Last month marked the long-awaited launch of the short-form video app Byte, which, if we’re being untechnical, was actually sort of a relaunch. Helmed by Dom Hofmann, creator of the beloved and defunct six-second video app Vine, Byte has been heralded as a sequel of sorts, a restoration of the sui generis creative spirit of his earlier creation.
Vine, which launched in 2012, experienced the full trajectory of the App-merican Dream: surging in popularity, gaining millions of users (thanks to its purchase by and adjacency to Twitter), carving out a wholly unique place for itself in an Internet culture increasingly driven by video, honing its own visual language and creative community, ultimately failing to monetize to the expectations of distant higher-ups, and unceremoniously dying young at just four years old.
When Vine shuttered, I shuddered. I mourned. And the sting was sharper than the average This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things refrain that accompanies the failure of so many promising-seeming outposts of online culture. “Somehow, Vine offered its viewers equally potent doses of fantasy and reality,” I wrote back in 2016, lamenting the impending loss of Vine’s unique community of creators (from fledgling pop stars to young comedians staking claim on its global stage) and citizen journalists (the nation would have been fenced off from the realities of Ferguson without the grapevine of Vine). “Over its fast four years online, it didn’t attract legions of trolls and blowhards so much as give space to creators and witnesses.”
And in the years since the app was so rudely pruned by its parent company, Hofmann and his mysterious squad have been teasing the advent of a successor, hinting at Byte with beta testing opportunities and other subtle ways to extend hopes that exiled Viners might be granted a return to lost form. Now, seven years to the day that Vine was launched, Byte is here, and people are already eating it up, with 1.3 million downloads in its first week alone.
That kind of excitement is itself a throwback to the Golden Age of Apps, that stretch of the early 2010s that found “an app for everything” launching up the charts and tumbling as quickly back down. But a lot has changed on the Internet since then, and the novelty of short-form video — from “stories” on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, to the global phenomenon of TikTok, to the mini-video megastudio of Quibi — hasn’t so much worn off as settled into the basic currency of Internet content.
So what makes Byte special? And how will it stand a chance in a crowded field of competitors already vying for every spare second of your time?
Second question first: For one thing, Byte’s newly independent ambitions to stay viable are supported by ad sponsorships (though those, too, take the form of “bytes” — i.e. creatively edited six-second videos — rather than intrusive ads or pre-rolls). For another, Byte recently unveiled the first drafts of a seemingly robust partner program that will reward fuller-time creators, and anchor itself in the app’s community-based ethos. The monetization strategies thus far seem far more informed by the expectations of users than investors.
But beyond the finances to keep it afloat, what might give Byte the expansive reach it needs to compete is, ironically enough, its limits. The rise of TikTok (which many users saw as an evolution of the Vine form) actually feels like a slackening of sorts. TikTok videos can be up to 15 seconds — and can also be chained together into minute-long videos. Similarly, Instagram Stories can be endlessly chained into longer forms that extend far past the 15-second snippet length (albeit with little glitches at the seams).
On Byte, the six-second rule reigns, a hard-line stricture on an otherwise free-wheeling platform. And while that may sound restrictive, like any limits applied to creative work — be they the edge of a canvas, the formal demands of a sonnet, the depth of focus of a photograph, the sides of a record, or even the character limit of a tweet — the six modest seconds of a Byte tend to push innovative uses of the platform, rather than restrict them.
Already, Byte is jam-packed with thousands of tiny experimental films, nano-narratives, perfectly crafted punch lines, and mini-achievements in lo-fi special effects. In the span of one minute you can sample 10 wide-ranging and often wildly funny visions of how to turn a little into a lot.
But beyond the content itself the magic of Byte has a lot to do with the unique magic of Vine, which was its spirit of creativity, its reliance on community, and its disposition toward positivity — something glaringly lacking from just about every one of its competitors. An app that banks on people coming together and making the most of limited resources sure sounds like an attractive opposite.
In the years since Vine, the Internet has devolved to a state that seems broken beyond repair. Here’s hoping that Byte, in two senses, can provide a quick fix.