Scroll through the new app Bits and you may feel a pang of nostalgia. Aspiring comedians or just passing hobbyists are uploading a steady stream of short-form sketches that have the lo-fi look and feel of early Vine.
One Bits creator maniacally multiplies a bunch of bananas eventually becoming one herself. Another creator goes over a list of rejected cartoon characters, one of which becomes very apparent as to why it’s been rejected when you see the drawing of it.
The edits are a little choppy. The audio quality isn’t great. The overall production value is homespun at best–and that’s exactly how Bits cofounder and CEO Rotem Yakir wants his app to be.
Bits, which launched earlier this year, is vying to be the next major app for creators. Unlike Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, however, Bits isn’t a catchall repository for content–it’s exclusively for comedy. And it’s making sure said comedy is as democratized as possible: Creators aren’t allowed to upload preexisting videos. Everything has to be recorded and edited within the app. That may not have been much of a selling point in the past, but now that being a social media star is a viable career, Yakir wants to make sure everyone is getting a fair shot.
“We’re giving everyone the same chance to become huge,” Yakir says. “We have an internal saying in the company: Let’s let the talent talk, not the money talk.”
Bits is entering the market with a user experience that levels the playing field and a planned business model specifically designed for comedy creators to have a viable and streamlined source of revenue. It’s a noble mission, indeed, but there’s a graveyard of apps that signal Bits has a steep hill to climb as well as competition from the likes of TikTok, for which comedy is part of its overall mix.
When Vine launched in 2012, comedy quickly became the standout genre on the platform. Creators like King Bach, Lele Pons, and Rudy Mancuso used their massive followings they gained on Vine to springboard into careers in film, TV, and music. While creators cashed in on the social fame Vine afforded them, the app itself couldn’t keep pace with competitors like Instagram and Snapchat, which rolled out similar features and took marketers and brands with them. Vine shuttered its main app in 2016, leaving only its video-making feature behind. Since then, no other app has risen to take its place as a platform for comedy.
TikTok has a massive user base of around 500 million monthly active users globally, but the music-based memes and parodies popular on the app are limiting. Instagram has probably come the closest to being a useful platform for comedians, but that content is competing for attention against major categories in the app like fashion, travel, and photography. Bits is looking to differentiate itself by focusing solely on comedy.
Each Bit can be up to 15 seconds in length, with editing tools like voice-overs, speed manipulation, title cards, and so forth, that are aimed at upping the funny. One feature in particular that Bits is touting is its Trending Tags, a page of user-generated hashtags that are meant to be spark ideas for videos–think an app version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?
“You just need to have a mood to create a video,” says Yakir. “We will help you find an idea, which can take a lot of time.”
As part of its launch earlier this year, Bits invited around 2,000 actors, comedians, and improv players to series of meetups in Los Angeles to demo the app. Actor Jill Galbraith was among them.
“I like that it is a platform purely for the comedy,” Galbraith says. “I am mostly a dramatic actor by trade, and people in my experience look [actors] up on Instagram before they cast them. If somebody saw me in a banana suit, they won’t want me to be the depressed divorcee. [Bits is] a platform purely for comedy. People are going there and that’s what they expecting and wanting.”
Fellow Bits creator and comedian Nick Cutelli echoes Galbraith’s sentiment.
“Facebook to me nowadays is turning more into a small business promotion website. Instagram is very fashion forward. And Twitter’s gotten super political–and I’m not a political comedian,” he says. “So when I found Bits, I was like, that’s perfect for me.”
Unlike Galbraith who admits to missing the Vine wave, Cutelli says he joined Vine but couldn’t manage any significant breakthrough. “I got into Vine kind of late into the game. I just couldn’t compete with the people that were already established,” he says. “So I kind of just ran out of steam.”
By being an early adopter of Bits, Cutelli is hoping to establish a better following on the app, which may be easier to do given the fact that direct uploads are the great content equalizer on the app.
“I could have a joke that cures cancer and solves world hunger, but I record it on my phone, and then you’ll have somebody who lights a fart on fire but it looks like Steven Spielberg produced it and that gets all the attention,” Cutelli says. “That’s really important in social media because now you’re giving other people a chance to be seen or be heard or get their content out there versus having to compete on an economical level.”
Bits is well underway as it pertains to content creation; the focus now is scaling that creation so its creators can profit from it.
Yakir wouldn’t give a specific user count, but he says he’s currently in talks with several high-profile Instagram users to migrate them (and their millions of followers) to Bits. Getting celebrities to use their platform is, of course, any new company’s dream. But even established apps like Instagram had a devil of time convincing its own stars to use its own product IGTV when it launched.
It’s like everyone at a party waiting to see who will jump into the pool first–and Yakir is giving people a little push. As part of his talks with these undisclosed Instagram stars, Yakir is offering equity in Bits.
“We do want to make this platform at least partly owned by the creators themselves,” he says. “We have an option pool specifically designed for creators divided into big names and small names, people we believe can be huge in the future.”
Bits will also allow users to receive tips for their videos, à la Patreon or Twitch or several Chinese platforms that encourage direct tipping, sell merchandise through the app, and give brands the option to promote hashtags for select users to generate content against them for money. Yakir didn’t disclose what Bits’s cut would be, but Tencent Music, in perhaps an extreme example, takes 70% of tips. Twitch doesn’t expressly say what its cut of cheering in streams is, but online speculation says it starts at 29% and goes down based on volume. Yakir gave a rough time line of six months, one year, and two years, respectively, for each tier to rollout.
“We’re doing everything for the creators,” he says. “We want to focus on them and allow them to make a living out of performing in the app.”
All that sounds good, but will it actually work?
Other comedy apps and platforms that have touted creators first have fallen by the wayside in the past. Chill.com was meant to bypass cumbersome distribution channels, allowing filmmakers and creators to sell content directly to fans. It shut down when Tinder bought the company for its photo-sharing app Tappy. Laugh.ly, a comedy streaming app and platform, was lauded as a way to give standup comedians a new revenue stream, and even raised $2.5 million in funding two years ago. But a search for the app or a website today will get you nowhere. Funny or Die, of course, once promised to be a launching pad for creators, but its focus appears to be more on TV and film production rather than digital creation.
Bits is aiming to pick up where Vine and everyone else left off, but the question of how to best fill that void remains. For the time being, creators like Galbraith and Cutelli are just grateful they have a platform made specifically for them, if for no other reason than to workshop characters and get inspiration from other creators who don’t have to buy their humor.
“I’m really just there to have a good time,” Galbraith says. “It’s just a fun way to be expressive and bring a moment of joy to people.”
“I like that Bits is one of those apps where you have to be at least little bit funny,” Cutelli says. “‘The talent talks’ is how I would describe it.”