The camera is some of the most valuable real estate on your smartphone. Take Instagram, which became the dominant photo app on iPhone, thanks to its combination of ease-of-use, stimulating filters, and passionate community. That victory was worth close to a billion dollars. A similar battle is now being waged to own the video-shooting functionality in your smartphone, but as it turns out, mastering video-sharing is a little trickier. Files are gargantuan in size compared to photos, and audio — a key feature of video — can’t be polished up easily by an Earlybird filter. While Instagram can make your subpar photos look chic, market-leading video sharing apps Socialcam and Viddy have trouble rescuing your clips from amateurish cinematography skills.
Are filters Instagram’s real “killer” feature?
But are filters Instagram’s real “killer” feature? Unlike TwitPic, yFrog, and other image-uploading services, Instagram offers users a slick, speedy browsing and shooting experience that doesn’t display ads on the web, and allowed one-tap sharing to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Even Twitter founder Jack Dorsey would frequently tweet images he shot on Instagram (until Facebook bought it out from under him, that is.) The photos were easily digestible and no Flash plugins required. Perhaps the filters aren’t Instagram’s real legacy. Perhaps it’s a combination of virality and simplicity your Mom can figure out. What if “an Instagram for video” isn’t the golden goose we all want after all? "I see two divergent paths: a fully immersive experience, while the other is really, really light browsing experience,” says one investor who helped lead a round of funding in Instagram. “One is lean forward — watching a video with headphones on for a few minutes, and the other is browsing a feed of content and consuming multiple things in seconds."
Video apps like Viddy and Socialcam have hundreds of thousands of monthly users, but the most exciting new image sharing app to emerge on the scene is Cinemagram, which works with GIFs — those anachronistic staples of dot-com banner ads which are experiencing a cultural renaissance. GIFs ensure easy browsing by keeping clips short and snackable and they don’t include audio to embarrass you while you’re browsing Twitter on the bus or waiting at the doctor’s office. “A cine is inherently more shareable and consumable than a video,” Cinemagram founder Temo Chalasani says. “This makes it a powerful means to communicate short visual messages.” Flipping through a Cinemagram or Instagram feed is fun, effortless — a “lean back” experience — while flipping through Socialcam or Viddy feeds require several taps and your full attention each time you watch a video.
If monthly active users are any indication, these short and sweet videos are far more viral and consumable than their comparatively long-form counterparts. Cinemagram boasts “hyper-growth” numbers, increasing its daily users by ten to fifteen percent per day. Viddy and Socialcam have been quite successful (Socialcam was acquired by AutoDesk for $60 million), but growth curves seem to be tapering off according to app metrics site AppData. Instagram’s exploding popularity, on the other hand, still hasn’t let up.
For more than a year Pam Kramer, a one-time VP of Consumer Marketing at Twitter, has toiled away on this problem, working to perfect the right mixture of moving images and shareability. “We played with rates of capture, consumption speed, bandwidth use, and phone power use to try to find a happy medium,” she says. Kramer is president of Lightt, an app that launched a few weeks ago with the hopes of become the perfect medium between GIF and video. Lightt captures ten seconds of your life as a burst of animated photos, which you can share to Twitter or other social networks. Each highlight gets strung together into a feed of what you’ve been up to. “What we’re doing is not as trivial as photos, but are lighter weight than videos,” she says. While a Lightt “highlight” is often less than 200 KB, they’re still not as simple as a JPEG or a GIF — two photo formats that will work in any smartphone or dumbphone alike. Highlights cannot simply be dropped onto Tumblr or embedded into a Twitter “card.” Viewing a highlight online yields a rapid-fire sequence of JPEGs — not a video, or a GIF you can easily drag to your desktop and share with friends.
“We played with rates of capture, consumption speed, bandwidth use, and phone power use to try to find a happy medium."
Twitter evidently senses the shift taking place towards a new kind of video medium and recently acquired Vine, an app which tied together four 3-second bursts of video and set them on repeat, much like Cinemagram. It’s an obvious play towards making video-sharing, moving-image sharing, or whatever you want to call it, as commonplace on Twitter as photos. As the rising platform for citizen journalism, Twitter is hoping to find the elusive “Instagram for video” before anyone else does. After it failed to act quickly enough to Instagram, the company wasn’t going to miss the boat again — and “video” isn’t the game its playing. It’s betting on GIFs, or animated videos, but shorter — the length of most tweeters’ attention spans.
GIFs and videos are two sides to the same coin. “A GIF is a photo that expresses a static image while a video tells a story and brings photos to life through movement and sound,” says Viddy CEO Brett O’Brien. But Cinemagram isn’t just about GIFs. “We use GIFs, videos, and HTML5 videos depending on what is best suited for the medium,” Cinemagram CEO Chalasani says. “For example, we use GIFs on Tumblr, and Flash videos on Facebook." The key element of Cinemagram’s success is its short, looping medium that’s simple to share and watch in less than ten seconds — and not the specifics of its file format.
“A GIF is a photo that expresses a static image while a video tells a story and brings photos to life through movement and sound."
The issue at stake is not just how we consume videos, however. “We noticed that people taking video are always in an awkward state of taking a video, whereas taking a photo is so casual,” Kramer says. “The format and output of Lightt is more fun and less tedious — it’s less pressure.” But is that the real reason all these strange and new “mediums” have arisen? Or is it that “mobile” begs for a new moving picture medium entirely? While Cinemagram may seem to be the most internet-culture-literate video sharing app, it too may have peaked, if Facebook-connected user charts are to be believed. "I’m not sure that the way we've traditionally thought about media on mobile devices is the way to think about video on mobile devices,” the Instagram investor we spoke with says, “but the opportunity is absolutely there.”