Whither Vine?

Twitter is shutting down the social network, which was one of the web’s most vibrant communities.

Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

Twitter is shutting down Vine, the mirthful, hilarious, and often bizarre social network composed solely of six-second looping videos.

In the next few months, the company will stop supporting the Vine mobile app, the primary venue of Vine production and consumption. Facing a stubborn lack of profits and a seemingly unending crisis of confidence, Twitter has chosen to shutter its weirdest and most distinctive product.

In a post on Medium, Vine promises that its videos will stay online after the shut-down. “We’ll be keeping the website online because we think it’s important to still be able to watch all the incredible Vines that have been made,” says the release.

“Thank you. To all the creators out there — thank you for taking a chance on this app back in the day. To the many team members over the years who made this what it was — thank you for your contributions. And of course, thank you to all of those who came to watch and laugh every day,” it continues.

And how many people came. While Vine’s growth had slowed in the past year and a half, it was once one of the most vibrant and creative factories of culture on the internet. From 2012 to 2015, there was simply nowhere online like Vine. You could get lost in Vine like it was Wikipedia, and you could laugh on Vine like it was YouTube. It welded the old internet’s spontaneity and “randomness” to the new social web’s scale and diversity.

As the web continues to expand and corporatize, as more companies merge an Apple-like aesthetic with Walmart-like scale, it’s hard to imagine anything like Vine happening again. So here’s an appreciation—and some of The Atlantic staff’s favorite Vines.

Few of the core features we think of as “Twitter” were invented by people employed by Twitter. None of the founders invented the 140-character message, the constraint that gives the service its verve; instead, they adopted it as a technical aspect of SMS texting. Nor did anyone at Twitter invent the @-reply. Not the hashtag or the retweet, either—all were first created by users, then borrowed by the company as an official feature.

The company didn’t quite invent the six-second looping video. It bought the startup that did—Vine—in October 2012, right before it was to launch. But it can get credit for introducing the world to a form unlike any other online: Vines were too weird a thing for users to generate themselves.

When Vine debuted early in 2013, Twitter boasted that its brief videos were the visual equivalent of a tweet. How the student excelled the master. Twitter is where you joke about sports and whine about politics. It is always wordy—and thus inescapably political.

Vine? Vine is art.

Joyful, astonishing, frenetically blissful art. Like the 14-line sonnet or the 12-bar blues, the six-second loop accepted its defining constraint and therefore transcended it. Those six seconds could show you anything—a tiny Japanese owl, two teenagers joking in Tulsa, a water bubble on the International Space Station—but they were always six seconds. The curtain always slammed down, and you were always sent back to the beginning again.

This made every Vine an experiment in form. Some had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some rebelled against any clear point: They started by showing you something crazy and the craziness persisted right through to the end. And the best ran along next to you as you tried to figure out what was happening: You began watching, you thought you saw the joke, then the premise of the whole Vine would shift to reveal a new joke, and then—wham—you were back where you began.

This weird formalism is one reason why Vine—the social network—could have only happened when it did. Only the flood of venture capital that followed from Facebook’s mass popularity, only the lack of good investment options after the global financial crisis, only the hundreds of investors looking to spot the next Google, could have produced a little app as strange as Vine. (Think about it: For a time, a whole planetary class of bankers and hedge-fund managers invested their money not in better ways to mine a rock or ship a box across the ocean, but in inventing new tools of expression. How world-historically weird.) And only a generation of teens and young adults newly empowered with smartphones—a wacko device with a web connection, a video camera, and a link to the whole staggering breadth of global pop culture—could have produced Vine, a medium that requires a willingness to show off to friends and strangers, a freedom to look a little silly or stupid, and hours and hours of waiting-around time to workshop ideas.

No wonder then that, for many teens and some adults too, Vines became a factory of mass culture, an ever-churning storehouse of allusion and one-liners and humor and dance moves. What SNL or MTV or Anchorman or Chapelle’s Show or Gilmore Girls were for older generations, Vine was for a younger class of kids. And doesn’t that make sense? After all, the atomic unit of teen culture is the movie quote—“tis but a flesh wound” or “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball”—and a Vine was often nothing more than a free-floating movie-less quote, attached to a comment thread and indexed by URL.

Take “back at it again at the Krispy Kreme,” above. That Vine is an instantly memorable quote—but it’s also a complete story, almost. We meet a character. We see him do something crazy. And then (another formal twist) the climax isn’t even in the Vine. We’re left to imagine the sign shattering and the stunned Krispy Kreme Kustomers, and meanwhile the Vine has spun forward to set up his jump again. Without the smartphone, this is a ridiculous accident; with the smartphone, he’s a hero. Only a Vine this good could prompt a many-thousands word article at New York magazine about what actually happened at that mall in Matthews, North Carolina. Only a Vine this memorable could seed the tagline of a teen viral video two years later, “Damn Daniel.”

Vine even gave Merriam-Webster its 2015 Word of The Year: On fleek, a phrase which was coined on Vine.

And coined by a black teen girl, in particular. The genius devisers of Vine culture were not just young people, but young people of color, whose ideas dominated the service in a way akin to no other mass tech platform. Black Twitter is a vital vein of the larger social network, for instance, but it’s only one part of the whole; teens of color, meanwhile, credibly created Vine’s mainstream. Black teens took Vine (and their friends and their fans) into their classrooms, school buses, and bedrooms, which turned Vine into one vanguard of a larger and ongoing shift of mass cultural attention to women and people of color.

In that unresolved revolution, later historians might say Vine played as large a role as Tumblr and even Twitter itself. (But see unresolved: In Vine’s case, all that culture building partly served to enrich Twitter’s board, which remains overwhelmingly white and male.)

Nothing gold can stay. Vine had been struggling against Instagram and Snapchat, the new kings of teen video. In May of this year, a third-party firm noted that Vine engagement was at an all-time low. And many Vine stars—those young adults who achieved larger notoriety off their stunts and good looks—had already taken Vine links out of their bios as they moved to larger, higher profile, and more lucrative platforms, including YouTube and Facebook.

A different company might have saved Vine—or at least sold it off. But Twitter, no average tech firm, has lately been mired in its own dramas. Since going public in October 2013, it’s limped from one crisis to another, never achieving the Facebook or Google-like profit margins that investors dreamed of—or, for that matter, profit at all. It has tried out one new feature after another, each with the goal of expanding Twitter’s core user base; none have succeeded. Now, it is laying off 9 percent of its staff—presumably this includes almost all of the Vine employees—as it staggers toward financial health.

Had Twitter chosen to listen to its users a few years ago, Vine might be alive today. As prominent women and people of color have been telling Twitter for at least two years, the service has a mass harassment problem. Twitter has never substantively tried to fix this issue. When it went looking for buyers earlier this month, some family-friendly bidders—including Disney—wouldn’t touch it because of its reputation for out-of-control racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic cyberbullying.

Twitter now says it is working on tools to combat that problem and that some of the features targeting it should be released next month. It’s long made promises like this, though, so I’ll believe when I see it. And the change in approach wasn’t enough to save Vine—meaning that one of the most generative communities of people of color online was destroyed in part by Twitter Nazis, on Twitter Inc.’s watch.

And with Vine’s death comes the larger passing of an era of the social internet. Instagram, Vine’s more corporate and more profitable older cousin, has never matched Vine’s ecstatic creativity, but it’s what we’re left with now. The sprawling and manic and often kind social web has been conquered by Facebook, and what lies immediately in front of us seems more dull, more reactionary, and more clearly corporate than what we just passed through.

At least we’ll always have these Vines, though. Below, I’ve posted some more of our favorites—and my own favorite last.