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Video Microblogging Has Arrived

A San Francisco-based startup called 12seconds is a video version of Twitter, but how useful will it be?
August 4, 2008

In late July, a startup called 12seconds launched an early version of a product that lets people publicly post 12-second-long videos on the Internet about what they are doing. Using a Web camera or a cell-phone video camera, people record themselves doing anything–watching a football game at a bar, telling jokes, buying new shoes, playing with their child–and can upload it immediately to the Web, where others who subscribe to their videos get the update.

12seconds borrows heavily from the concepts of Twitter, an increasingly popular tool for so-called microblogging, in which people write pithy, 140-character updates on the status of their daily lives. A posted “tweet” can be published on Twitter’s main page and sent directly to people who are following the person who posted. While initially laughed off as a waste of time, Twitter, founded in 2006, has slowly been gaining traction as more and more people and companies are finding it a useful way to quickly share information with a broad audience.

“Microblogging is really starting to take off,” says Sol Lipman, founder of 12seconds. But in some instances, he says, short text updates just aren’t as compelling as video. “I think video as a medium is significantly more engaging than text,” Lipman notes. “If I’m at the bar with my friends, I want to show us having fun at the bar, not just text it.”

The startup, based in San Francisco, was founded about five months ago and has no outside funding. Its ranks fluctuate between seven and ten people, depending on the workload, and about five of those employees work part time, says Lipman. 12seconds launched its “alpha” version of the product (alpha versions typically have fewer features than beta versions) on July 24, by providing four popular blogs, including TechCrunch, with 500 invitations to give out to their readers. Those invitations were snapped up quickly, says Lipman, leading to 7000 video uploads in just the first few days. In the coming weeks, the company will dole out additional invitations to the long queue of people turned away from the first round.

It’s unsurprising that 12seconds has had such immediate small-scale success. Millions of people use Twitter, and many of them are interested in testing out new ways to update their status. Liz Lawley, a Twitter user and director of the Lab of Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology, says that she has seen a growing number of Twitter posts with links to 12seconds videos.

“I find it intriguing … I love the idea of enforced constraints,” Lawley says, referring to the 140-character limit on Twitter and the 12-second limit on 12seconds. “I think constraints bring out wonderful creativity. Without constraints, what we do and think isn’t as interesting.”

But, Lawley notes, video microblogging isn’t necessarily the next phase of microblogging. 12seconds suffers from the same problem that has kept video blogs from usurping the popularity of text blogs: it simply takes too long to get to the point. Lawley says that she can scan a page of 25 tweets in about six seconds and have a good idea of what they’re about. Additionally, she can scan tweets while she’s occupied with other tasks, such as sitting in a meeting or attending a talk at a conference. Video, however, requires that a viewer focus her aural and visual attention, and it’s impossible to quickly scan large numbers of videos. “This is where video and audio really fall apart,” Lawley says. “That 12 seconds is much more of a commitment. It’s something we might be willing to do for our most intimate ties, but it’s unscalable.”

Lipman hopes that the early interest in 12seconds will translate into continued growth for the company. In the coming weeks, 12seconds will offer software that will let outside programmers build applications using its technology. Allowing programmers to use its platform is one of the important reasons that Twitter caught on as it has: the more people write programs for the service, the more visible it becomes. And visibility leads to more users, which is the name of the game in the social Web industry.

Another lesson learned from Twitter, says Lipman, is to be aware, from the beginning, of the challenges of adding more users to the service. Over the past year, Twitter’s service has crashed innumerable times. One of the culprits is the programming language in which it was written, Ruby on Rails–it simply isn’t designed to operate the large-scale e-scale communication infrastructure that Twitter has become. Lipman says that his team has picked a different programming language that scales well for the application that 12seconds intends, but this still doesn’t mean that the service will be without its hiccups. “That’s why we have this alpha stage,” he says. “As we’re going through this, we’re watching what causes problems.”

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