No more fruit on the Vine


There’s plenty to talk about these days.  The world of children’s media remains abuzz over the American Academy of Pediatrics’ backpedaling on screen-time for tots.  AT&T intends to absorb Time Warner (even as Verizon has second thoughts about Yahoo).  The time will come, I’m certain, to discuss such matters, but before its six seconds of fame fade, I want to reflect on the close of a chapter in the annals of digital media…the end of a revolution in Western civilization…a reversal in the very evolution of the brain. I refer, of course, to the withering of Vine.

For readers unacquainted, Vine was all the rage and, consequently, outrage, back in the day, which is to say 2013. It was an app for disseminating video clips, but with secret sauce: none longer than six seconds, each automatically, endlessly looped. That changed everything, experts announced. Storytelling, constant since the campfires of the cavemen, had been overturned. The attention span, atrophied by Sesame Street, SpongeBob SquarePants and Facebook, had met its match.   My friend David Kleeman, the mayor of Children’s Medialand, made the cheeky prediction that film schools would soon offer masters degrees in Vine studies.

Kidscreen magazine, the bible of our trade, hailed “these quick and entertaining videos” as ideal for selling preschoolers Oreos, since we all know little kids will watch the same damn thing over and over. Then Newton’s Third Law of the Internet kicked in, and defenders of children slammed Vine as a cognitive pollutant — until Newton’s Third Law kicked in again and, thanks to a savvy executive+dad, Vine popped the “kid-safe” Vinekids onto the App Store.

Now it’s dead. Sic transit gloria six-second videos.

I’ll admit, I got as tangled up in Vine as the next pundit.  It was November 2013, in a hotel in Toronto, and I was preparing for a panel at the annual conference of Canada’s terrific Youth Media Alliance/Alliance Médias Jeunesse. The topic was “The Changing Nature of Quality in Children’s Media.” David, famously non-partisan in the kids’ media wars, was moderating, and I knew he’d expect an opinion more informed than, grizzled relic that I am, “six-second videos don’t change a freaking thing.” Then I looked out the window.

Two dark clots of Torontans blotted opposite corners of Simcoe Street as buses and taxis sped left and right along Front. Directly below me and therefore out of sight, the traffic light must have turned because the cabs and delivery trucks all froze, the clots dissolved into swarms, swirled vertically northward and westward and dispersed, as new swarms gathered on the corners and then, the mechanical rapids resuming, themselves blurred into dark clots, and it happened again.

That paragraph alone should demonstrate how words (at least mine) couldn’t capture what I’d seen.  Neither could a snapshot on my phone. This was no static landscape, but alive. It was like–no, not like, it was exactly the same as Harry Potter’s parents waving “Hi” from that portrait on his dorm-room shelf: not still life but not narrative either. I’d seen a Vine.

On the panel that afternoon, I think I still said Vine hadn’t changed the nature of quality in children’s media, whatever that meant. But I also think I called Vines nonetheless ingenious and novel–potentially an art form in which kids could take part, a form as distinct from narrative video as a sketch is from an oil.  Or I might have said that afterward, over Labatts.

In retrospect, all humbuggery. Vine didn’t change a thing. This began to dawn on me when I sat down to eulogize the six-second clip, then remembered you can post 10-second videos on Snapchat, 15-second videos on Instagram and videos on Facebook of any length at all. Whatever you notice, short or long, you can shoot, just as 52 years ago Andy Warhol shot Sleep, five and a third non-narrative hours of something no one else ever bothered to watch.

Still, $30 million in investment. Tens of millions of downloads, billions of views. There must be something about six seconds, right?

Well, Google it yourself. You’ll find smoke about the perfect duration for our puny attention spans (see below), how Vine was being kind to users’ bandwidth consumption, how 24 frames times exactly six seconds was sort of ok not quite but kind of the video equivalent of a 140-character tweet, and how Goldilocks tried nine and ten and five, but six seconds turned out to be just right, the sweet spot of the New Creativity. You’ll also find the investigative bombshell that Vines were never six seconds at all, but always six seconds, 14 frames, or just under six-and-a-half.

No, Vine, upon reflection, put the con in constraint. Self-appointed experts established expertise by calling it transformative, and we took the bait, debating how exactly Vines were new.

They weren’t.  But us grownups, we fall for the same damn thing over and over.  They call each venture-capitalized gimmick an innovation; each innovation, fresh proof that human nature has changed fundamentally once more. It hasn’t. The brain doesn’t work that way, nor even the mind. It’s a theme I expect to return to again and again; the way discussions run around media, children and development, that’s pretty much a given. And in memory of Vine, I’ll be back next time with a classically infuriating example: the chimera of shrinking attention span.  Please watch this space. 

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