The fruit of the Vine?

Why are micro video blogging sites like Vine so popular? TechCrunch's DIY analysis back in March showed a trend in Vine's early growth that's still going strong, although the big media story right now is the battle between Vine and the newer Instagram video offering (fifteen seconds of video instead of six! Filters!!). Sure, social media trends can be as shallow as you like: but can a closer reading of Vine tell us anything more interesting about our times?

The BBC was off the blocks in January with a decent stab at listing 'six things people have learned about six-second video in a week'. Although all social media sites can seem superficial they are also cultural spaces; and people can participate in creating these cultures instead of choosing from cultural forms approved by mainstream taste-makers. Six seconds of video can be banal; but it can also be poetic or political. An aggregation of Vine videos recalls the the Mass Observation social research project of the 1930s. You're seeing the ordinary stuff of people's lives unfold in front of you: in this case, a few dizzying seconds at a time.

What's more, there's something meme-ish about the micro video format. As other people have pointed out, you can see the lineage to animated gifs. Vine videos can have that funny-or-disturbing payload that lends itself to sharing and adaptation. Memes are the DNA of online culture (complete with junk DNA) and they're way we share a common feeling or outlook about everything from cats to the overthrow of Mubarak.

Twitter was dismissed as trivial at the start, it's now a strategic component of politics, business and social uprisings. Imagine a six second looping video of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire. And if you think Vine and it's ilk are simply the waste pipe of public consciousness, you missed the significance of 4chan's /b/ board.  The images there are like a teenager's toilet humour on Tourette steroids, but the shared grammar of jokes and memes was an important petri dish for the sub-culture that became Anonymous

But of course, like the other spawn of Silicon Valley, the business model is the dark side of Vine and the other sites and may ironically be the source of their ultimate failure. It's no secret that the battle between Vine and Instagram video is a courtship of the advertisers as much as (more than) an appeal to the users. That's the ABC of the tech startup – grow a massive user base by being both cool and free, then sell to a bigger company who can monetise the metrics. You can almost taste the advertiser's saliva when they say "We would be interested in exploring the advertising capabilities, their analytics platform/offering and how granular they can go from a targeting perspective".

Targeting is the key here. The sinister thing about all the video blogging sites is that it's really you, the person making the video, who is being watched.  The companies want to know who all your friends are and what kind of stuff you like so they can target advertising at you (“If the product is free, you are the product”). Thanks to Edward Snowden we also know that the intelligence agencies are hoovering up everything we do online. By making a form of stalking into the engine of social media, Silicon Valley has achieved a Taoist unity of business model and threat model. What will the wider impact of Vine be in the age of PRISM? Remember, it was a video that gave Wikileaks a big kick-off (the one of a helicopter gunship in Afghanistan casually killing a Reuters journalist and some children). Will the micro video sites simply be part of the strangling pondweed of surveillance or will we see some Vine-powered transparency? How about a six-second video from a drone control room in Lincolnshire?

In this light it's an app like Snapchat that says more about our times than the enhanced video editing  features of Vine's competitors. Although it shares a refreshingly minimalist approach to user interface, Snapchat is mainly interesting because of the promise to forget your images & videos – ten seconds and they're gone. Of course, Snapchat's pitch for privacy was technically fake and it shares pretty much nothing with proper privacy tools. But it's the idea that gave it life. We don't want everything to last forever, to haunt us at our job interviews or to sit in the digital filing cabinet of some spy agency. So maybe the next hot video app won't be a slicker version of Vine but some hybrid of Snapchat and Tor. People want to express themselves freely – and that's what the internet was originally good for.