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Did the Social Web Kill Video Innovation?

Everywhere you go online, video apps look the same

Ringer illustration

Mark Zuckerberg was once described as writing with “the cadence of a Sociology 101 student.” There is no better way to describe the prose he used to announce the social network’s new “Watch” tab in August. “We believe it's possible to rethink a lot of experiences through the lens of building community—including watching video,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Watching a show doesn't have to be passive. It can be a chance to share an experience and bring people together who care about the same things.” Even if Zuckerberg refused to explicitly name that experience, it was immediately clear to the tech pulpit what he was talking about. “Facebook is saying, out loud, that it doesn’t just want to compete with TV,” wrote Recode’s Kurt Wagner. “It wants to be your TV.”

Zuckerberg’s introduction of the redesigned “Watch” tab, aside from being typically milquetoast, is yet another signal that online video has become nearly homogenous. The orientation of its default video player is horizontal, indicating that it’s made for content that was professionally shot, as opposed to DIY clips uploaded from a user’s smartphone. There are no time limitations, which means episodes can go as long or short as they like. And the video homepage tailors recommendations drawn from the convoluted algorithm of a person’s Facebook page preferences, likes, and friends. Like most everything else on Facebook, the Watch tab was designed to reach as many people as possible without cultivating one signature look and feel. And even if it launched alongside a handful of decidedly inoffensive, low-budget creator-centric projects—including a cooking show starring children and a motivational speaking series—the company’s goal is already reportedly pointed toward programming that resembles national television. Facebook didn’t design its latest video page for the internet, it designed it to resemble that big rectangular box in your living room it would like to replace.

Click between the video discovery pages of Amazon, Netflix, or YouTube, and you will find almost identical strategies for delivering video to the greater public. Each of these players have all been similarly streamlined, and congeal into one, indistinguishable horizontal shape without any confines or filming requirements to make the content unique. It’s not that these platforms haven’t added crafty digital features from site to site. Netflix, in its laser-like focus to produce high-quality original content, has experimented with tweaking preview screens, show credits, and episode lengths. Earlier this year, YouTube introduced a feature called “Super Chat” that allows viewers to pay a small fee for their contributions to be highlighted during a video’s livestream, and Amazon’s X-Ray gives you helpful information about who and what you’re watching the moment you pause your screen. But there’s nothing distinct about the visual style and presentation each uses. If Netflix and Amazon swapped their lineups for funsies one day, their platforms would require very little in the area of design to make it happen. The same goes for YouTube and Facebook.

The static state of digital video is a shame, mostly because we’ve seen what can happen when tech companies invent something made exclusively for the internet. The 2013 introduction of the short-form video hosting service Vine launched an entirely new genre of online film that catered to a generation of native smartphone users. Its creative success had to do not only with its ingenious contributors, but with the limitations of the user interface: Record from within the app. Nothing longer than six seconds. Your material will play in a continual, mesmerizing loop. An entire class of smartphone natives turned comedians, cinematographers, and political commentators made magical stuff from within these confines. Even if Vine was too esoteric to be financially sustainable, it stands as a golden example of what’s possible beyond the omnipresent horizontal box.

Which brings us to one of the remaining creative video platforms on the internet: Snapchat. Popularized at the peak of the mobile ephemeral movement, the app allows people to take photos or short videos that promptly disappear after 10 seconds. The limiting nature of that format spurred a creative new way to share among a relatively young user base, which eventually began weaving together these fragmented narratives to display everything from illustrated on-screen artwork to situational mini-dramas. Snapchat recognized what was happening, and siloed these entries into a feature called Stories. You need to only watch DJ Khaled get stranded in the middle of the ocean on a jet ski to know how addictive they are to tap through.

But just like Vine, Snapchat has faced its own competitive challenges to conform to more mainstream formats. Since the company went public in March it has struggled to keep up with Instagram. Under Facebook’s direction, the photo-based social network has slowly and effectively cloned Snapchat’s concept of Stories, surpassed Snapchat’s daily active user count, and added face filters similar to (but significantly less weird and cool than) Snapchat’s. On top of that, Instagram recently announced that its users disappearing content would be viewable on the web within their 24-hour lifespan. This brings its massive video distribution network one step closer to the inescapable digital horizontal set of boxes that have come to rule our viewing habits. To keep up, Snapchat has made some unfortunate sacrifices. Last fall, it eliminated crowd-sourced Local Stories to focus on a celebrity-drenched “Discover” page. Last Cinco de Mayo, it introduced a Taco Bell–sponsored filter that morphed users’ faces into a giant Taco shell.

In the mad dash to co-opt national television’s audience, tech companies have settled on mimicking the shape and limitations of a physical television itself. Will it make them a lot of money in the end? Definitely. Are we doomed to a future where nearly every clip we play is delivered in a uniform fashion? If Facebook says so. But even if it happens in fits and starts, it will always be much more interesting to see the video reinvented for the digital sphere. We have the glittering remains of Vine to remind us of that.