Remember Vine?

Vine, owned by Twitter, was a social networking platform and video hosting app that ran from 2013 to 2016, and although its official Twitter archive was wiped in 2019, you can still find massive Vine compilations on YouTube.

The thing that was unique to Vine was that, in the same way Twitter acts as a “micro-blog” by limiting users to 280 characters per post, Vine was designed for micro-vlogging, allowing users only six seconds per video.

What can a person do in six seconds?  It turns out, an awful lot.  Due to their incredibly short length, Vines were eminently meme-able.  You’ve probably seen, heard, or even quoted some yourself:

  • “It’s an avocado!  Thanks!”
  • “…and they were roommates.”
  • “It is Wednesday, my dudes.”
  • And, perhaps greatest of all, “What are thoooooose?”

The Vine so iconic it became a canonical part of the MCU.

On Vine, people performed short skits, made jokes, showed brief displays of talent: dancing, singing, and performing.  Vine gave a lot of influencers their start, including Youtubers Jake and Paul Logan, singer Shawn Mendes, voice actor SungWon Cho (ProZD on YouTube), comedian Danny Gonzalez, actor Liza Koshy, impressionist Thomas Sanders, musician Gabbie Hanna, beauty influencer Lele Pons, and actor David Dobrik.

Vines nowadays exist only as compilations on YouTube, and having watched several hours’ worth of 6-second clips, I’m ready to explain which Vine is the greatest by itself, why it works, and how it highlights the weaknesses of TikTok.

Now, I know that people say that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog.  But I think this particular Vine warrants a deep dive.

The best Vine of all time is “Buns,” by Leo Vader.

Like many classic Vines, the premise of this joke is a simple visual gag.  But it’s not as simple as it first appears.  This joke is a densely-packed nugget of pure, comedic gold, delivering multiple punchlines within its narrow 6-second window.  Let’s count them:

1. First, we have the “bun” pun.  A man checks out the “buns” on a guy, and the audience is shown an unmoving body covered in hamburger buns.

2. Then, we have the police burst in the door.  I would argue this second joke is actually three jokes or four in one.  At first, you might think the police are there due to the body, covered in hamburger buns.  But no, they’re the joke police.

a. Sub-joke one: The absolute absurdity of there being a “joke police” at all.

b. Sub-joke two: The way the police burst in instantaneously upon the joke’s delivery.

c. Sub-joke three: the unexpected reveal that the joke police are making an arrest for a joke being too funny, as opposed to one that is unfunny.  Calling the initial, corny joke “too funny” feels like self-aware irony.

3. The man pulls out a gun, screaming that he won’t go back to jail.  This joke builds on the absurdity of the second.  The sudden, dramatic escalation (and the suggestion that this isn’t his first “offense,” and that joke offenders are imprisoned) elevates this Vine from a one-note visual pun to a top-tier string of jokes, all of which build on the last.

Everything about this joke is perfect to me, and one thing I never fail to consider is the amount of work that went into these six seconds.  The actor(s) had to write the jokes, and then perform and film them.  Someone had to lay face-down on the floor and get covered in hamburger buns.  Someone had to don the police uniform.  Props had to be gathered.  The clip had to be edited down to its six second limit.

A lot of work went into this Vine and what we got was six seconds of content.  Not all Vines were as complex but even the simplest jokes still required a lot of thought so that the joke could fit into the narrow six second limit.  Any skit with a set-up and a punchline operated at a massive disadvantage.  Vines were hard to make for the creators because they limited the creators.

So how does this relate to TikTok?

With 755 million users, TikTok has far surpassed Vine (which, at the height of its popularity, only had about 100 million).  And unlike Vine, TikTok allows much longer videos; in fact, it just announced an increase from 3-minute videos to 10-minute videos.  This is great news for creators.  Making a joke (or a point), becomes easier; editing is a little less restrictive, if the user wants it to be.

But is it good news for the consumers of the content?

Giving creators an easier way to create content means that it’s likely that one of TikTok’s biggest issues is only going to get worse.  That issue is its unique ability to act as a vector for sociogenic illness.

You might have heard about the rising incidences of people who go to TikTok to self-diagnose themselves with mental health disorders.  This phenomenon is not purely conjecture; it’s warranted coverage by the Wall Street Journal and NPR, among others, and the generation of peer-reviewed studies.

Because TikTok, like all social media platforms, allows content to be shared and “go viral,” and counts views and reactions, a lot of it ends up being clickbait.  This wouldn’t be a big problem if the clickbait existed in a vacuum.

However, TikTok is unique among platforms because, unlike others, users don’t have to subscribe or go looking for creators to view their content.  TikTok’s feed is algorithmically generated.  This creates an echo-chamber where content creators are encouraged to emulate other successful content creators.  Highly relatable and broad, vague posts about mental illness or other disorders do better, but the problem is, broad posts are the perfect breeding ground for the generation of misinformation.  Consequently, TikTok is leading a lot of people to self-diagnose or misidentify behaviors.

Of course, we can’t blame TikTok entirely for this.  All social media platforms end up with a “culture” that forms seemingly spontaneously, a “drift” that influences what people choose to use the platform in the future.  Because Vine’s most popular clips were comedy, would-be influencers were inclined to try to make comedy, as well.  Because TikTok’s most popular clips are about mental health advocacy (often paired with a personal story of adversity and triumph), up-and-coming TikTokers are bound to try to recreate it.

We can’t solve the issue of cultural “drift” on platforms (and perhaps we shouldn’t try), but when it comes to the safety and health of communities, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about what mechanisms are in place to counter misinformation.

For TikTok, the issue is complicated by the fact that people’s mental health advocacy tends to come through a personal lens, and therefore can’t be verified as true or not.  Nonetheless, there are measures that could be taken.  Disclaimers, at the very least, or an 18+ section to protect more impressionable users.  (TikTok announced a push to set teen creators’ accounts to private, but this does not protect them from viewing content.)

It’s also worth pointing out that TikTok can’t be said to “make” anyone sick.  Rather, sociogenic illness rears its head in response to displaced stress about other environmental factors.  When one considers the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s no wonder that so many people on TikTok began to focus on mental health.  But perhaps this is another way TikTok, as a platform, might work to help its users: by providing resources for them, so that instead of diagnosing themselves in an echo-chamber of misinformation, they can get some more accurate information and help if they suspect themselves to be suffering from a condition.

I’m happy to report that TikTok already has a system in place for implementing this; in response to accusations that videos about weight loss were promoting eating disorders, they rolled out a system of PSAs and resources for certain hashtags in an effort to counter this problem.  Whether or not this system will have any positive effects remains to be seen, but one has to ask: do we really want more algorithmically-generated oversight?  Or is it worth getting some human moderation to ensure the platform isn’t hurting its users, especially those who are underage and highly susceptible to the power of suggestion?

Vine demanded a lot from its creators, and making content on Vine was not easy.  But the content we got was good.  A lot of effort went into every six second video, and when we consider the “Buns” videos, we see how the platform, by its very nature, forced creators to expend a lot of effort and get creative to deliver good content.  TikTok, which is incredibly content-creator friendly, is doing so at the expense of its most vulnerable users.  TikTok’s algorithmically generated feed allows for any video, even a harmful one, to potentially go viral.  And posts with vague language can easily go viral so long as they’re relatable, which means many “relatable” videos on mental health get lots of views, even if they’re presenting content that’s misleading, harmful, or outright misinformation.

I don’t have the answer to what TikTok should do, but I do strongly feel like it should be doing more.  Allowing for longer videos will also allow for more misinformation; while I don’t want to say that creators should be restricted, I do feel that Vine’s unique, self-imposed restriction forced users to get especially creative and put a lot of effort into their work.  Vines, unlike YouTube or TikTok, could not be used to give video essays; a one-line joke was as much as six seconds allowed.  And while it did place a burden on creators, it also generated some incredibly unique, innovative videos… like the “Buns” video.

As TikTok broadens its platform to give creators more breathing room, perhaps they should also consider what measures could be taken to keep the platform safe.  I’m not saying Vine was perfect, or didn’t have its issues… but Vine never had the influence that TikTok did.  And the brevity of its clips kept it from becoming overly exploitable by anyone trying to push an agenda, sell merchandise, or serve up misinformation.  (Perhaps the most political Vine we ever got was the Chillary Vine.)

Vine wasn’t perfect, no, but it was nice while it lasted.  And it was arguably a safer, more benign place than TikTok is.

After all, Vine was under the protection of the joke police.