6 Reasons Video-Sharing Apps Were the Biggest Startup Letdown of 2012

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This time last year I was raving, I was gushing, all over startups making video-sharing apps. I named one such venture as one of my standout Chinese startups of 2011, and compiled a list of 10 Chinese-made social video apps. Over in the US, there are ones such as SocialCam and Viddy.

But I was wrong.

On neither Twitter [1] nor Weibo have I seen anyone post a short video clip of their own among the 1,500+ people that I collectively follow. I made three videos myself. But that’s far fewer than the hundreds of photos that I shared socially.

So what went wrong exactly? Before looking at six reasons behind this social video anticlimax – both in China and overseas – it’s worth pointing out that the “standout” video app that I highlighted last year has pivoted away from doing this. Yes, iShehui app, despite over $1.5 million in backing from CyberAgent Ventures in the very early stages, gave up on this sector a few months ago and is now a cloud file backup service. It’s just as dire in the US, with BusinessInsider (showing remarkable restarint in not using all-CAPS for the headline) recently also holding up its hands to say, “Nope, that whole ‘Instagram of video’ thing was bullshit.” Indeed, Viddy was supposedly valued at $370 million from its series B funding, but now limps along with a mere 660,000 users. I think my local noodle shop has fed more people than that.

Here are the things holding back these video apps, both in China and in general:

1. Time constraint

When a friend shares a photo, your eyes and brain can immediately decide how much time and energy to invest in that image. Perhaps glance over it for barely a second, or pore over it and opt to ‘like’ it and leave a comment. Video content, however, inherently takes more time, and is much more likely to be a let-down. From one preview image in the video player window (usually a blurry or badly-lit one) you have to decide whether it’s worth 10 seconds – or three minutes or whatever – of your time and attention. Usually it’s not. Social videos are 98 percent let-downs, so it’s little wonder that few people are either making them or watching them. To quote one of this year’s top viral video stars, “Ain’t nobody got time fo dat.”

Also, if you look at the Socialcam homepage, you might get the feeling that most of the videos are not only ones you don’t have the inclination/time to watch, but also enough to make you wish for some sort of zombie apocalypse that only affects stupid people – perhaps zombies that are on a diet and can only eat tiny brains.

2. Photo apps are more fun and rewarding

As I touched upon in the first point, photos give a much higher emotional return-on-investment, so to speak, and never leave people feeling robbed of their time. Even a GIF that takes a while to load, but then turns out to be lame, can be a disappointment. But a dull photo is, thankfully, easy to pass over.

3. Little traction

With social videos so likely to rub people up the wrong way, there’s not much viral traction. And when a smartphone-made video does actually go viral, you’ll likely see it on YouTube. For Chinese web users, the same applies to Youku, the nation’s biggest YouTube-esque site.

4. Buggy apps

When I first used the Chinese-made iSheHui app, it was very crashy, but it slowly got better. The same for Weiku and YiXia. And Weipai. Even today, I noticed an update to YiXia that took it up to v3.0; but when I go try to upload a Path-like background image for my profile page, it doesn’t even work. Weipai, when I tried it at first, wouldn’t even upload a damn video, which was its sole purpose. All the startup video apps felt rushed, as if running headlong to some imaginary finishing line that had the words “Congratulations, you’re the ‘Instagram of video’ and the founder is going to be a billionaire” on it. But, in reality, people just deleted your rushed, flakey, half-assed app and never gave it a second thought.

5. No video embeds

On both Twitter and Sina Weibo, there’s no support for smaller video services to be embedded in the apps or webpages, which severely limited the social aspect of these supposedly very social services. And so viewing a Socialcam or Weiku video that’s shared by someone on Twitter or Weibo requires an extra click through to another site.

6. Eating up 3G

In China in particular, 3G data plans are miserly, and you won’t get far on a 300MB per month deal with even basic stuff like emailing and browsing. Though sites like iShehui initially promises very clever data compression to save you your 3G data plan, not enough people were convinced.

How many smartphone video apps did you share this year? Tell us in the comments.

  1. As for Twitter, it has bought the still-in-stealth-mode video sharing service Vine, but that has not yet launched.  ↩

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