“protecting the mission”, june 2013

Six Seconds?

An experiment with Twitter’s “Vine”.

Earlier this month a tweet crossed my path from Jack Dorsey stating “About to do something very interesting” followed by a link to a short six second video with sound. The video was wholly comprised of four scenes spanning six seconds.

The first scene was of construction workers wearing reflective vests and what appeared to be climbing gear, the second an orange safety light atop a vehicle, the third was the floor of a vehicle, and in the fourth and final scene, a hard hat. The sound was a pumped up version of the waterfall of “white noise” always present in the open city if you listen for it, with some clinking of gear and possibly footsteps. As soon as the video finished, it started playing from the beginning again, looping forever.

I was unexpectedly, and instantly, taken by this. I watched it loop again and again. Construction people, safety light, floor, hard hat. The hiss of the city, the clinking of the gear as they walked, a muted variation of the hiss, then silence in the vehicle’s interior. Again. And again.

Why was this so interesting? Sure, while I’ve never met him, @jack is undoubtedly an interesting guy. While that’s likely the reason I followed the link in the first place, that wasn’t why the video, forever looping, resonated in my mind as something more than just a video. The video itself was, at face value, boring: bouncy frames of construction guys, an orange safety light, the floor of a car, and a hard hat, awash in the noise pollution of a city, over and over. I suppose for a split second it reminded me of one of those terrible 40-year-old experimental films I saw in college, but that wasn’t it either. Why did this loop of possibly the most boring bit of video I’ve ever seen evoke in me more than a single cycle of curiosity?

A-ha! It was how I actually recall moments from my life. Not in an abstract “remember when” verbal walk down memory lane, but in the way that a moment is turned into a continuum as it’s re-imagined from the experience; it was like remembering in my mind’s eye.

Leaning back in a chair in the house I grew up in, watching snow fall, book on my lap, the second hand of an old clock tick-tick-ticking. My teenage self and a friend tipping over an outhouse with my best friend inside, an insane mix of yelling and hysterical laughter (he narrowly escaped, thankfully). My first kitten curled up, perfectly tucked into my baseball cap, the swish-swish of her tiny breaths. Meeting my wife for the first time, her happiness, her smile, her laugh (I have no idea what music was playing).

I realized that a vine is not an extension of a photo, it’s a memory! A moment in somebody else’s life: six seconds in another place, another time, as another person. How intriguing! I had to know more!

When I want to know more about something, the first thing I do is gather as much data as possible on the subject. I’ll cast the net far and wide and after some internal switch flips telling me I’ve amassed enough “stuff”, I step back and try to get a sense of some sane way to organize it all. Sometimes this process manifests as buying books, or collecting screen shots, or, at least in the past, contributing to tree mass-murder in the horrible pursuit of separating PDF from computer screen to escape the distractions of having an “online life”.

This endeavor was a little different. In the way that the internet is both special and terrifying, the data is just there for the taking. I happen to be a programmer (or whatever they’re calling somebody like me these days) with enough experience to make short work of this type of problem, so the natural course for me was to whip something up to collect and organize these Vine videos (“vines”), in the large, for my pursuit. I needed a non-fail whale to strain vine krill from the scintillating sea-o’-tweets.

My tweet-seeking whalebot — fine, virtual research assistant — turned out to be largely a combination of code I had written for other fundamentally similar collection and organization tasks; one part Solr, one part Twitter streaming API, one part Java, etc. I let that run for a bit, collecting, storing, and indexing every single tweet and associated metadata — well, honestly, I stored and indexed literally everything Twitter sent down the pipe, that’s just how I do things — where the term “vine” appeared somewhere in it.

Next, I put together a simple web interface to give a “top N” of Twitter usernames, hashtags, and @mentions across all tweets that contained a Vine URL, and lastly I set up a freeform search box and results page for the tweet bodies. I wanted to be able to amass a meaningful number of vines in an organized, searchable way, and ask it a possibly infinite number of questions (this is another facet of how I do things).

At time of writing, after about ten days of collection, I’ve amassed just over four million vines. So, what did I find?

A lot of people use Vine. I’m not talking about us dopes here in Silicon Valley, I mean actual people. All different walks of life, geographies, incomes; all genders, ages, races, backgrounds. They use it in all kinds of ways, sometimes hilarious, ridiculous, or strange, but all decidedly human. There is also some kind of fixation with Jay-Z, and I approve.

The user interface, I think, is a major reason why this is widely used. When you go to make a vine, it gives you a view of what it will record, recording only while your finger is actually touching the screen, stopping when you take your finger away. You can take as many shots as you want, but the total duration cannot be any more than six seconds. You point at things and it records. Sound silly? Well, the function, and form it takes, is what allowed what I really found to bubble up.

What I really found was humanity; all shapes, sizes, colors, and places, all things. When I find that, in the way I’ve found it through Vine, in one place, using one simple thing, I’m reminded that when we get the technology right, top to bottom — like pointing at something, in the moment, that you want to remember and share— it spreads everywhere, it’s natural, fundamentally intuitive to use, possibly magical in operation, like magnets, or gravity, or maybe even a little bit like life.

I invite you to dig around the vines I’ve collected using an interface I’ve dubbed vinecrawler. There are plenty of “NSFW” vines, sometimes not obviously marked, so allow for surprises. Try different searches, people, hashtags. What will you find?

Thank you to Jeremy Latt, Grant Schofield, Dietrich Featherston, and Coda Hale for their feedback.

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