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Start-up aims to be the Twitter of video

Vsnap set to launch app for mobile devices

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Claudia Santoro and Dave McLaughlin, cofounders of Vsnap, in their Boston office.

There’s a tiny Boston social media company called Vsnap with a mighty big goal even by the standards of ambitious tech start-ups: It wants to make short, personal video messages as ubiquitous as e-mail.

But Vsnap, which is launching its first app for mobile devices this week, will first have to capture Internet users who are inundated with new ways to communicate online, from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to video calls on Skype and Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

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Vsnap.com is a platform for users to share video messages of 60 seconds or less - its version of Twitter’s 140-character limit on text. Cofounder Dave McLaughlin hopes the new mobile app will make the service easy and fun for millions of people with smartphones or tablet computers that can shoot video. Although he admits there are lots of other ways to share videos online, he argues that none are as convenient as Vsnap. “Our whole play is about simplicity,’’ he said.

McLaughlin is a former filmmaker and entrepreneur who cofounded the company in May. Vsnap, which has five full-time employees, was a finalist in the 2011 MassChallenge competition for start-ups and is based in the South Boston neighborhood known as the Innovation District.

The reason McLaughlin thinks his service will take off, he said, is because video captures the nuances - the hand gestures, verbal touches, and facial expression - that an e-mail, text, or tweet can’t carry. “It’s all about trying to engage people in personal ways,’’ he said. “So much of what defines and drives communication is not in the words, it’s in the tone and body language.’’

But will that be enough to stand out on the increasingly crowded Web?

“For a new service to break in is going to be extraordinarily hard,’’ said Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst at Gartner Inc. “It has to really differentiate itself from another network.’’

‘For a new service to break in is going to be extraordinarily hard. It has to really differentiate itself from another network.’

Michael Gartenberg Technology analyst at Gartner Inc.
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Gartenberg is skeptical that video messaging will create that kind of appeal. A text or e-mail can take only a few seconds to compose, as opposed to the process of shooting and sending a video, he said, and users don’t have to worry about how their hair looks when they tweet.

Vsnap is introducing a new behavior that will take some getting used to, McLaughlin acknowledged, adding that it is not for everyone, or every occasion. And, he said, “text is better for some stuff.’’

But Vsnap has devotees, resonating especially with some businesses and professionals as a way to engage their audience. This year, the Boston University athletics department used Vsnap to promote men’s basketball games.

One surprising constituency: doctors.

“E-mail is quickly becoming passé,’’ said Dr. Howard Luks, an orthopedic surgeon in Hawthorne, N.Y., and a heavy user of social media. “Short video communication is going to rapidly evolve in this space, and going to be very well received.’’

Luks tweets, blogs, and records online videos to communicate with patients and talk about health issues. So far, he’s sent only about 10 Vsnap messages - posting some on Twitter to promote blogs and using others to check in on patients - but he’s a fan. “Being on social media in general allows you to humanize your organization or practice, and video - and seeing the person - goes even further toward that goal,’’ he said.

Ross Lohr, cofounder of Project Repat, a Boston start-up that turns used T-shirts into handbags and scarves, has sent about 50 Vsnap videos to customers. “We’ll send them a fun, goofy message,’’ he said. “It’s better than sending an e-mail thank you.’’

Using the service helps create repeat customers, Lohr said, and generates social media buzz when a customer retweets the Vsnap video.

That’s part of the promise of Vsnap to businesses, McLaughlin said. He is still surprised by some of the ways people are using the platform.

Video as a social medium was a natural for McLaughlin, whose film credits include the 2006 independent feature “On Broadway,’’ with a “Saturday Night Live’’ alum, Amy Poehler.

He has had some success with start-ups, too. The last company he cofounded, the mobile payments company Fig Card, was sold for an undisclosed price to PayPal, the electronic payments arm of the online auction site eBay Inc.

Now there’s Vsnap, which faces barriers even McLaughlin will acknowledge, saying some people just won’t want to get a video message.

“It’s not for everybody, at every moment,’’ he said. Not yet, at least.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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