Twitter's New Video App Is Actually Pretty Great

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 24 2013 4:22 PM

Twitter's New Video App Is Actually Pretty Great

Vine app

Screenshot / Vine.co

If you’re a Twitter user, you’ve probably noticed today that your stream is unusually cluttered with boring videos of people making faces or sitting at their desks. That’s Vine, the new video app that launched today after Twitter acquired it’s the team that was working on it last fall. Only a few hours old, some are already hailing it as the Instagram of video. For now, though, it’s available only on the iPhone and iPad Touch.

As BuzzFeed was quick to point out, most people’s first Vine posts (Vines? Vinestagrams?) are, to put it politely, inessential. (Update: See below for mine, which shows my colleague Forrest Wickman downloading the Vine app on his iPhone. Scintillating stuff, I know.) Mercifully, they’re also brief—Vine videos max out at six seconds in length. To counter the “blink and you’ve missed it” problem, the videos loop endlessly, leading some to compare them to GIFs, the ‘80s-vintage looping video snippets that have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

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But if Vines share with GIFs the qualities of brevity and repetition, their purpose is fundamentally different, largely because of the way you create them. To make a GIF, you start with a conventional video, then use an editing tool like Adobe Photoshop to pluck from it that single perfect moment that you want to preserve for all time. In short, GIFs are the product of video-editing carried to its logical extreme.  The process is reductive.

Vines, in contrast, are constructive. That is, you build a Vine by shooting little bits of video on the fly: two seconds here, two seconds there, two seconds over yonder, and you’ve got your end result. It’s likely to be choppy, a little sloppy, imperfect. But it’s immediate. The next step is not to edit but to share—on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Vine itself, which for now will be a standalone app with its own community (think Instagram) rather than a baked-in Twitter feature.  

The absence of an edit function helps explain why most people’s first Vines are so bad. It also means that there are some things you can do with GIFs that you’ll never be able to do with Vines. My colleagues Forrest Wickman and Chris Wade, for example, will not be coming out with a “Classic Cinema in 3 Vines” post anytime soon. Then again, you’ll never see anyone break news via a GIF—something that seems sure to happen via Vine on an increasingly regular basis if the service takes off. It’s easy to envision Vines replacing still photos (via Instagram, Twitpic, etc.) as the primary mode of real-time visual communication on Twitter. In a few months TV pundits could be somberly discussing the latest grim Vines to come out of Syria.

That the first Vines are mostly goofy and/or superficial should not lead anyone to dismiss the app’s potential. If you’ll recall, the first tweets weren’t exactly high art either. In time, Vine's six seconds could become, to borrow a phrase from CNET’s Daniel Terdiman, the new atomic unit for instant video communication. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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