Last summer, a chubby first grader from outside Atlanta named TerRio Harshaw became an Internet hit. His cousin Maleek Taylor filmed him playing basketball and invariably breaking into a dance that involved him snapping and leaning back while somehow looking casual. The lower half of his person could be said, politely, to be in a rapid staccato. Maleek narrated with shouts of “Ohhh, kill ’em.”
It was as simple as that, really, and mesmerizing.
We’re past the point in our Internet history when this sort of found art going viral is remarkable. We have come to expect that goofy kids doing goofy dances will populate a portion of our Twitter or Facebook feeds each day. The exceptional thing about the TerRio videos is their brevity. The kid’s stardom came via Vine, the Twitter-owned video site that allows users six seconds for whatever it is they are sharing.
By the fall, Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson was approximating the TerRio dance for an end-zone celebration on Monday Night Football. TerRio got to meet Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. In the true mark of stardom, there was backlash. Commenters wondered where his parents were, and whether
he was being exploited, and worried about the racial and socioeconomic implications of a young black kid dancing on the virtual stage as if he weren’t in on the joke. That other recent dilemma-provoking child star, TerRio’s fellow Georgian Honey Boo Boo, came to mind.
Taken together, the five or six best TerRio clips tell the tale of a kid passing the time on a hot summer day. The further out you zoom from its twitchy confines, Vine begins to resemble a present-day mishmash of old studio shorts (Our Gang, Keystone Kops), cartoons (Looney Tunes), and comic strips (“Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes”), all done up for the intentionally bizarro phenomenon we call “Internet culture,” for lack of a better term.
“It’s almost like a live-action three-panel comic strip,” says comedian and writer Ted Travelstead. “It’s six seconds: character, response, character.”
Travelstead, who writes for Adult Swim and the FX series Wilfred, is the creator of “Twins Talkin’,” an ongoing series of often hilarious, self-filmed Vine videos in which he plays twin brothers—one world-weary and responsible, the other spontaneous and dim (both yokels). A typical entry goes like this:
Twin A: “You ever been called a creep for peepin’ in someone’s window?”
Twin B: “No. Have you?”
Twin A: “Man. Cheers was on the TV. What am I supposed to do? Just walk by?”
Before Travelstead moved to Los Angeles last year, he filmed a lot of his Vines on his long walk to the subway in Brooklyn. Generally, they are spontaneous and shot in one take.
On first approach, Vine can be off-putting. It is a digital wasteland of well-meaning acoustic covers, dads on skateboards, sub-Jackass pranks, sub–America’s Funniest Home Videos stunts, and magic tricks. Lots of magic tricks. Vine’s built-in six-second limit also means that much of what does well is rendered in paint-roller-broad strokes. On the whole, its grasp of gender politics has as much subtlety as Andrew Dice Clay in leather. “Guys react to Stimulus X like this” and “Girls react to Stimulus Y like this” are typical setups.
The people among Vine’s estimated forty million users who are doing something great with the form are both hard to spot and too legion to list here, but they include Conner O’Malley, who accosts men in expensive sports cars in a manner similar to Rick Moranis’ demon-possessed accountant in Ghostbusters; Jacy Catlin, whose satirical dick-pic instructions are essential viewing; and Sunny Mabrey, an actress heretofore best known as the lead in Species III, who has filled her Vine feed with enough manic characters to stock a video retrospective at PS1. (It is worth stopping here to note how eerily the work of video artist Ryan Trecartin predicted a lot of the visual language of Vine.)
In the middle of last year, Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, introduced video functionality. It allowed for up to fifteen seconds of footage and came equipped with a more robust edit suite—eventually, it would allow users to pull video shot from outside the software. It seemed like it would be a Vine-killer. When TerRio first went viral, not long after Instagram’s video launch, a few
observers called him Vine’s savior, only half-jokingly, I think.
But it’s funny what a difference those nine extra seconds can make. What the longer Instagram videos have done, in effect, is reveal Vine’s true nature: It is essentially video haiku, or maybe a school of filmmaking unto itself, like Dogme 95. It is a challenge. The form is the point.
“I’ve always liked finding a freedom within a structure,” Travelstead says. “I don’t want to get too arty about it, but it’s a fun acting exercise within those parameters. Because of the time limit, it just comes down to a look or response.”