What Vine Did For Us
Vine may have been the internet's first real native art movement.
"Forty-five seconds is a really long video,” I squawked a little too loudly on a recent call. We were discussing a digital video plan for a client and trying to settle on the right length for a series of commercials. “Forty-five seconds is, like, you need a storyboard,” I explained. Eventually, we all agreed. We switched gears and started discussing what kinds of stories you could tell in just 15 seconds, at which point I interjected again — "Man, even that's long! That's, like, almost three Vines!"
When Vine came out in January 2013, the constraints seemed almost laughable. A six-second video, fully shot and edited in an app on your phone with very few bells and whistles, that looped eternally. My friends and colleagues experimented with using it like Instagram, posting six-second clips of whatever was happening in our lives. My early Vines are pretty much all of one adorable corgi puppy that I had the pleasure of babysitting regularly soon after I moved to New York, a weird little snapshot into a very specific few months of my life — barely more than photos with sound.
Meanwhile, something else was happening with Vine among people a few years younger than me, especially teenagers. They were turning it into an art form.
Kids were the perfect audience for Vine. It felt almost laughably on point with all the stereotypes about young people and their short attention spans. But rather than reinforcing the idea that changing consumption habits means we’re dumbing down, the constraints of Vine ended up cultivating the most incredible, diverse creative culture I’ve seen in decades of paying attention to what people make online. Vine was deeply accessible, which meant anyone with a smartphone could make one. But it was also a deeply creative platform, created from scratch. It felt like a fresh, pure, artistic meritocracy. On Vine, stars were born and went viral thanks to work that never would have existed without the platform itself.
Vine created its own memes, language, and trends, which were often magnified by thousands of others jumping on board with riffs and adaptations as soon as a new viral Vine landed — see the evolution of "I'm in me mum's car, broom broom." There were Vine magicians, Vine musicians, Vine kids, and — of course, because it’s the internet — lots and lots of very adorable Vine animals. Of course, there was also the comedy. Some of it was pretty bad — cute white teenage boys became Vine stars not so much because they were creative, but because they were willing to humiliate themselves, and garner tweenage girl fans in the process. Still, a ton of the humor on Vine was warm, self-deprecating, weird, and completely unexpected. Who is she? What are thoooooose?
I mean: Why you always lyin'?
In fall of 2014, BuzzFeed formed a team called BFF that was focused entirely on experimenting with creating original distributed content for platforms we hadn't really paid much attention to before. Previously, we were more singularly focused on driving traffic to our website. This was a chance to exist everywhere the internet went. The BFF team was comprised of a dozen writers, performers, video producers, artists, photographers, and designers — many of them were hired for one of those specific skills, but eventually all of them were doing all of the above by the very nature of the collaborative creative environment and the platforms we were working on. Writers got in front of the camera, illustrators put together long Tumblr posts, photographers shot videos of puppies re-creating the Friends theme song. We focused mostly on emerging platforms: Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, and especially Vine.
I didn't really set out to master Vine when we started BFF, but we wanted to learn more about it. I hired Jeremy Briggs, who'd co-founded a Vine-for-brands company, Origiful, in San Francisco after leaving a video role at Twitter. Jeremy taught us the basics of what worked on Vine, and we set our team of weirdos loose. They called us mom and dad, and in many ways they channeled the teenagers who had made Vine this incredible, unique planet of internet. Everyone on the team contributed to Vine and pushed each other to be better. People who didn't really have video skills learned from those who did. One of our first big successes came from Kaye Toal, who I'd hired primarily to write for Tumblr. The video is just Kaye saying "yaaaassss" over clips from the new Jurassic Park trailer. She made it at home one night and brought it to us the next day, probably to make everyone in our Slack room laugh. It has 18 million loops.
As a manager of creative people, fostering a creative culture and keeping people inspired to experiment and innovate is both the hardest and the most important thing you can do. I'm not trying to sell myself short, but Vine did a lot of the work for me. When you're brainstorming or trying to write a book or, really, accomplish anything ever, it helps to start with what you can't do. Limitless options are paralyzing. Six seconds is approachable and down-to-earth, easy to understand, comfortingly qualified. We constantly tried to push the limits of what we could do with that format, but those same limits were what inspired us to make anything at all.
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell a (possibly apocryphal) story about how when he was in elementary school, he once intentionally scored 0 on a true/false test to make a point to his teacher, and then tried to argue that it was just as hard to get 0 as it would be to get 100. The teacher didn't buy it, but when I pictured my dad in this scenario I saw him as a young Ferris Bueller — unreasonably clever and creative, but upending expectations and conscientiously refusing to apply his academic virtues to anything a grown-up would understand or approve of.
Vine's almost laughably restrictive format was exactly the same kind of impish challenge. Oh, you think six-second video is silly? I'll show you silly. The result was a flourishing, supportive creative culture that had deep cultural impact way beyond the number of active users on the app itself.
Vine may have been the internet's first real native art movement — less like a standard Silicon Valley startup, and more like Warhol's factory.
Vine wasn't a perfect place — like any open platform, Vine had its own share of trolls, racist and misogynistic humor, and jerks who got ahead by stealing from more talented people. Still, it was just packed with magic — particularly from the young people of color who understood the format best. This was a place reserved for joy, laughter, and celebration, a remarkable service in an America where young minorities have to assert that their lives matter at all. A quick glance through Twitter trending topics where people have been memorializing their favorite Vines is like an unintentional textbook on what real diversity looks like.
I feel a little guilty about Twitter shutting down Vine, because I had fallen off as a daily user of the platform in the last few months — and so, it seemed, had a lot of other people I know. Many of the early Vine stars moved on to other platforms in the last year or so. BuzzFeed's own Vine account has scarcely been updated for months. Vine suffered, too, from questions around how it could successfully generate enough revenue to sustain itself — brands paid Vine superstars to endorse their products, but Twitter wasn't seeing a cut of those deals, and because viral Vines generally spread off of Vine itself, ads within the app probably didn't hold much appeal. Still, there's a lot of anger toward Twitter about this decision — a lengthy thread of tweets on the subject of why Twitter is shuttering Vine while still struggling with its harassment issues has already garnered thousands of retweets and favorites.
Everything comes to an end eventually. It's sad now, but Vine's short-lived but world-changing impact still makes me feel incredibly optimistic about the future of entertainment and the internet. Art is easy. Art is whatever we made it to be. Anyone can do it; do it for the Vine.
Summer Anne Burton is executive creative producer at BuzzFeed and works in its advertising department. Previously she ran BuzzFeed BFF, which made a lot of Vines.