Vine as Human Oscilloscope and Why it Will Be a Big Deal

Now that everyone is talking about Vine, the hot new app that lets you share six second video clips, the main question I have is this: what exactly took so long? Like one’s first few hesitant hours with Twitter, using Vine elicits an initial “why on earth would anyone want this?” that quickly gives way to a feeling it was simply inevitable. Here we have the audio-visual equivalent of the tweet. It sounds like nothing, but make no mistake: Vine will be a big deal.

The reason for its big-deal-ness, I think, will be very similar to Twitter’s. Years ago, when you still had to defend the service from accusations of meaningless or flippancy, tweet-proponents would often turn to the idea of “ambient intimacy”: that, beyond being a way to receive aggregated information or connect with others, a stream of snippets of existence provided an aura of loose connectedness with others. It wasn’t so much utility or pragmatism that described Twitter’s effect as much as the fact that it produced a place for the exchange of thought and feeling.

It’s not that that was entirely new, of course. You could also do that by, you know, talking or writing letters. What was novel about Twitter, however, was the way in which those expressions were subject to a constraint in length, and then were organized into a centralized stream set up to allow back and forth between people. It was the aggregation, but also the strange spatio-temporal dislocation of a shared space that engendered the sense that it was something new. It’s commonplace now, but ‘engaging’ with a few hundred people using your smartphone while sitting in a coffee shop felt remarkably novel.

Vine seems to a have a similar feel, but because it is video, its formal constraints have their own effects. Each clip is six seconds long, but can be divided into micro-clips that seamlessly blend, something enabled by a dead simple user interface. It sounds absurd, but the effect is that the micro-fragments, collected together into a six-second whole, provide a remarkably ideal pastiche snapshot of a moment—whether some fragments of a party, the shards of a brilliantly sunny winter day or, inevitably, the disjointed impression of a dim, candlelit bar at night.

It is neither the six-second limit nor the easy editing that makes Vine work, but both together. In the sped-up, intensified experience of a six-second video with three or four cuts, you have a surprisingly large amount of visual information—but not so much that you are overwhelmed. Vine is a bit like slowly walking past a living room in which a party is going on: it’s just a fleeting vision, but it can be evocative enough to conjure up quite the reaction.

It’s certainly important to keep in mind that, yes, all the critiques of Twitter and the web in general still hold. The Vine service is already dominated by cats, it took all of three seconds for porn to appear, and who knows to what nefarious purposes such immediate, frictionless sharing of video will be put. Moreover, the availability of such a service can add to the already existent phenomenon that turns nostalgia into a mode of interpreting the present. As others have pointed out, this can give rise to a sort of ‘documentary consciousness’ in which the world is forever rendered as a thing to be observed and recorded. Worse, that sharing might actually encourage putting parts of one’s life into circulation for modern economic imperatives in which all documentation is a form of self-branding. Vine will inevitably be put to all these ill uses, probably that’s precisely what its creators were hoping for.

But I’d argue the interestingness of Vine and its similarity to Twitter extend into the realm of how knowledge and human experience has started to change at the beginning of the new millennium. For both services, it is the effect of the aggregate multiple, rather than individual tweet or Vine, that reveals the app as a kind of social pulse, the platform becoming a kind of human oscilloscope that measures the ebb and flow of wide-scale feeling. It is a facet highlighted perfectly by the addictive site Vinepeek, which simply randomly cycles through publicly available clips. It is an utterly fascinating, discombobulating look into others’ lives—something one writer called a kind of web-enabled Being John Malkovich. Invoking that loss of identity feels on point: taken in such an aggregated fashion, the primacy of the author and the individual starts to fray a bit, as origins and names and who-made-what gets muddied in a network of fragmented images of fragmented lives.

More than anything though, the six-second shard of video is, for both better and worse, the ideal form for an era in which interpretation, reaction and description flood over us like a swollen river and run through our bodies like radiation. It is not just a flow of context, it is a “precession” of opinion; the explanatory frame always comes before the event. I already know approximately what a party looks like, why the shot of your dinner is special to you, and why we are so eager to “make.” We are overcome with images, words and sounds, and in the face of the flood, all we want are anchors—like, say, a microscopic clip of moving pictures and words that temporarily pins down a moment in an ever-rushing torrent. For good and ill, the new app feels very much a thing of its time.

But Vine isn’t important because it’s just another shiny new thing. It’s because, like Twitter and other good novelties before it, it fits into the shifting ways in which cultural expression relates to its socio-historical context. In this case, that may be good or it may be bad; I really don’t know. What I do know is that right now, the world I live in simply has too much, and there’s something oddly satisfying about the ruthless formal efficiency of a six-second story—of a minute, scattershot pastiche of what someone is seeing right now. It’s true that it may be a sign our addled brains can’t handle anything more. But perhaps it’s also a signal of an inversion: a historical switch in which the whole comes first. The putting together has already been done for us—and all we now desire is to pluck six-second parts off this enormous mass, simply hoping that we won’t be overwhelmed.