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Tech Forecast

Vine’s Quiet, Stealthy Pivot

The video app is no longer all about sharing. "It’s more like the entertainment industry," Jason Mante, Vine’s head of UX, tells us.

[Photo: Flickr user Gabriel Saldana; App photo: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]

When Vine first launched in May 2013, its cofounder Dom Hofmann introduced it this way:

With Vine, capturing life in motion is fun and easy. . . . They’re little windows into the people, settings, ideas and objects that make up your life.

Having been acquired by Twitter three months before its launch, the video app, which asks users to share six-second looping videos, had adopted the same social media paradigm as its owner. Like Twitter, Vine lowered the bar for an average Internet user to publish content. Like Facebook or Instagram, the expectation was that you would post about your life. "Each interaction, feature and design element should help you share the moments of your lives," one of Hofmann’s cofounders, Rus Yusupov, wrote shortly after launch in a blog post about Vine’s design philosophy. Ben Sheats, then Vine’s iOS director (now director of engineering), repeated the mantra in another update, writing that "Vine was built for one purpose: to make it easy for people to capture life in motion and share it with the world."

That was then. Two short years later, a lot has changed for the company. Hoffman and another of Vine’s cofounders, Colin Kroll, have both left day-to-day roles at the company. And Vine is not anything like the "Instagram of video" it was widely interpreted to be at launch. "It’s more like the entertainment industry," Jason Mante, Vine’s head of UX, told Fast Company in a recent interview. "We have a more heavy concentration of people who are creating stuff for lots and lots of people."

The product's focus has also changed, he says, to support content creators who intend to entertain rather than share, and viewers who participate by interacting with content rather than necessarily posting it themselves. "We didn’t really know what it was going to be," Mante says of Vine’s early days. "So it was kind of a ‘wait and see what happens’ thing. Clearly, the more entertaining focus, when it comes to creating content, took the lead, and that’s something we responded to."

Some of these changes have been subtle, like optimizing for high-quality video over quickly uploading video, and the introduction of a new camera, in 2014, that allowed users to use content that wasn’t shot in the app—thereby freeing them to use professional tools to shoot and produce their Vines. "Loops," a metric Vine created last year that counts the number of times a video plays, allows users to impact the post by viewing it, and then watch the numbers tick upward.

Other investments in viewership have been more obvious. In November, Vine introduced a feature called "favorites" that sends users push notifications when accounts they’ve starred publish new Vines. It’s both a way to more easily follow a story—which on Vine tend to unfold as many short clips told from the perspective of a character or through references to other Vines—and a way to encourage users to open the app even if they aren’t posting content. "It was one of the early product releases we did that was really focused on the viewer," Mante says. "It’s not the assumption that everybody creates."

Vine has also revamped its search function so that instead of returning only accounts and hashtags, like Twitter, it also returns content, with Vines that viewers can play right on the page. In January, it launched a separate app for kids—a move from Netflix’s playbook, not Twitter’s.

Meanwhile, Vine has taken on a bigger role in programming its content. Earlier this month, for instance, Vine added a "suggested user" tab with recommendations from editors. And while in the beginning users could submit their content to Vine’s channels by adding a prescribed hashtag to their posts, now these channels look more like television channels. Vine’s editors, who will soon include Billboard's former chart manager, add content to a "featured" tab in each category, and they have collaborated with creators on special short-term channels for events like the 2014 World Cup, the Fourth of July, the VMA awards, and Coachella. Mante—who started in 2013 as Vine's first editor—was promoted in March to oversee the editorial, marketing, and product design teams.

As the product has changed, so has the vocabulary around it. In 2013, Twitter had introduced Vine to the world as "a new way to share video." But when the company launched its own video feature in January, Jinen Kamdar, the product director at Twitter, told Re/Code that "Vine is for short-form entertainment." Mante, meanwhile, talks about Vine's "audience," not Vine's "users."

It’s not that the social aspect has been drained from Vine. The app added a messaging feature last year; for instance, you can still search for new friends on Vine through Twitter or your phone book, and there are "trending hashtags" on Vine just like on other social networks. It’s also not the case that all major social products have ignored the potential to be producers of entertainment. Facebook, for instance, is courting music video licensing deals, and Twitter has made efforts to position itself as a television companion. "Imagine for a moment that social media and traditional entertainment are the only two options," Mante says. "We’re this third category that exists in between them."

Like YouTube and Netflix, Vine has produced its own stars whose followings have won them traditional movie, record, and sponsorship deals. Shawn Mendes, a 16-year-old musician who started his career on Vine, is now opening for Taylor Swift. A married couple who performs as "Us the Duo" signed with Universal Records after posting short songs to Vine, calling their success "a partial accident." There are also famous viners who don't quite fit into a traditional bucket, combing their own flavors of humor, riffing, and other talents into short bursts. Twitter recently acquired a startup called Niche that connects brands with influencers on platforms like Vine. But in addition to these stars, Vine has produced collaborative cultural ripples like memes and the phrase "on fleek."

As an entertainment vehicle, Vine is in an odd space, where a story is told not in one six-second video, but through remixes, references to others’ work, and snippets of ongoing stories. Recently, Vine added two new channels based on a third type of Vine user—not a creator nor a producer, but one that remixes other people’s content—to its fairly standard lineup of channels, like "DIY," "Animals," and Music & Dance." One is called "The Zone," which features remixed sports clips. The other is called "OMG," which features multimedia remixes dedicated to celebrities.

Vine's challenge in optimizing its unique brand of entertainment is not unlike the challenge that Twitter once faced. Like Vine, Twitter has a large number of users who never produce content. Only 13% of accounts on Twitter have written at least 100 tweets, according to one estimate.

"There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is," Twitter cofounder Ev Williams later explained in an interview. "Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network. That led to all kinds of design decisions, such as the inclusion of search and hashtags and the way retweets work."

Vine’s new breed of entertainment is also shaping its product—one small tweak at a time.

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