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Vine burned out long before its legend did. Can you only really know a platform when it’s gone?

 Every evening before we go to bed, my wife and I watch Vines. Our mutual need for a little mindless school-night entertainment led us to delay sleep by sitting in bed watching videos of fails and cute animals, but at some point in the last 18 months, YouTube’s algorithm transitioned from feeding us new footage of faceplants and binkying bunnies to compilations of old Vines. Though these collections entered our media diet long after the service went dark in 2016, the absence of any fresh Vines is hardly a hindrance given that YouTube has, in the interim, become an inexhaustible host of compilations with names like “rare vines that were there for me when my fish died,” “vines I quote daily but nobody knows what I’m talking about,” and “classic and rare vines to watch when you lose your will to live.”  Whatever limited quantity of Vines either of us actually consumed on the app during its heyday (“duck army” is the only one I can remember obsessing over in the moment), our more recent nightly viewings have yielded a handful of new favorites that have been widely anthologized. There’s Renata Bliss: Freestyle Dance Teacher; Jared, the 19-year-old who “never fuckin’ learned how to read”; a legion of umbrellas chasing tourists off a beach as a disembodied voice murmurs, “Run.”

We’re far from the only ones stoking our nostalgia for the service. Many of the Vine compilations on YouTube boast over 10 million views and, in January, Byte was launched to helpfully fill the internet’s apparent need, since Vine shuttered, for looping videos limited to six seconds each. “Nostalgia is our starting point,” reads the Byte tagline, “but where we go next is up to you.” While Vine’s demise has mostly been attributed to Twitter’s failure to effectively monetize it — meaning they couldn’t figure out how to wedge enough advertising around the content to justify the $10 million the company was spending on the operation every month — the service may have been doomed for a decline into obscurity anyway given the widespread adoption of Snapchat and Instagram Stories, both of which allow for users to broadcast much longer videos. Unlike TikTok, which has retailored the user experience of the Vine app into an entirely commercial enterprise, Byte is betting that the endurance of Vine videos themselves — both on YouTube and in a cumbersome archive, now accessible only through unique URLs, that Twitter maintains to “preserve the public, creative expression of the Vine community” — proves that the artistry fostered by the six-second video format is vital to the social media ecosystem on more aesthetic terms. They too appear to be planning to eventually monetize the app with advertising, but whatever form that takes will likely be far from the wanton integration of TikTok.

Getting at that core appeal is possible because Vine, unlike its extant peers, has become a closed system

Getting at that core appeal is possible because Vine, unlike its extant peers, has become a closed system, allowing for a cataloging of its contents in their totality. Well, to a degree. Since the archive’s 2018 move into a “more static archived state” you can no longer “browse Vine” the way it was once possible to on the app, meaning Vine’s archived content is becoming increasingly divorced from its users, profiles, and hashtags, and much likelier to be based on the memory of devotees of the form. While you could certainly find YouTube compilations of Vines prior to 2016, in the years since their numbers multiplied as they became the primary means for both revisiting and discovering old clips. Watch enough of the YouTube compilations and the vital remaining dimensions of the extinct service begin to take shape.

Across these compilations, the history of Vine is being crystalized, albeit in an ad hoc way befitting the app itself. Last year, Money profiled a handful of the compilers, interviewing a guy who had edited together every video he had tagged with #lmao on Tumblr as a teenager, as well as a college student who relied on other assemblers for her material, but searched out the rarest of Vines “hidden in other compilations with five or fewer views.” Whether scouring their own digital footprint or that of others, the work of these compilers speaks to a radical break in the paradigm of an eternally evolving present that social media is largely beholden to. A viral clip might be watched and rewatched millions of times the week it was uploaded, but the idea that those six seconds would be repeatedly revisited years later seems incongruent with the sense of novelty all of these companies rely on to keep their users tapping “refresh.”

Today, being a retroactive Vine historian means immersing oneself in the YouTube collections until the classics can be rattled off by memory, their eminent status either underscored or complicated by the strains of divergence encapsulated by whichever rare Vines they’ve been paired with. The historical perspective available now allows for what was once an overwhelming quantity of six-second clips to be generalized based on their salient characteristics, a process through which the genre of social media Vine represents becomes definable. And, once defined, calcified into a concrete perch from which the rest of the social media landscape can begin to be mapped. Put another way, histories of Vine, beyond simply allowing for more comprehensive understanding of the current wave of its contemporary approximations, may provide a framework for apprehending social media as a phenomenon once its halcyon present has passed into whatever comes next. Through examining Vine, we can practice looking past the hectic rush of the timeline toward a real reckoning with the dominant place social media has in our lives. How different do these services appear to us if we pretend that they — like Vine today — are already dead, replaced, and committed to memory?

Classic Vines take two forms: they are either exemplars of a meme that was at one point dominant on the app, or else they are trend defying, one-of-a-kind clips that have endured thanks to a particular alchemy of humor, weirdness, and sheer dumb luck. The persistence of memey Vines amounts to a compiler’s shorthand — the vogue of mispronouncing words can be distilled into the Vine of a “watermelón inside a watermelón;” pointing at someone’s dopey shoes and yelling “What are those!,” originating in an unscripted mockery of a cop’s loafers, is typified by an incensed grandmother’s reply, “They are my Crocs.” Out of all these prototypical meme specimens, undoubtedly the most influential is the little girl in a unitard who replies to a woman’s exhortations to “Do it for the Vine” with a sing-song “I ain’t gonna do it” until she breaks into a delighted nae nae.

“Do it for the Vine” captures, more than any of the service’s other best known memes, the tongue-in-cheek exuberance of the app’s peak. Vines were at their best when they showcased a rupturing of the ordinary. Beach umbrellas going rogue, a seal’s familiar trick of spinning in place transformed into an alluring dance by the addition of a blow-up saxophone, a grown man brought to tears at Walmart by the sight of a Guy Fieri product marketed for $69. Each of these non-meme classics represents the user doing it for the Vine, whether “it” is finding just the right music to accompany a scrap of odd archival footage or having the savvy to know which slice of stumbled-upon ephemera will be most eagerly consumed by the internet. Doing it for the Vine amounts to executing a singular act of eccentricity. These idiosyncratic Vines may not have been memes in the moment, but they have become something close in retrospect by channeling the energy of the app into six seconds of hilarious action that becomes a riff on the very idea of a Vine video.

The idea that many six-second clips would be revisited years later seems incongruent with the novelty these companies rely on

Not that laughs being fundamental to Vine was inevitable. Like all social media platforms, Vine was launched with a vague ambit — in a 2013 interview, co-founder Dom Hoffman said, “Vine might help people bring their stories to a larger audience,” and cited musicians and “hyper local” news reporters as two examples of the types of storytellers the company had in mind. Almost immediately, though, Vine was overtaken by amateur comedians, and their dominance is inescapable in retrospective catalogs. (In contrast, while many stand-ups and sitcom writers gravitated to Twitter in its early years, that service has long since become the least funny place on earth.) Even for Viners who weren’t doing pre-planned bits, a sense of playfulness and experimentation pervades their videos. With only six seconds to work with, how seriously can you really expect to be taken? That margin for error was even larger given how the Vine app played each video on a loop. If the joke didn’t land the first time around, a few repetitions usually did the trick.

Whether because of this foregrounding of humor or the prevalence of kooky trends, in retrospect the rise and fall of Vine feels analogous to the lifecycle of the meme. For a brief moment, Vine was everywhere. But it quickly decayed into a small community of people who were in on the joke telling it to each other ad infinitum until the suits at Twitter quietly pulled the plug. The belated interest in these videos that the YouTube compilers are sating, by extension, may be said to represent the tendency identified by the writer Joe Veix of some memes to regain a diminished version of their popularity months or years after their initial peak. (By the same token, if TikTok is understood to be a more algorithmically sophisticated replacement for Vine, the lightning speed with which memes appear and vanish there illustrates the acceleration of the meme-o-sphere, a phenomenon which has been widely observed since the late 2000s.)

If Vine is a meme, it resembles the appeal of the early ones — “peanut butter jelly time,” say, or “all your base are belong to us.” An amusing bit of cultural flotsam that made the viewer laugh in the moment and, once revisited, provokes warm nostalgia for a simpler time. Vine’s genre of social media is not the self-serious whataboutism of Twitter or the perpetual vacation of Instagram. Rather, it’s a charming lack of guile, an unaffected desire to set the world off-sync just enough to grab a quick laugh.

In an ad for TikTok that ran during the Super Bowl, the service promises its ability to capture “small moments” akin to the prepossessing sort that proliferated on Vine. In practice, though, the choice to exchange Vine’s stringent time limit for the framing elements of dubbed-in pop songs and advertiser sponsored “challenges” has translated into a nightmarish stream of beautiful people doing the same faux-goofy dance to the same familiar soundtrack. Just like Instagram, TikTok’s main organizing principle is hashtags, the most popular of which are things like #travelbucketlist and #athleisure which carry the now hackneyed valance of life as a performance of sexy ostentation.

Conversely, Byte’s stream of six-second clips can be filtered into categories like “Experimental,” “Weird,” and “Art,” a process that serves to highlight its users attempts to update the most peculiar qualities of Vine. Flick through a couple videos and it won’t be long until you find a man pretend-riding an upside-down skateboard under the title “How to kill a tiger with your bare fucking hands” and someone grafting a deep fake of Andrew Yang on their own face. While TikTok has the Doritos backed #CoolRanchDance (3.6 billion views and counting), Byte has a man in a redhead wig giving birth to a box of Cheez-Its, followed by the derisive tag-line, “White Cheddar Cheez-Its: We want to be inside you!”

If Vine is a meme, it resembles the appeal of the early ones, provoking warm nostalgia for a simpler time

TikTok, clearly, is for the popular kids, while Byte positions itself as a refuge of the burnouts and freaks. It’s impossible to imagine Byte ever achieving a user base that’s more than a fraction of TikTok’s, but the app doesn’t really seem interested in a zero-sum competition. Far from the ingénue vocalist aspiring to sell out the Staples Center, Byte is the local ska band that only records to tape cassette. The service seems fine with limiting its potential universe of users so long as it means only the oddballs gravitate to it. In some ways, it’s a bet that social media is capacious enough for subcultures to exist within it, a downright revolutionary idea that represents a nostalgic harkening back to the early years of the internet, when it was weird and fun.

And why not? Vine was the first social media platform to truly die (even Friendster is still holding on as a Malaysian gaming site), but it will hardly be the last. Facebook, Instagram — even Twitter suffering a similar fate seems unimaginable today given that they are all still serving millions of users while Vine has been dead for years. But focusing too much on the relative success of one service or another misses the larger truth that they are all constituents of social media writ large. Even the characterization of social media sites as “platforms” — as each of these companies prefers to be known — is a misleading bit of marketing, as it buttresses the sense that Facebook and its peers are synonymous with the internet itself. That, rather than simply websites you can visit, they are the solid earth from which the unpredictable online currents can be gingerly toed.

In Truth and Method, Hans Georg Gadamer wrote, “Things that change force themselves on our attention far more than those that remain the same… Hence the perspectives that result from the experience of historical change are always in danger of being exaggerated because they forget what persists unseen.” That effect is multiplied by social media, where change can be measured in seconds. Such a pace makes it difficult to disentangle oneself from the stream in order to begin evaluating each social media site not as a constant flux, but as a body with certain definite qualities. But doing so is crucial if we ever hope to achieve insight into whatever foundational allure is lurking beneath the turbulence.

Generalization has long been contentious for obvious reasons, but historicization of social media is impossible without guidance by one’s own affective experience of these services. In the forward to a tome of essays on the subject from the ’60s, the historian Louis Gottschalk writes of a “patent gap” between “history-as-actuality” and “knowledgeable history,” a gap “that can only be filled by an imaginative process, the reconstruction of events as they must have been or, at least, probably were from the inadequate clues still available in their vestiges.” Relating the history of Vine requires more than simply identifying which users were most popular and which videos most shared, the metrics that the service’s architects would look to, and do: they codified them. Instead, it necessitates finding a way to communicate the ineffable qualities of those videos — “that which persists unseen.” The case study of Vine provides a framework for getting at those persistent qualities, the ones more fundamental to Vine’s appeal than the exigencies of the historical moment it existed in.

Of all the best practices that can be adopted from an analysis of Vine compilations, none is more vital than to avoid the easy mistake of becoming beholden to the metrics that govern the algorithms each of the social media services use to present content to users. Shortly before Vine was taken offline, King Bach, with over 16 million followers, was far and away its most popular user. Now, King Bach is largely absent from most Vine compilations, and reviewing his old videos reveal them as mostly self-referential and beholden to sponsors, with little relationship to the clips he may have overshadowed in the moment. The most followed Instagram user today is Christiano Ronaldo; the most popular Twitter account is Barack Obama’s. The idea that studying the feed of either would tell you more about either service than each figure’s celebrity is laughable.

Relating the history of Vine requires more than identifying the most shared videos

Though Gottschalk was writing about the problems of making history out of the distant past, where concrete evidence is typically scant, his observations are as true of a prospective history of social media for which there will be an overwhelming quantity of evidence. Whether they have too much or too little material to work with, the historian’s art is making a persuasive case for why their chosen examples matter. Though Gottschalk acknowledges “the historian ought not to be wholly artistic,” he nevertheless argues that without “some kind of imagination” the historian risks accomplishing nothing more than the “mere compilation of verifiable historical data in a chronological order.” It’s telling that, in addition to avoiding any of the metrics once associated with Vine videos, their YouTube compilers also typically avoid chronologizing them. The clips are instead organized by just the sort of imaginative logic Gottschalk calls for, which allows for them to be understood more deeply as reflections of how Vine’s users responded to the format itself in creative, hilarious, and perplexing ways.

By watching Vine clips in an order that has nothing to do with their initial temporal relationship to each other or the events they were at one point responding to, it becomes obvious that however myriad the service’s uses during its lifetime (which of course included the hyper local reporting Dom Hoffman initially called for, most notably in the form of videos broadcast from the uprising against police in Ferguson), getting too bogged down in articulating each and every one of them misses the point. The reason Vine captured the public imagination? It was a way to make videos that were only six seconds long. And it turns out that, in six seconds, you can say a lot more than was ever previously thought possible.

In 2020, the idea of historicizing the likes of TikTok using a similar method can’t help but feel hopelessly speculative. Still, adopting such a perspective can help us perceive that service (as well as the rest of the social media sphere) with a bit more clarity. If one wants to understand TikTok, it’s best to not get too carried away with the Washington Post’s ham-handed presence on it, or even the stardom of figures like Charli D’Amelio or the other denizens of Hype House. At its root, TikTok allows users to make videos of themselves lip-syncing the music they like. That may seem frivolous, but millions and millions of people want to do it. That’s why it’s popular.

One of the better defined cognitive biases is the “end of history illusion,” the tendency for people to believe that more change occurred in the past than is likely to happen in the future. Whatever point we’ve arrived at as a society feels natural, its perpetuation inevitable — even as the process that got us there was impossibly dynamic and surprising. When MySpace was rising to prominence in the early 2000s, comprehending social media required a total rejiggering of the world’s understanding of what it meant to be online. Today, it’s second nature.

So let me be clear: Social media platforms will end. Even now, with meme culture having accelerated to a point where it is almost impossible to decipher unless you live on TikTok, heritage sites like Facebook are already beginning to feel impossibly outmoded. What’s more tiresome than brands rushing to commandeer a Twitter joke? More eye-roll inducing than an Instagram story showing off the view from some A-frame in Saint Lucia? The longer social media sticks around, the more peripheral these experiences become. Once they’re finally gone, one question will remain: What on earth made these websites so riveting in the first place?

Kyle Paoletta’s work has appeared in the New York Times MagazineHarper’s, and the Nation. He is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.