Vine is a sinking ship but one worth saving

As long as it starts respecting its talent.

If you haven't checked in on Vine recently, you might find that the six-second video network looks a little less vibrant than it used to. The service has seen most of its high-profile creators move over to other platforms, while executives are quitting en masse. Vine now exists in a state of unmanaged decline, its enormous potential withering away in the sunlight. Twitter may have shown extraordinary prescience in acquiring Vine, but it's clear that nobody has a clue how it should work.

The central issue is that Vine's leadership doesn't know what it is and, as a consequence, doesn't know how to manage it. There's a similar malaise at Twitter itself, which is defined not by its leaders but through the prism of the people who use it regularly. For some, it's a social network, while others describe it as more of a broadcasting platform. Either way, both of those distinct concepts require drastically different management styles. But since nobody's clear on what Vine and Twitter are, both leadership teams are desperately clinging to the status quo in the hope that things will improve.

Orson Welles is believed to have said that "the enemy of art is the absence of limitation," but the web offers almost unlimited space onto which we can pour our thoughts. Like Twitter, Vine exists as a rejection of that principle, forcing people to be briefer and more creative. Six seconds was a concession to the technical realities with the processing and uploading of video on mobile networks. But it managed to spawn a phenomenon that has launched more than a few tweens into minor stardom, almost overnight.

Vine quickly became a vehicle for weird art, stop-motion videos, hand-drawn animation and news clips that boiled a breaking event down to its defining moment. But six seconds was perfect for comedy, which is one of the reasons I've been such an avid fan of the service. Six seconds, as it turns out, is the perfect length to establish a premise and execute a punchline. Take this clip from Danny Gonzalez, which has to be the pinnacle of the art:

Producing a successful Vine clip isn't as simple as mugging into a camera for six seconds. Believe it or not, there are artistic and commercial pressures that come with pushing clips out on the service. Jessica Vazquez generated a following of more than 3 million users before quitting Vine in March of this year. In a YouTube video explaining her decision, she said, "You can say that it's six seconds, but six seconds -- putting it out there in front of millions of people to tell you what they think about it is hard."

From obscurity, figures like Vazquez were suddenly being pressured by their audiences for no direct compensation to keep pumping out hits. Advertisers were quick to fill the gap, using "influencers" to become the face of their brands in exchange for piles of cash. But that money has dried up, with a report from Digiday back in May revealing that businesses have fallen sharply out of love with Vine. Talent agencies that sprang up to represent these new stars have begun pushing them to ditch Vine for platforms that supply better ad analytics, such as Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram.

It doesn't help that while Vine is happy to compromise on video length, it's been woefully slow in iterating its service. Snapchat is eating its lunch because it offers far more features, such as live-video filtering, special effects and those aforementioned ad analytics. It's also managed to present itself as far less formal than Vine, reducing the need for overly structured or heavily edited clips that for many seem like too much effort. This laid-back attitude means that Snapchat is less intimidating for new users who don't feel capable of matching Vine's more talented stars.

On the subject of stars, Vine describes itself as "the entertainment network where videos and personalities get really big, really fast." But there's a disconnect between what it says and how it behaves, especially when it comes to the treatment of that talent. Viners have only recently been allowed to make money from their clips, no matter how much effort or time goes into them, or how popular they become. BuzzFeed revealed that late last year Vine held a crisis summit with a clutch of top Viners, ostensibly to discuss remuneration for their work. But given the subsequent brain drain that has taken place through 2016, those talks clearly foundered.

That means Vine is going to continue to spiral downward, unless it can make some big changes, quickly. An example worth examining would be YouTube Red, which dealt with a similar issue of talent retention, although it was backed with Google's billions. The site was evolving from a collection of clips into its own entertainment destination, and executives knew it had to maintain its stable of stars. So it created a subscription service and signed deals with some of its biggest names, letting them earn money from the subscription pot.

YouTube's natural development into the TV of the future was enabled because the people in charge took a risk. Rather than sit with the status quo and risk those names being drawn away to other websites, it made changes. Vine, on the other hand, has not, and has suffered as a consequence. But all is not lost, at least not yet. Rather than simply altering the duration of videos and hoping that everything will be OK, Vine needs to realize that it's an entertainment service, not a social network. And then it needs to start acting like one.