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Why Vine Is Betting on Entertainment and Leaving Social Behind (Q&A)

"I would say in the same way that Jack said about Twitter, there is nothing that’s overly sacred about anything."


You’d be forgiven if, at times, you forgot that Vine is still part of Twitter.

It turns out that most of that separation is actually by design. Vine, the six-second video platform Twitter launched in early 2013, is stationed in New York, away from the hubbub that is Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. With the exception of Vine’s General Manager Jason Toff, none of the employees — of which there are fewer than 50 — report to folks in San Francisco. In many ways, it operates like its own startup.

Re/code caught up with Toff, a former product manager at YouTube, to discuss Vine, how it’s evolved and whether he plans to axe the app’s six-second video restraint. The following interview was edited for brevity.

Re/code: Is Vine still growing? I get the feeling Vine isn’t as popular now as it was a year or so ago.

Jason Toff: Yes, we’re still growing. Our latest public metric is that we’re now reaching more than 200 million people every month. We’re very excited about where we are and our reach. One thing that may be the case for you is that our audience is largely younger, largely female and probably a different demographic than your personal circle. That might be part of the reason that it’s looking less popular to you.

Twitter makes a big effort to get Twitter content in front of non-Twitter users. I see tweets everywhere. I don’t see Vines everywhere. What kind of outreach do you do to get Vines in front of people who don’t have the app?

To be honest we don’t spend as much time trying to force Vines into TV or into the news. The good news is Vines often go viral and get really big really fast. A lot of where you see Vines, be it on BuzzFeed or Twitter, is just from natural, viral growth.

Do you plan to make more of an effort here?

I wouldn’t say it’s a top level strategy to seed [Vines] on different platforms. Luckily Vines do grow so naturally on their own.

You refer to Vine as an entertainment network, not a social network. What do you mean by that?

When Vine started it was a social network. When Vine first launched two and a half years ago, it was a place where you were expected to post Vines of what you were up to with friends and family. But what we’ve found — and this started happening a few months within Vine starting but we’ve really only started to embrace it this year — is that the way people are most successful using Vine is as an entertainment network. So if you look at the product releases we’ve focused on you’ll notice that there’s a trend toward this entertainment aspect … and making it easy for users to discover great Vines and then share those Vines. It’s a shift from where Vine started.

How do you think about Vine celebrities? They seem to be one of the key reasons Vine took off when it did.

Creators are very important to Vine, there’s no doubt about that. We’re a young company and I’d say candidly we’ve underserved them historically. But we recognize they’re important — so much so that we’ve hired several full-time people to focus on them in the last few months.

What do those employees do? How do you work with the creators?

As a starting point they’re focused on our top creators. Cataloguing who our top creators are, reaching out to them. For many of these people just having a good, solid relationship is a great foundation and great starting point, and understanding their needs and their feedback is something that they are interested [in sharing] and something we are interested in hearing. Another thing those folks are working on is identifying up-and-coming talent who are great and seeing traction and ensuring that they get the spotlight.

So you push Vine celeb content in the explore tab to help it spread and make sure they keep creating stuff for Vine?

Yeah. When Vine first created that Explore tab, while it started as all algorithmic, we’ve moved to a mix of algorithmic and editorial. So we’re investing a good amount of effort into that editorial to showcase top creators and top posts in there using very clearly laid out objective criteria in order to have a fair distribution. We’re also part of Twitter and have one of the most followed Twitter handles in the world. That’s a big place where we can promote people.

Do you prioritize work from creators who make stuff exclusively for Vine? Will that impact the editorial picks?

We won’t do that. I will say if a creator is frequently posting, ‘Hey, go check this out elsewhere,’ or more broadly if they’re just posting crap we’re not going to feature them a lot. But no, it’s not as if we are making deals to say, ‘Hey, if you just post this to Vine then we’ll reward you for it.’ Ultimately we want great content and we understand creators are probably on more than one platform and that’s fine. I don’t think that’s a detriment to Vine.

You don’t have advertising on Vine yet. Will you?

Our team’s focus right now is on building an amazing product that appeals to our users. Do we eventually want to make money? Sure, like any business that exists in the long term that needs to support itself. But that’s not our focus right now.

Sounds as though you operate like an independent startup in a lot of ways. What, then, is your relationship like with Twitter?

It totally feels like a startup within Twitter. We’ve been set up that way in large part because we believe that’s how we can be most successful. Most teams at Twitter, say teams in New York, report vertically. So engineers report to engineers in SF, and product managers report to product managers in SF. At Vine, everyone on the team across product, design, marketing, editorial, content, comms, they all report up into me so that we have this startup model so that, for instance, everyone’s manager sits within a few feet of them in our office.

Former CEO Dick Costolo used to talk about Vine a lot, at least publicly. How is Interim CEO Jack Dorsey thinking about Vine, particularly how it fits into the broader video strategy at Twitter?

Jack’s been a huge advocate. We’ve been lucky in that Dick’s been really supportive and now Jack’s been equally if not more supportive. Jack was one of the advocates for Twitter acquiring Vine in the first place so he has a history with Vine. I shared some of our plans with him for next year just last week and he’s very excited about it.

How do you see Vine fitting in with Twitter’s other video products like Periscope? Will it continue to operate independently or do you think things will be combined?

I think you’ll absolutely continue to see Vine and Periscope continue to operate independently. We have a distinct use case relative to Twitter, a largely distinct audience relative to Twitter that we can tell. So it’s only natural that we continue to operate independently. I know from speaking personally with him that Jack’s excited about [Vine and Periscope] remaining independent.

When Twitter launched native video I suggested it might actually compete with Vine. Has it taken away any of your audience?

Not from what we can tell, no. Personally [Twitter’s] a place I can share longer videos. That hasn’t really affected us or changed our focus.

We reported that Twitter is looking to expand on its 140-character limit in some way. The six-second loop is basically the equivalent feature for Vine. Is that sacred for you or might that change someday?

The best guidance I can give here is that we want to build the best video and entertainment network and we’re going to build whatever it takes to get there. If you talk to anyone on our team and say ‘Hey, what do you work on? What’s Vine?’ you wouldn’t hear anyone say ‘I work on a square, six-second looping video app.’ That’s not our focus, that’s not our aspiration. Vine’s much more than that. I would say in the same way that Jack said about Twitter, there is nothing that’s overly sacred about anything.

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