Three weeks ago, Twitter abruptly announced it would shut down Vine, the 6-second video looping platform it acquired for $30 million in 2012.
Avid users were dismayed, a Vine cofounder tweeted his regret at selling to Twitter, and 350 Twitter employees (or 9% of its staff) lost their jobs. Then last week, in a new wrinkle, TechCrunch reported that Twitter is in talks to sell Vine, writing that, “Mourning for Vine from the internet community boosted the interest of potential acquirers.”
But if there are interested buyers now (including, embarrassingly for Twitter, an offer from the porn site Pornhub), might Twitter have been able to sell it before, rather than announce it would just kill it? Did it try to find a buyer first? How did Twitter botch the handling of Vine so badly?
Commentary from three Vine insiders, speaking to Yahoo Finance on condition of anonymity, helps explain what went wrong.
Twitter wanted Vine to be for art, not comedy
Two former Vine employees, as well as a Vine power-user who was feted by Twitter executives and flown to events, all say they were not surprised that Twitter would shut Vine. What surprised them was how abruptly Twitter announced the closure.
The lack of warning was, “really inconsistent with Twitter’s whole mantra of respecting the user’s voice and the user’s content,” one of the former employees says.
The larger problem, it appears, was how Twitter executives, and even the founders of Vine themselves, viewed Vine’s potential. “I think it started with the founders—their vision was art, but it became personal and entertainment, and it was an uphill battle to fight for the creators and the comedians,” says the same employee. “You definitely didn’t feel a lot of support from above in that direction.”
Another former employee concurs, “As much as Twitter and Vine maybe wanted to have an artistic application, it didn’t go that way.”
Indeed, when Vine first launched in January 2013, the Vine videos most frequently featured as “Editor’s Picks” were artistic visual creations from users like Noah Kalina, a Brooklyn-based photographer who became famous back in 2006 for taking a photo of himself every day for six years. (Kalina’s video, “Everyday,” has 27 million views.) In 2014, BuzzFeed wrote that Kalina’s Vines are “surreal works of art,” and NPR highlighted 10 “New York Vine-ographers you should follow,” including Kalina and other artists. NPR quoted Vine cofounder Collin Kroll saying one of the most exciting aspects of Vine was “people that modify their phones to get shots in a certain way, so you see the lens and the tripods.” Art was the name of the game.
But soon enough, humor, performance, and personality became the point of Vine, though there were still people using it differently. The users that became most popular, “Vine stars” like King Bach, Lele Pons, and Logan Paul were not attempting to use Vine as a medium for unique camera angles or special effects. They were posting scripted, 6-second comedy skits.
It helped them amass millions of followers and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for sponsored posts in which they plug a brand. But it wasn’t what Twitter wanted. And while it was making money for those stars, it wasn’t helping to make money for Twitter. Last year, Twitter acquired Niche, a tool that connects social media creators with brands, but that reportedly did not go far in monetizing Vine.
the money to be made off brands for a single Snapchat story or single Instagram post is nuts. check this chart out: pic.twitter.com/DcVDFILLNK
— Sapna Maheshwari (@sapna) August 30, 2016
It didn’t improve matters when Instagram added video (at first, in 15-second length only) in June 2013. “If you look at early Vines, half of them were stop-motion art, and the other half were just your friends, like, making coffee,” says an avid Vine user who built a following in the hundreds of thousands. “It was before Instagram video, so people just used it as an Instagram for video. That use case died when Instagram added video.” Instead, the comedy skit use case flourished.
Twitter left Vine to operate on its own
When Twitter acquires a company, former and current employees say, it is not always consistent in how deeply it absorbs the acquired team into the existing Twitter team. “Often they inject them into the company and try to contextualize them,” says a former employee, “but for a select few, and it’s seen as a special circumstance, they let them exist on their own, and operate independently. They don’t impede. And that can be really positive or really negative.”
With Vine, Twitter management left it alone. “Especially when Dick [Costolo] was CEO,” the former employee says, “it was like, you guys do what you want, we will do what we want.” That hands-off approach did nothing to monetize Vine, and it didn’t help it grow any faster (it reportedly has 200 million monthly active users).
Last fall, Mic.com reports, 20 of Vine’s top stars met with Vine executives in Los Angeles. The star wanted to be paid more than $1 million each to commit to posting a set number of videos per month on the platform, keeping it thriving. Vine balked, according to the story.
I sat with those execs a year ago and told em to shape up…they didn't listen. Now everybody wants an interview? ???????? #RIPVine
— DeStorm Power (@DeStorm) October 27, 2016
Mic.com quotes some Vine stars as saying that meeting was the beginning of the end. But it wasn’t yet the definitive end, because this year, in January, Vine again flew a handful of creators to Europe, where they worked on an original series. Soon after, Vine shut the series project down. “And they were not kind about it,” says the former Vine creator. “They pulled the plug on all promotion of creators, had no interest in creators. They would talk about how, ‘We want to empower everybody to create beautiful videos.’ They still didn’t get it.”
I have no answer to Twitter (allegedly!) losing multiple buyouts due to harassment issues and responding by killing a creative haven for POC
— Matt Drance (@drance) October 28, 2016
Twitter is not commenting on reports of a possible sale, and had no new comment for this story beyond reiterating that, as it said when it first announced it would shut down Vine, “We’ll be keeping the website online because we think it’s important to still be able to watch all the incredible Vines that have been made.”
A person close to the company says that Twitter will soon offer an easy way to download Vine videos from the Vine web site, though that is not yet available. If Twitter sells Vine, it likely won’t need to worry about that.
Vine evolved naturally, like a living, breathing thing, and became an especially popular outlet for sports clips. But Twitter was never quite able to figure out its best identity. Shutting it down was an utter PR fail, and if it sells Vine to a new buyer that does successfully grow and monetize it, that could be an even worse bit of optics for Twitter management.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.