Since the beginning, Twitter users, including me, have at times been stymied and frustrated by Twitter’s seemingly arbitrary character limit, which redefined social media. Now Twitter aims to shift the paradigm for visual sharing as well with Vine, an app for sharing six-second videos. Is it the perfect balance between Instagram’s single images and YouTube’s long videos? Is it the best of both sites? The worst?
For me, the bigger question is: How much shorter can our content get?
Twitter’s 140-character limit has driven all its users, from high school students to the New York Times, to get creative when communicating. And if you want to encourage retweets, the number should be closer to 115, since some Twitter applications add your handle to the retweet (Twitter itself does not).
But it doesn’t end with Twitter. Social Media Today published an analysis that Facebook posts of 70 characters or less get the most likes and comments; posts from 71 to 140 characters do less well; and the number of likes drops tremendously when posts are more than 140 characters. The same number as a tweet – coincidence?
The visual social site Pinterest virtually does away with words altogether. Though Pinterest allows 500 characters for descriptions, many “pins” lack any descriptions, and some even lack titles. Over on YouTube, a study by Pew found that 29% of the most popular videos were a minute or less in length.
The trend goes beyond social media. Numerous sources state that the average length of a text message is 160 characters, which makes room for three or four words more than Twitter does. But despite the extra letters, texting brought us abbreviations like “c u l8r” and “how r u?” Those “words” have found their way into lots of online content – though not blog posts, thankfully. Yet.
Into this race to the shortest content comes Vine, with its limit of six seconds. While this allows for stop-motion animation, since users can open and close the “shutter” as much as they want, it doesn’t allow for any editing, sound effects, graphics, or titles. The videos play in a loop, much like GIFs from the slow-modem 90s and which have themselves enjoyed a recent renaissance.
Unlike GIFs, Vine videos include sound. If the user doesn’t speak, the viewer ends up hearing breathing or background noise, usually a TV. With no music or titles, many videos show a single slice of life and create a sort of Zen experience, hypnotizing you as they automatically play over and over. Like the microphone, the replay feature can’t be shut off.
People’s natural instinct is to use any new platform to tell stories. Ad agencies will use it to sell brands. There has even been some, shall we say, erotica uploaded to Vine. But how much story, or branding, or even pornography can be packed into just six seconds?
Years ago, many people bemoaned the MTV generation, which supposedly shortened the attention spans of Generation X’ers and affected everything from movie plots to video gameplay. The internet was the next step in that process, making text, photos, and videos available almost instantly. Then mobile technology allowed us to consume content while waiting in line or sitting on a plane. Twitter took us to the next level and now they’re taking us to another one. Are there any levels left?
It’s possible that Vine will be a failure, or a novelty, and most of us will stick with photos or “normal” videos. But if it’s a huge hit, and our attention spans shrink again, then I have to wonder, how much will be left?