlocked many more scenarios.

It was at this point, in 2013, where it all exploded. Now-famous names like Logan Paul and Amanda Cerny emerged, garnering billions of views. They have since moved off onto YouTube, or Instagram, which former executives credit with bringing on “the beginning of the end” by introducing a 15-second video feature in the same year. Instagram’s sheer velocity was difficult to match, but so was Snapchat’s casual nature, its small-group ease a threat. It became the app that Vine’s founders pitched. Ultimately, it may have done more to weaken Vine than to challenge Instagram. 

Equally, the tendency of brands to go straight to the Vine creator, alongside a string of executive departures, and the lack of advertising options in a six-second window meant that bringing money in was difficult – the irony of Facebook’s mantra now being the six-second ad is hard to bear. The founders are said to have put up resistance to monetisation initiatives. It was a disaster, one that is now well-documented.

But monetisation and great things rarely go together. Many of the greatest Viners, some of the stars that shone brightest, continue to make new stuff. Little of it has the bizarre and wondrous experimentation of Vine – remember the guy with the lemons?

A lack of six-second boundary has removed the immediacy, the incredible way in which the best Viners were able to set up a scenario and deliver the punchline in that time. Even more amazing: how the very best were able to work with the looping form to their advantage, isolating a moment, or half a moment, that could loop and not become boring, but could actually become funnier.

For all of its successes and its obvious utilities, Facebook never brought such joy as Vine. I admit that it’s a far larger platform with far more functions. But there’s something inherently imperfect about things when they’re cool. Put it in the case of bars: the best don’t tend to be the most accessible places, they don’t have ideal child’s play area facilities, music quiet enough for elderly patrons, or even enough capacity to house every young person in a 10-mile radius. To be good, it has to feel like your own thing, your thing that allows you to feel like you’re one of the people in the know. That’s when Facebook was cool: when it was our generation’s thing. You don’t go to the coolest place in the edgiest corner of Hackney so you can hope to bump into your aunt.

Whether Vine ever had the capacity to be that thing – whether any platform has the capacity to be cool and not let its ambitions rip it apart from the inside – is impossible to know. Ultimately, I don’t think it is possible. Ultimately, I don’t think Vine was viable either as a business or even as a platform because it was hard to do. Because it was a form of cinematographic art, and art – let’s be honest – is hard.

Try to make a funny video in six seconds. Try to distil the direction and refinement needed to make it work and see how you fail. See how you’re reluctant to go back and try it again. Try writing a decent haiku, so decent that people looking for fun stuff on their phones want to read it, like it, and like it so much they tell others about it. It’s insanely difficult. As a form, Vine demanded that from its creators, even if they responded with just a shriek in costume, and my generation went and loved it.

Vines, especially in their fossilised, anthologised form, are best enjoyed in groups. They fill dead time – late nights where you’re past the point of chatting, mornings when everyone is horizontal and hungover. The Vine compilation lands in equal parts comforting and, hopefully, surprising. The goal is to come across a Vine you haven’t seen before.

Even when we have seen them all, everyone has their favourites. One former flatmate can’t get enough of Kermit crooning to Usher; another adores the LA Turtle. Many of the new anthologies just re-hash each other, offering nothing new. The compilations with the most emotional titles tend to be, oddly, the funniest.

Vine’s story offers an analogy of the internet’s recent history, and the creation of an environment in which beautifully simple products struggle under the weight of publicly listed companies. The need to provide value to investors requires driving platforms toward becoming everything to everyone, or trying to be. Vine was just for us.