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Silicon Valley

Elon Musk’s plans to revive Vine face one big problem: the reason it closed originally

The millennials' social web darling had its time in the limelight. But there's a reason it closed down—and how will it compete with TikTok, anyway?

twitter logo behing a phone with Vine app
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Good news, everyone: Vine is (probably) coming back. The much beloved wacky short-form-video-sharing app had a short life in the limelight from 2012 to 2017, when it was cut off in its prime (as many would have it). That’s helped ensure that it holds a space in many millennials’ hearts as the last glorious stand of the social web before it became tarnished and commoditized and every app started looking the same. Vine was what the internet could have been, rather than what it became.

“There are few things the internet can agree on, but almost everyone misses Vine with an intense nostalgia,” says Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences. 

The fact that so many hold a candle for Vine may well be why Elon Musk, who is facing criticism as he takes over Twitter and enacts dramatic staff cuts and a worrying swing in the social media platform’s policies, has mooted rejuvenating the app.

Like many of Musk’s decisions throughout his takeover of Twitter, it came to light first through a poll of his followers on Twitter. Late on October 31, Musk asked whether he should bring back the app, which Twitter bought in 2012 before it was launched. More than 4 million people have voted so far, with 69.4% of them saying yes.

Hours later, Axios reported that Twitter’s engineers have been instructed to examine the code base behind Vine ahead of a planned relaunch later this year. (Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) The news of a potential renaissance was welcomed with wariness by Sara Beykpour, who was the technical lead for the Android version of Vine. 

“This code is 6+ years old. Some of it is 10+,” tweeted Beykpour, who originally wrote the blog announcing Vine’s arrival on Android. “You don’t want to look there. If you want to revive Vine, you should start over.” (Beykpour did not respond to a request for comment.)

It’s not just the prospect of wrangling decade-old code into shippable shape that should dissuade Musk from relaunching Vine—even if there’s widespread public support. The app, no matter how much it rides the wave of nostalgia, is unlikely to cut through to users who have since moved on to TikTok, the app’s spiritual successor. “Platforms have evolved since Vine—it’s no longer about the social app,” says Carlos Pacheco, a social media audience and monetization consultant. “TikTok’s model of being an entertainment-curated app algorithm and platform is the new standard.”

As well as bringing the old code into 2022, Twitter engineers tasked with resuscitating Vine will have to figure out how to fight fire with fire when it comes to TikTok. TikTok’s billion-strong user base far outpowers Twitter’s few hundred million monthly active users. And its success has largely been down to its unparalleled ability to serve users content they want to see before they know they want to see it. It has done that through machine-learning algorithms trained for years in a Chinese sister app, Douyin. 

The gap in algorithmic might between TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, and its competitors has so far been what’s kept Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts fighting for second place—and a relaunched Vine is unlikely to do much better. Instead, it could follow in the footsteps of Byte, Vine cofounder Dom Hofmann’s attempt to bring back the spirit of Vine, which has gone through two rebrands since it was announced in 2018 and launched in 2020.

Much has been written about Vine’s untimely demise, but few know it better than Karyn Spencer, Vine’s first and only head of creator development from August 2015 to the app’s closure in January 2017.

Weeks into her job at Vine, Spencer was asked to try to stem a decline in user numbers and a revolt among its biggest creators, who demanded $1.2 million each to create videos for the app. There was one major problem: Twitter  was wary about giving any of its Vine stars cash for content, fearing that it would set a precedent for paying creators to publish on its platforms, including Twitter itself. The concern was that giving 18 of Vine’s biggest names cash to create posts would open the floodgates, and millions of Twitter influencers with decent followings would line up for their payouts.

Both Vine and Twitter were making losses at the time, and Twitter executives holding the purse strings feared both could quickly start hemorrhaging money to creators. “When those creators came to Vine and said they’d need monetization to keep creating content on the platform, [Twitter bosses] said one of the concerns about putting creator monetization in place for Vine was: ‘What if people wanted to be paid every time they tweeted?’” says Spencer.

She and her team tried to explain to executives that there was a difference in perception of time taken to create both types of content, but it became a terminal problem for Vine under Twitter, says Spencer, who says “there was never a monetization road map” for the app. “The fundamental issue was money,” adds Pacheco. “The creators wanted a partner program similar to that of YouTube. It didn’t happen, so where did the creators go? YouTube.” 

Creators no longer produce work for free. Pacheco says he works with “tons” of content companies currently operating within the YouTube ecosystem who refuse to produce content for YouTube Shorts or TikTok, largely because they can’t guarantee a decent income from it. “Vine collapsed and was shut down by Twitter for several reasons, chief among them high competition and lack of monetization and ad possibilities,” says Maddox.

All of those issues are even more serious today, at a time when the creator industry has become more established and the biggest names on social media platforms are millionaires. “Content creator” is a career—and people do, after a fashion, get paid for tweeting through brand deals and sponsored posts.

“You could not stand up a creator-based video platform today without monetization opportunities,” says Spencer. Nor is it simply a case of “build it and they will come.” “It’s important to keep in mind that creators these days require a good creative product and audience, proper support from the partnership team, and legitimate monetization opportunities,” she adds. At a time when Musk is looking to lose headcount from Twitter to turn the company into a viable business, staffing up those divisions may not be a priority.

Spencer sees politics and Musk himself as the other key variables in the equation—with Musk’s brash public persona potentially putting some off from taking the risk of creating content for yet another app. “But almost every creator I know drives a Tesla,” she says. “I don’t think they’d be opposed to Elon’s involvement.”

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