Cultural death and actual nonexistence aren’t mutually exclusive in the world of social media: It’s possible for a social network to pass from the world without actually going offline. Myspace, after all, is still around. AOL, too. Any platform’s perceived relevance is at least partly anecdotal, shaped by the people who use (or have abandoned) it.
Of course, there’s often truth behind perception: Facebook is for olds, Snapchat is for the youths, etc. And with the rise of mobile video—one of the fasting growing segments on the web—competition between behemoths, like Snapchat and its peers, is intensifying.
Vine, the six-second video looping platform which launched a new class of Internet stars and memorable flash-in-the-pan memes like that chorus of groaning ducks, is a useful case study in this regard. For years, tech pundits have gone back and forth between declaring it either almost dead or poised for domination. (Which isn’t that far from how they discuss its parent company, Twitter.)
So which is it?
Among those who are tracking both Vine and Snapchat, things don’t look good for Vine.
“Vine engagements are at an all-time low,” said Sarah Ware, the CEO of Markerly, an advertising firm that focuses on blogs and social media campaigns. “People are not posting as frequently and engagement is drastically going down.”
Markerly recently analyzed nearly 10,000 of the Vine users with the most followers—15,000 followers or more—and found the majority of them haven’t posted since last year. Their analysis, Ware says, represents a “mass exodus” of Vine’s most influential group of users.
Of course, it depends what you mean by influential. Indeed, some of the top Viners seem to have tired of the platform, and that’s a big deal. Much of Vine’s culture comes from popular and prolific Viners who publish videos to the site and often collaborate with one another. “[T]hank you guys for two amazing years on vine but i feel bored with this app and i just don't find it entertaining anymore,” a Viner who goes by the username 5sos keeks wrote in February. He had about 15,000 followers when he quit.
But a closer look at the broader Markerly analysis reveals a few caveats. At least one of the top accounts that the firm identified as having abandoned Vine, Nash Grier 2, was a secondary account used by a popular Viner who’s still active on the service. (“I used this account a lot before snapchat came out, now I post stuff on there!” he wrote.) So while Grier did drop one account in favor of Snapchat, he didn’t leave Vine altogether.
Other top users—like Zach King, who’s best known for sleekly edited Vines that result in trippy optical illusions—have, in fact, posted since Markerly’s analysis. (King hadn’t posted since January, which Markerly highlighted as a revealing absence, but King has since Vined twice in the last week.)
Markerly also didn’t analyze how frequently top accounts had posted in the months leading up to their hiatuses, so it’s hard to say whether the apparent drop-off represents a real change. In other words, maybe the accounts with tons of followers weren’t all that engaged to begin with. (In a follow-up mini-analysis, Markerly later told me, they got a snapshot of how engagement may have changed: Among 1,000 top profiles, only 35 new videos have been posted this year, and 12 of them came from the same account, the firm says. And among the accounts that have posted videos since January, many were averaging around one or two per month, compared with several per week in 2015.)
There are many other signs that Vine isn’t exactly thriving. Markerly’s analysis shows overall engagement—including video views, reposts, and likes—peaked in 2014, temporarily surged last year, and has declined ever since.
“More than 200 million people watch Vines across the web every month,” a Vine spokeswoman told me. But that number hasn’t changed since at least August of last year. (A year before that, in August 2014, some 100 million people watched Vines each month, according to the company.)
Vine barely came up in the latest earnings call for its parent company, Twitter, in April—though Anthony Noto, Twitter’s chief financial office, did call Vine a “foundational” acquisition that’s meant to create value for shareholders “now and into the future.” How exactly Vine will do that, however, is unclear. (It does appear to be hiring, at least: There are about a dozen job listings on the Vine site.)
A tiny portion of so-called branded content is hosted on Vine compared with social platforms overall—Vine captures about 4 percent of branded social content, according to Ad Age, which suggested last year that the platform was on the brink of quietly slipping away. At one point in the April earnings call, someone asked why Vine hadn’t taken steps to monetize the platform. (“We actually are monetizing...” said Adam Bain, Twitter’s chief operating officer, in a somewhat convoluted response, “allowing marketers to bring that canvas into Twitter and do targeting campaigns and measurement through the tools that we have available on the platform.”)
Last August, Vine was ranked as one of the top-100 free iPhone apps in more than a dozen countries, according to Quartz. Today, in the United States, it’s moved down to No. 166, according to the app-tracking service App Annie. Snapchat is now the No. 1 free app, according to the site.
Vine touts on his corporate website that it gets 1.5 billion “loops,” or video views, per day. Snapchat, on the other hand, logs 10 billion videos each day, up from 8 billion just three months ago, according to Bloomberg.
The threat Snapchat poses to Vine is pretty clear: Both apps target the same demographic—namely, teens—and enable users to make and share snackably short videos. Except Snapchat has other popular functionalities—including image filters and even voice calling—that Vine doesn’t.
Snapchat, though formidable, isn’t Vine’s only foe. The introduction of Instagram video, in 2013, dealt what the writer Charlie Warzel surmised at the time might be a “crushing, perhaps fatal, blow” to Vine. “The most troubling relationship is the fairly steady rise of Instagram’s shares next to Vine’s far more drastic drop, which seem to suggest that users aren’t necessarily flocking to Instagram, which they probably already use — they’re simply forgetting about Vine, “he wrote at the time.
The trend, more broadly, is this: Mobile video is rapidly growing. Vine offered a unique service when it launched in 2012. Not so, anymore.
Yet despite all this, Vine has retained its unique charm—not infrequently, a Vine video makes the leap from being obsessively revined and remixed within platform, to widely shared across the larger Internet. And the cultural language of the platform routinely ripples across the web. (See also: Damn Daniel, broom broom, or nah.)
Vine loyalists might argue that the relative dearth of branding on the site is a bonus—and I can certainly see the appeal. But social platforms, which, like any business, ultimately rely on cash to keep going, can only run on web users’ affections for so long. Anyway. [Attempts cool teen voice:] “Daaamn, Snapchat. Back at it again trying to destroy Vine.”