Vine was an artistic medium.

The Death of Vine Isn’t Just the End of an App. It’s the End of an Artistic Medium.

The Death of Vine Isn’t Just the End of an App. It’s the End of an Artistic Medium.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 28 2016 5:45 PM

The Death of Vine Isn’t Just the End of an App. It’s the End of an Artistic Medium.

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Vine bore rich fruits.

ITkach/thinkstock.com

My first attempt to make a Vine was an unqualified disaster. Following the instructions in the app, I cobbled together three quick shots: an empty chair, an empty desk, the chair again—a six-second sequence, scored to a song by a band called Lake that I don’t remember putting onto my phone. I imagined there might be some metaphorical punch to these vacant spaces, but it never emerged in the final product. My hand shook as I filmed it, and the footage does too. The angles are all wrong. If I’m lucky, no one will ever see it.

I won’t have many opportunities to improve my Vineotography. On Thursday, the Twitter-owned micro-video service announced that it would be “discontinuing” its mobile app sometime “in the coming months.” Though it promised that it would continue to host existing videos, the app was the sole system for posting content to the platform. Accordingly, this news effectively marked the end of Vine as an ongoing cultural force.

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This news wasn’t entirely unexpected: In May, New York magazine’s Madison Malone Kircher observed that the app was dying off as its users migrated to other platforms. A more comprehensive history of Vine’s failings from the Verge’s Casey Newton documented Twitter’s inability to properly monetize the service—or sell it to another company. Vine had been living with a terminal diagnosis for months, maybe years, and everyone knew it.

Nevertheless, the announcement still came as a blow for many. As the screenwriter Brian Koppelman—who has recorded hundreds of Vines—told me, it was “a strangely heavy thing,” a sentiment that many seemed to share. In the hours immediately after news broke, my Twitter timeline filled up with countless examples demonstrating just how complex, fun, and strange the tiny videos could be—a thousand miniature obituaries celebrating a rich life. Though I hadn’t been a devotee of the platform, many of these clips were familiar; I even traded a few examples with friends. Others, including many of those that Chelsea Hassler rounded up for Slate, were new, and they were all the more delightful for the novelty.

Collectively, those examples—along with those documented by other admirers of the platform such as Margarita Noriega—tell a story of variety and possibility. You could certainly come up with theories of Vine, and many already have: Slate politics editor Tommy Craggs told me he thinks “the appeal of good Vines is partly musical,” or at least that “they activate the parts of the brain that respond to music.” In an elegant, personal retrospective on the format, Tom Scocca attends to its essential awkwardness, arguing that it is “the natural result of being built linearly on the fly, the way being alive is built.”

However you make sense of Vine, it is more than a simple social network: It is an artistic medium in its own right, one all the more compelling for the limitations its app imposed on creators, limitations that further drove their creativity. In this respect, it feels naturally connected to Twitter, where strict character limits have provided a generative climate for poets, weirdoes, and weirdo poets alike. As Noriega writes in Newsweek, “Vine was arguably the best social media network for artists because it created its own rules and stuck to them doggedly, and nothing inspires creativity like a good challenge.” Those challenges inspired a crystalline array of curiosities, the best of which would have never emerged in other contexts.

In that light, the loss of Vine is arguably a singular event. Responding on Twitter to the company’s announcement, Andy Richter joked, “At least when my shows got cancelled they didn’t cancel television.”  Silly as the sentiment may be, there’s a certain grim truth to it: While filmmakers will go on shooting films, with the disappearance of Vine we’ll lose a whole way of making art. Vine was a medium of its own, but it was one tied up with a specific social network and inseparable from a privately owned app. Past artists had patrons, but Vine shows that we’re now living in an age in which an individual business can control an entire medium.

To the extent that Vine was an artistic platform, Vine was always one predicated on forms of exploitation. This too was at least partially a consequence of Vine’s status as a fundamentally corporate product. Vine’s biggest stars weren’t naïve about such risks. Calling them “smart and sophisticated,” Noriega writes, “They understand how precarious the relationship is between platforms and audiences, even as they want more from both.” Still, many of the site’s users—especially young people of color—routinely saw others profit from their work, as Doreen St. Felix shows in Fader. Vine’s best filmmakers may have been artists, but they were also some combination of customers and products, as we all are on the platforms through which we organize our digital lives.

The shuttering of Vine is probably the first event of its kind, but it is unlikely to be the last. Despite Twitter’s promise to preserve existing Vines, some have already suggested that independent curators should work to protect the platform’s best material. That’s probably true, both because the medium’s best moments really do belong in museums and because companies like Twitter clearly can’t be trusted to do the right thing for long. (Besides: Twitter may not always own Twitter.) But Vine’s demise also suggests something stranger, showing that tomorrow’s archivists—the ones charged with saving video games, snaps, even malware—may be in the peculiar position of having to protect and preserve whole mediums, not just the messages that arise out of them.

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