In 2013, Christiana Gilles was hanging out with her friend, Darius Benson, when he suggested she check out a new app where users created and shared short, funny videos. It was called Vine, and Benson had quickly gained attention on the young platform for his videos where he reacted to explicit Radio Disney songs, and parodied an infamous scene from the show Dexter in which a character says, “Surprise, motherfucker.” (Explanation does not capture even a tenth of the clip’s appeal.) Gilles, who was 22 at the time, had previously created videos for college projects, but had never made one just for fun. The app looked easy to use, so she decided to give it a shot.
Benson and Gilles found a common interest in the app, and would even repost and appear in each others’ videos. Later, when Benson moved to Los Angeles to pursue stardom, Gilles continued posting videos that highlighted the absurdity of her everyday life, under the username NaturalExample. She steadily racked up reloops, gained followers, and developed a network of friends through the app. All that suddenly escalated on August 3, 2015, when she posted a Vine captioned “Me watching Law & Order.” In it, Gilles looked off-camera and mouthed part of the show’s opening monologue. Then, in two rapid cuts, she made silly faces timed with the show’s signature “dun dun” tone. The creative logic only made sense to those who had sat through an hours-long Law & Order marathon — a fortunately internet-sized demographic. “I posted it and then I went to work. By the time I came back from work, it blew up,” Giles told The Outline. “When I went to work maybe a week afterwards, somebody recognized me. They were like, ‘Are you that girl from Vine?’ It was that Law and Order Vine. It kind of took off.”
From that point on, Gilles developed a real fanbase on the app, growing her page to 115,000 followers. While not one of Vine’s most followed users, Gilles nevertheless made a name for herself over the next few years, expanding her network of fellow creators and even signing to Collab, a social media creatives studio and agency. It was a move she hoped would put her on her way to making money as a social media influencer. A year later, Gilles said a creative developer at Vine messaged her to let her know she was now verified on the app. “I cried,” she recalled. “I called my friends about it, then broke down on the phone while we all [were] screaming…I had written ‘get verified on Vine’ in my journal months before as a goal to reach somehow by the end of the year.”
A couple months after that, Gilles received much worse news: After four years of service and achieving spectacular popularity, Vine was shutting down. Despite her status as a bona fide Vine star, Gilles found out about the app’s demise the same way the rest of the world did: via the company’s official announcement on October 27, 2016. That week, Vine founders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll hosted a party to commemorate the app’s end. Anyone who wanted to tune in online could do so, but not before downloading their new product, a live-streaming app called Hype.
In the months between the announcement and its actual closure, verified Viners bemoaned its end, posted farewells, and directed their fans on how to find them elsewhere. Meanwhile, writers eulogized the app in articles and blog posts. Users were given time to download their work, and plead their case for why the service should remain open, but it didn’t matter. On January 17, 2017, vine.co became a permanent archive, serving as a museum of itself.
On the day Vine launched in 2013, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, who’d acquired the company for $30 million, declared it “an entirely new art form.” Typical tech world braggadocio aside, Dorsey was right. Almost immediately, Vine’s users began coming up with clever, creative ways to use the format. The most successful ones capitalized on the six-second limit to catch viewers in the moment of “getting it,” and looping before the sensation can wear off. As a result the funniest Vines get better as the loops go on, each moment of realization building on the last until the hilarity, surprise, or awe becomes too much for the viewer to bear. (Such was the beauty of “Back at it again at Krispy Kreme” Vine, in which a grinning man backflipped into the donut shop’s sign.)
Many of platform’s most-loved Vines were also intimate, filmed by users when they were alone or with one other person in their bedrooms, apartments, and cars. Young Viners brought viewers into their classrooms, school hallways, dorm rooms, and recesses with them. Meanwhile, parent Viners shared moments of joy, tantrums, and play with their kids, as well as their own private but relatable observations and confessions. Vine was a place where any person, no matter how unfamiliar with video editing software, could be creative, and quickly share their creation with the world. Within three months, it was the most popular free app in the iTunes app store.
Not long after its launch, Vine integrated the front-facing camera into the app, unofficially birthing the Vine star. Anyone, regardless of occupation or age, could get attention by focusing on themselves, rather than the world around them. Others achieved fame by focusing that attention even more tightly, and capitalizing on their appeal to teens and tweens, a highly-valuable demographic for advertisers. Nash Grier, one of Vine’s first stars, initially opted for volume, posting 124 Vines over six months in the app’s initial year. After a user with many followers “revined” one of his videos, his follower count reached the hundreds of thousands. By February 2014, he was ready to grow his star power exponentially by engaging in brand deals and participating in MagCon, a “meet and greet” convention that toured young Vine stars to meet their adoring (and paying) fans. Grier and fellow boyband-ready Viners Cameron Dallas, Matthew Espinosa, and musical duo Jack & Jack demonstrated a new kind of success that extended beyond the app, paving the way for others to follow.
But one didn’t need to aspire to stardom to discover their creative selves on the app. “[Before Vine] I knew in a sense I was creative with things, but I never really had an outlet to do it unless it was school, [where] you're not really encouraged to be creative outside of a box,” Gilles said. “Vine was one of the outlets [where you could] figure out, what do I like to present to people?”
Despite Vine’s runaway popularity, it struggled to adapt to its need for an advertising model. By 2016, companies had increasingly turned to Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook over Vine to deploy influencers and distribute branded content. Though Vine still reported 200 million monthly active users in its last year, that decreasing user base could not save the app from its demise. Talks between top creators wanting to be paid by the platform and Twitter executives proved fruitless. Top executives from Vine began jumping ship soon after. In addition to its technological stagnancy and failure to bring in revenue, the app’s demise was helped along by Twitter’s own business woes and the rise of Snapchat, which reported 6 billion daily views by November 2015 and was the iPhone App Store’s most-downloaded free app of 2016.
When Vine officially ended on January 17, 2017, many users dedicated to the platform found themselves floating. The biggest stars, like over-the-top comedic actor King Bach and goofy girl next door Lele Pons began migrating to Instagram and YouTube. Gilles didn’t have anywhere else to go. News of the loss of her creative outlet coincided with news that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. At that point she fell deep into her work week routine as a car sales consultant, focused on paying her mother’s medical bills but unsure of her next creative step. She filmed videos here and there, but didn’t post any to her YouTube and Instagram accounts in 2017. “I still have messages on my Instagram like, I'm going to be here when you come back,” she said.
In the grand scheme of things, Vine was just one of a million short-lived apps that tried and failed to build an enduring company empire. But among its users and viewers, it was a creative medium all its own — and an irreplaceable one. “It's a definite hole with Vine being gone,” Gilles said, adding that the app was the perfect format for her style of humor. On Instagram, viewers have come to expect videos longer than 6 seconds, making it less conducive to snappy scenarios. On YouTube, videos can go into the hours; editing requires knowledge and access to a third party program, and gaining a competitive edge can mean investing in expensive equipment. It’s hard to film a viral YouTube video in the moments between daily commitments, whereas lack of time was an egalitarian creative impetus on Vine.
The challenge to get back into creating and editing videos wasn’t just a matter of time, but of translation. For Gilles’ style of comedy, the longer formats adopted by many former Viners just didn’t make sense. “Instagram you really have to tell a person what they're watching, and it's so annoying. You see the caption at the top that says, ‘this person is cheating on this person’ or ‘when your side chick decides that she wants to see your phone with your other girlfriend's text message’. That's not my box.”
There was this community called Black Vine, and they were honestly the trendsetters.
Many of Vine’s most popular users eventually resettled in the entertainment meccas Los Angeles and New York, and signed to influencer marketing and talent agencies like Viral Nation, Mediakix, and the exclusively Instagram-focused The Mobile Media Lab. Several of Vine’s superstars — like Grier, Dallas, and musician Shawn Mendes — made the jump into major acting gigs and record deals. Even more parlayed their popularity into personal brands centered on monetized YouTube and Instagram accounts.
Perhaps the most successful of them all are brothers Jake and Logan Paul. Resembling the bullies from every ‘80s teen movie, the pair have built a social media empire on their prank-happy, bro-tastic Vines and vlogs. According to CelebrityNetWorth.com, they are worth $8 million and $14 million. Concurrent with their success, critics have long wondered if the brothers — with their over-the-top pranks, commodified disrespect, and highly-rewarded lack of originality — “deserve” their fame. That conversation became an international one when, on December 31, 2017, Logan Paul posted a vlog in which he walked into Aokigahara forest, commonly known as the “suicide forest,” in Japan, and filmed the corpse of a man who had recently hung himself. Paul was seen laughing and making jokes next to the body while wearing an absurd alien hat from the film Toy Story, his swear words censored with a squeaky toy noise. After international backlash, Paul removed the vlog, issued two apologies, and announced his hiatus from YouTube. The shocking video was, to many, a sign of how outrageous internet celebrity had become and how far off the track of frivolous fun a culture born on Vine had ventured.
At some point in Vine’s history, a divide emerged between people who were able to fit Vine into their lives and people who were able to make Vine their full-time jobs. Popular users evolved into influencers, branching out into making branded videos for Instagram and YouTube, and an exclusive group of stars turned into superstars, all sharing common threads. Their content was largely inoffensive, apolitical, and slightly obvious; they were conventionally attractive, and easily insertable into a Disney show or network holiday special. Many were still under their parents’ watch when they discovered Vine, young enough to take a chance without facing significant financial risk. Most of all, though, Vine stars who have mainstream success didn’t reflect the diversity of communities that made a beloved and still-mourned creative hub.
“There was this community called Black Vine, and they were honestly the trendsetters. This is a community that was very strong on Vine that did not get noticed,” said Drea KB, who found fame on Vine after her imitations of her Nigerian parents went viral. “A lot of these Vine trends that happened, they're the ones who secretly started them. But then the bigger community — I would say Caucasian community — would take over it and they would get credit for it.”
Antoine Tate, a fellow former Viner, expressed a similar sentiment. “There were some black Viners who did get attention, like King Bach. He is probably one of the biggest Viners, but I think we just had we had different humor,” Tate told the Outline. “What I noticed is that a lot of big companies chose a lot of different Viners for the most part. But other than black Vine, I don't think a lot of big black businesses or corporations took notice to a lot of the stars.” (For two years while Vine was active, Tate created and hosted the Black Vine Awards, now preserved on YouTube, to help bring more recognition to some of Vine’s under-celebrated, black creators.)
Many who were active in Vine’s black community spoke out about creative theft and lack of credit on the app — and from Vine’s heyday to its end, it was an issue that a handful of black journalists explicitly called out. (“Like much of pop culture, these bits of virality were rooted in the black community, then sucked into the mainstream where businesses benefit from them financially,” wrote Jazmine Hughes for the New York Times shortly after the app announced its closure.) In looking at who has and has not financially profited from Vine, it’s easy to see a division between the less popular creators, many of whom are black and gave online culture many enduring reference points, and those who have gone on to become multi-millionaires, many of whom are white. Racial prejudice on the part of marketers is a factor, as is the internet’s hostility toward people of color — especially women of color — in general. In 2017, Pew Research Center found that African Americans are more likely to face online harassment than any other racial group in the U.S. Additionally, the survey found that women are twice as likely as men to be harassed online.
As a black woman, harassment was something Gilles became all too familiar with as her popularity on the app grew. At several points during her time on Vine, racist and misogynist online harassment became so bad that she resorted to not showing her face, favoring cleverly edited Vines instead. During one period of her not posting her face, a representative from Vine noticed the change and reached out to learn the reason behind it. When Gilles explained she couldn’t cope with the wave of hate, the representative said she’d take care of it. Soon, the hateful comments and messages decreased. Eventually, Gilles felt safe enough to continue posting to the app, and did so until its end. But like the writers and actors who have spoken out in recent months, harassment and the emotional toll it takes was a major obstacle for Gilles in building a career in her field.
Today, Gilles puts her humor and marketing degree to work at a car dealership, where she is one of their top salespeople. She says she is steadily getting her ideas together to begin making content for social media again. Along with her friends, some of whom happen to be her coworkers, she hopes to form a collaborative influencer collective in Memphis similar to those that exist in Los Angeles and New York. “We want it to be to the point where it's just full-time entertainment, full-time creativity,” said Gilles. For her, the end of Vine still feels like a wound that has not healed, but with a new community of creators surrounding her, she’s ready to put herself out there again. “I'm just trying to wait my turn. You know when you're jumping rope and you're like, 'When am I going to go in? When do I do it, when do I do it?'” said Gilles. “I'm just trying to figure it.”