What does the algorithm miss? On the organization and valuation of short-video contents as sites of rest

Vine was a video hosting service that allowed people to create and share six-second long looping videos. Founded in 2012, immediately acquired by Twitter, it announced its end-of-service in late 2016. During that four-year period, Vine managed to gain an active user base of 200 million. However, it was outperformed by innovations from competitors and lacked monetization options hindering a commercial success.

Yet, despite Vine’s ‘failure’, short-video contents still have a major presence today (see for instance the rapid growth of ByteDance’s TikTok). Henceforth, looking where these 200 million Vine users, their cultural contents and practices went, I’ll comment on the following questions: What’s the allure and value of short-video contents? How is their value proposition assessed and organized both community and platform sided?

One place people went and gathered old Vines in montages is YouTube. And as you can see by YouTube’s search suggestions for the query ‘vines that’, a popular way to title such montages, they are often associated with some sort of integral quality of life. The titles being deictic gestures towards Vines, a totality of six-second long videos, that affect or have affected one in the past.

Yet in how these titles are deliberately over-staged, the importance Vines can have is both questioned and reinforced in that mere act of questioning. Which corresponds to the overall leisurely and comedic style inherent to Vines. The central mood appearing to be one of a present liveliness. They continuously move towards the edge of becoming something larger, something historically more significant than life itself whilst reassuring that they are just another present moment in time. Watching Vines is a movement that covers no distance. It’s an experience of life that doesn’t need anything more to itself than itself.

And I think we can only fully understand this experience once we establish an ‘embodied vision’ as meaningful approach to audio-visual contents. For does the allure and value of these short-video contents, I argue and observe, emerge in their affective nature. In requiring an embodied vision, the implication into their presence and rhythms, rather than classical ‘reading’, our attentive selection of relevant information from an interfacing surface through cognitive and conscious faculties.

Why is this important? Through the lens of reading we are still able to account for the value of Vines that are ‘edits’ (re-cuts and remixes of existing contents) or ‘skits’ (short, staged comedic sketches). However, we can do so less for Vines that are ‘clips’ (random moments, things out of place) and ‘bits’ (stunts, tricks, rhythmic interactions and movements). All of these are short-lived and often ‘yet another’ funny moment.

They don’t really have anything more to them than being moments of life. Sure, they are embedded in the contexts of their producers, yet lack a larger narrative context. There is nothing really to learn from them. They are amateur film, bottom-up statements and documentations of life. And I believe the greatest merit of these montages lies in that they show how these short-video contents, these moments of life, matter beyond well-worn tropes of ‘humble entertainment’. They matter as a substantial experience of life (re)lived in the digital.

Again, it’s not the attention we invest into watching a single Vine, but rather the continuous movement, our embodied and rhythmic experience of the temporal gap that arises every six seconds which is constitutive for our experience of watching Vines. Their value rests most notably in their format and arrangement, not their contents. It is this format, this rhythmic experience of life that these montages seek to preserve.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe we still need to look at the contents of these videos. Neither do I want to say that there is nothing to be critical about such. But I argue that we’d do a poor job in taking seriously these emergent cultural practices and experiences unless we defend them from over generalized critique that sees them as yet another manipulative means creating docility and passivity.

Reiterating that these short-videos are created bottom-up, by the community for the community, we can argue that the community-sided organization of such cultural contents lies in the grammars of titling such montages. From within the field we observed that these signifying practices are used by the community not only to indicate Vines to be of integral value, but rather in these titles being over-staged, following a comedic and leisurely mood, that community-sided there is a boundary set to not over emphasise the impact such contents can have. Without explicitly resisting, these short-video contents are space-making practices that reclaim control over the time of experience. That they are not the be all and end all is obvious. Yet they are particular and momentary sites of existential rest. And that’s something of value.

Moving towards the platform-sided organization and assessment of this value proposition of these cultural contents, I understand the experience of watching videos on YouTube as audio-visual containment. Put simply, as the ‘interaction order’ in which people, machines, and audio-visual contents interact. The algorithmically ordered chain of videos classified as related and selected to watch. A bounded spatio-temporal arrangement in which people can make meaningful experiences.

To understand how the platform henceforth tries to organize the contents that fuel these containers, I look at the network of related videos for the search query ‘vines that’. For is this network the material upon which audio-visual containers concerning Vine montages are built, showing where these contents are positioned within the larger content traffic on YouTube.

The first and most notable observation we can make is that these montages are situated in a homogenous context. Clusters 0 and 3 are the biggest and most central ones. They feature the overall core Vine montages and drift slightly towards more major media and online contents (music video, clips from tv shows, non-Vine related montages of funny home-videos, …). The network branches out into clusters that feature separate and more specific Vine montages, yet on the sides it’s connected to the wider core YouTube content (vlogs, reactions and discussions, gaming, …). Some still focus on Vine (often created by people who gained their following their), the majority doesn’t. In general, quite unsurprisingly, there is very little presence of news or politically oriented contents. The overall embeddedness following the leisurely and comedic style inherent to Vines.

Yet is this really a symbiotic relationship between community and platform? Focusing our attention to cluster 0 we can see that the algorithm is not neutral. The interesting discrepancy to observe is between topics 5/15 and topics 6/12. All feature similar videos, namely core Vine montages. However, videos in 5 and 15 are tagged and titled with positive terms: funny, happiness, cured me, keep me alive, laugh. These videos are ‘pushed’ by the algorithm. They are more centrally placed in the network, more relevant, more likely to appear in an audio-visual container. Videos in 6 and 12 are tagged and titled with more negative sounding terms such as: depression, lost control of life, medium rare, underrated, think about. These videos are placed slightly less central than other videos.

Is the recommender algorithm, regulating the flow of cultural contents, hence a means to control the mood of unconscious users, promoting neoliberal quests of personal happiness among them? Returning to our observation of how these videos are being titled would argue against that I believe. The algorithm misses more than it seems to be controlling here. As I argued along the grammars, the signifying practices taking place within the field, these more negative terms are not only used in tropes to indicate videos being of value, but also to actively reflect and question the importance these videos can have in the long run. These signifying practices highlight not only peoples’ desire for momentary existential rest that lies in this ‘happy and humble’ entertainment. But rather, without great noise, they show an implicit awareness of cultural forces at work. Not a great revolutionary act against control, but an act of balancing the freedoms and dominations that come with it.

Parts of this piece were presented at the 4th Affect and Social Media Conference, University of East London, England/UK, November 2018 and published previously in an earlier version at blogs.ed.ac.uk.

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