This last week, Twitter shocked its users with the announcement that they would be shutting down Vine, a loop-based video platform that was a source for some of modern internet’s most iconic memes to date. Given the broad appeal and use of Vine by teenagers and Black Twitter, it was clear why Twitter shut the service down: the content generated by these communities was not profitable or fitting to Twitter’s investors.
To better understand why Vine was shut down, it may be helpful to compare it with an app whose appearance is similar to Vine, but whose underlying mechanics are fundamentally different. Musical.ly, an app with which users can record 15-second clips of themselves singing along with various songs and audio clips, was recently valued at $500 million and currently hosts over 130 million users, almost all of which are teenagers. Its praise from tech giants and the music industry is unprecedented, as the two industries rarely, if ever, agree on platforms which are both good for artists and corporate profits.
But any agreements amongst historically opposing entities is almost always a red flag, and it’s clear that the willful destruction of Vine and the rise of musical.ly are not separate phenomena: they represent a corporate interest in a new strain of viral content, one which can regulated and administered from the top down.
Musical.ly promotes this new virality with a challenge-based promotional system: every day or so, the app announces a hashtag associated with a specific song. Users then create videos of themselves lip-syncing and dancing to the song so that their performance can be featured on the “front page” of musical.ly, which its founder has likened to “performing at Madison Square garden.” Unlike the hashtag challenges from Vine or Twitter, these challenges are the result of corporate promotion—pop artists like Ken Jones, Selena Gomez and more have made deals with musical.ly in which their new singles would be introduced as challenges of the app, which results in a surge in views and interaction with the song itself.
The “stars” of musical.ly, which are users who frequent the front page with their well-executed fifteen-second clips, have built their success on these trending songs. Whether they actually hold passion for the songs they mime is up for debate; what’s not is these user’s role in corporate tastemaking. They have essentially become human-shaped funnels in the hierarchy of musical.ly’s promotion; the curated front-page enables moderators to promote users whose content is the most marketable and acceptable to the artist who paid for users to mimic their song. In musical.ly’s world, you do not become viral, you are deemed to be viral; what used to describe the movement of content now describes content itself, and its standards are explicitly capitalistic.
As per usual, such systems are laced with racist and classist motives. When this article was written, 19 of the top 20 musicians on the app’s “leaderboard” were white, with many recording themselves in large, suburban living rooms or photogenic backyards. Songs which become challenges are frequently whitewashed to stay teen-friendly; in the #iminlovewiththechocolate challenge, O.T Genasis’ “Coco” lyric is replaced with an utterance of “Chocolate” from Spongebob). In comparison, Vine was fueled by its black userbase, whose Vines in public spaces like classrooms and restaurants were prone to an organic chaos which gifted the world with art and, in the case of “On Fleek,” and entirely new word.
Musical.ly does not cater to such audiences. Its virality is not meant to disrupt or be noticeable in the slightest. In harsher terms, it gaslights: a success story for an artist promoted on the app might follow a narrative like those of Meghan Trainor and Twenty One Pilots, who seamlessly apparated into public conscious. I remember wondering where these artists came from, and who was listening to their music. But more vividly, I remember asking myself if I had missed out, if I had failed in some way to stay up-to-date with the forces shaping popular culture. This coercion of the uninitiated drives musical.ly users to create and share content in a way that Vine never did.
From the perspective of an advertiser, musical.ly is simply a groundbreaking development of what may be called a “perfect advertisement,” where users are not only receptive of its message but complicit and willing to spread it themselves. The more perfectly you perform on musical.ly, the more accurate your lip-sync is, the more you encourage your followers to buy the challenge song in your description, the faster you will go viral.
The imperfect nature of Vine was both its rise and downfall, best symbolized by “He Hit The Sign,” the loop shows a teenager doing gymnastic tumbles before cascading into the protruding neon sign of a Krispy Kreme restaurant. The story itself is sensational, but what made this Vine historical was what was not shown: the sign falls no more than a foot before the video loops back to the confident face of a man completely unaware of the destruction that he just incurred. No info is given about why he’s tumbling in Krispy Kreme, or what happened after the sign hit the ground, or what exactly it means to be “Back at it again at Krispy Kreme.” Silicon Valley, with it’s streamlining philosophy, deemed this a liability. And so they found a new home in suburban America, one that’s perfect, safe and ruined.