Short videos are everywhere now. The founder of Byte hopes people are nostalgic for the original six-second video app.
Vine, the short-form video app introduced in 2012, died as it lived: confusing people who didn't use it, even as evidence of its influence surrounded them. It turned everyday people into stars on other platforms and beyond. Its musical whims warped the music industry. It cultivated memes that might have been dismissed as inside jokes if not for their tendency to flourish outside the app.
It was imitated by much larger competitors and, in death, served as a template for a new, similarly puzzling and even more powerful generation of short-form video apps. Its end, announced in 2016, was a muddled one: Was Vine mismanaged by Twitter, its parent company? Did it fail to support its most popular users? Did its novelty wear off? All of the above?
Twitter euthanised Vine before other services had time to kill it, leaving Viners, and their fans, to disperse. As much as apps like TikTok owe to Vine, none provided anything like continuity, leaving some Vine users with the feeling that something was still missing from the internet.
"The idea was to bring back what people remember about Vine, even if it isn't necessarily the way that Vine was," said Dom Hofmann, a founder of Vine, in a phone interview. His new app, Byte, was released in January.
Beyond the 6-second looping videos, Byte's design refers heavily to Vine, with a familiar search and discovery page and even the same prompt for commenters: "Say something nice."
Like our phones, the videos have gotten taller; like our phones' cameras, they're sharper and more realistic, too. "If you were to bring back Vine as it was when it shut down, today, it would feel pretty dated," Hofmann, 33, said.
Instead, Byte feels almost like a tribute. With stripped-down creation tools, no filters, no music integration and a user base that includes some returning Viners, the videos, in subject and style, tend to lean on what worked on Vine: short comedy clips and formal experiments with looping.
As telling are the ways it doesn't feel like newer video apps — in particular TikTok, the undisputed short-video app of the moment and, at least in the popular imagination, Vine's de facto replacement.
TikTok supports longer videos and is less reliant on a simple follower model, instead employing assertive and opaque recommendations. It is loaded with a constantly changing set of creation tools, encouraging users to record to songs, riff on other users' content and engage with challenges, hashtags and trends.
TikTok's interface is busy, and feedback is constant. It's all but openly spammy, and its engagement-pumping tactics can read as cynical, though it also shares in the wealth of attention that it helps generate; TikTok, more than anywhere else, is the platform where creators understand that they can gain traction fast, at least for now. (It is also backed by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, which ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising on rival platforms.)
Byte has no ByteDance; Hofmann, who is also one of the app's main coders, describes the team, and operation, as "fairly small."
The week it became publicly available, Byte was briefly the most downloaded app in the App Store, crossing 1 million downloads. TikTok users who decided to give Byte a try may have found it sleepy, stripped down and even a bit out of date. For former Vine users, the message was clearer: Stay awhile and see what people come up with.
As downloads surged, spammers took notice, flooding comment sections on videos. Creators, confronted with a large and largely disoriented audience, began trying to figure out what to do in a space that, despite its rigid limitations, feels, in 2020, like an intimidatingly blank canvas.
A core group of early users got to work, posting frequently, trying new things and figuring out what worked, or could work.
Eric Dunn was among them. He joined Vine when he was in college; within four months of his first post, he had 1 million followers. He became one the platform's early stars, producing hundreds of comedy videos and establishing a foundation for a career in entertainment.
After Vine went out of business, some of its most notable alumni went to YouTube; Dunn, instead, has spread his influence across Instagram, sports media and modelling.
He's interested in TikTok, where he has a modest following, but he's not totally sure how to approach it. (For one, said Dunn, who is now 27, "everyone is in high school.") He was happy to hear about Byte. "All the things I'm doing today are a direct result of Vine," he said. "I've been waiting for this app to come out."
In Byte's early-user group, he noticed a number of former Viners. Some listed Instagram, TikTok and YouTube in their bios. Others were back for Byte alone.
"I don't think anything has changed that much," Dunn said. His Byte videos wouldn't be far out of place on his old Vine feed. "I think I'm picking up where I left off."
If Byte succeeds, it will take time. Vine, after an early explosion of interest, needed about a year to figure itself out, and another year to really hit its stride. Since Vine died, users' phones have only gotten more crowded, and their attention more divided.
What may matter more, however, is how new video creators see the platform. Vine spent its final years in conflict with some of its biggest stars, and never figured out how to help them make money.
"People just forgot about Vine and moved to TikTok," said Messiah D. Agurs, who was a child (7 years old) when he joined Vine and is now 13.
Byte has pitched itself directly to the people it hopes will stock it with things for people to watch. The app's founders plan to open a partnership program, which in its early days will pass 100 per cent of advertising revenue to participants. ("I guarantee when Byte starts to pay creators everyone will instantly move to the app," Messiah said.) Byte has been soliciting user feedback on a public forum for months, explaining even minor changes to the platform.
These forums are where the material changes of the last half-decade are most evident. If Vine struggled to figure out what to do with a nascent class of content creators, Byte has arrived in a world in which "creator" is an established job title and where those professionals have a long list of demands.
Right away, Byte users began trading tips about maximising engagement and sharing advice about when and what to post. They noticed others engaging in low-stakes influence trading, with informal "engagement groups" and reposting agreements, and asked the company to step in.
An account popped up to call out Byte users who it said were mimicking popular content on TikTok, gaining an unfair edge. Users worried about their metrics, which fell off but stabilised after an early flood of interest. Hofmann has found this feedback helpful, mostly.
"Of course it's surprising," he said. There doesn't yet exist a popular, scalable system for paying short-form video creators, he noted, and knowing what creators are anxious about now, as opposed to half a decade ago, is obviously valuable.
The creators showing the most early promise aren't too caught up in metrics and growth tactics, Hofmann said, although of course they care about that stuff too.
To most of us, Byte is an app that we'll either enjoy or ignore. To a few — the creators it needs — it's a strange new kind of bet on a job that may be great or may not exist, in an office that's still being built.
Written by: John Herrman
Photographs by: Timothy Robinson
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES