Meet the video Instagrams

Is easy video sharing the web's next goldmine? Tim Walker tells Mark Zuckerberg to get his chequebook ready

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If your friends are anything like mine, you'll see a macabre pattern emerging on your Facebook news feed. Recently, people have been sharing videos with grim titles: "Shark attack caught on camera!" or "Snake eats man!" or "Tsunami Dead Ahead! AAAARRRGGH!!!" Naturally, such clips are popular; their names are pure click-bait, after all. But they're also spreading so far and so fast thanks to new "social video" applications, like Viddy and Socialcam.

Following Facebook's $1bn (£650m) purchase of the photo-sharing app Instagram in April, talk in tech-land turned to the possibility of a video-based equivalent that could be just as popular and profitable: an "Instagram for video". A fortnight later, a group of high-profile investors – among them Jay-Z's Roc Nation, Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Shakira, the Colombian pop star – were reported to have sunk $6m into Viddy, a social-video start-up that had attracted 10 million users since its app store debut last year. The company has since been valued at $370m.

Viddy allows its users to share 15-second videos (their own or other users') far more straightforwardly than YouTube, via SMS or any social network. Like Instagram, it features filters to improve or alter the quality of the image. As on Twitter, you can follow friends and/or celebrities. Notable Viddyers (Viddyites?) include Bill Cosby, Snoop Dogg and Justin Bieber – and when Justin Bieber joins a social network, teenage girls follow. In February, Viddy launched its ownFacebook Timeline app, and monthly user numbers subsequently exploded.

One of its new members was Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who signed up for the app in April to post a clip of his one-year-old Puli puppy, Beast.

But Viddy has competition. Socialcam lets users record video with one of nine filters, such as "Kodak" or "Grunge", edit it using a further nine preset themes ("News", "MTV"), and add a soundtrack from one of 10 music choices. Unlike Viddy's 15 seconds, Socialcam places no limits on clip length. "We help people capture 15 seconds of their life," Viddy co-founder Brett O'Brien has said. "It challenges videographers to pick the moments that matter the most."

But Socialcam CEO Michael Seibel argues: "With video, you can't rewind the clock and tell people to slow down and speak up. I can't force you to sing 'Happy Birthday' in 15 seconds." Despite its early dominance, Viddy now sits in third place on the free photo and video app chart in Apple's UK app store, behind Instagram and Socialcam, which has soared to No 1.

Viddy's Facebook app claims 28.8m monthly users, Socialcam's 59.8m.

Much of their mutual expansion is down to all that Facebook sharing of shark attacks. The gruesome headlines are designed to draw large numbers of users to each app, in the hope that they might later become content creators and make their own videos.

"Promotion on a platform like Facebook is the golden ticket for any app," says Brian Blau, a research director in consumer technologies at the advisory firm Gartner.

But creating an "Instagram for video" will be more difficult than it sounds, he says. "When you look at content creation, there's a continuum of easy to hard things, from a text or status update, to photography, to video. Producing a video requires a little more time and technical ability than taking a photo. There are tools to make it easier, but the core function is still relatively complicated.

"That's a barrier these apps have to overcome and they probably won't be able to generate as much content as Instagram and its competitors on a per-app basis."

Curious about the apps' appeal, I called a Facebook friend and prolific video-sharer, who admitted he'd seen the clips I mentioned – the shark, the snake, the tsunami – but said he preferred the 80-year-old woman slipping out of her parachute harness and the Chinese teen falling through a hole in the pavement. He hadn't quite realised, however, that his viewing habits were being broadcast to his friends.

"It's like a supermarket tabloid," says Christina Warren, entertainment editor at Mashable, the social media and technology news blog.

"You want to look, but you don't want everyone to know you've been looking. People click and watch and aren't always aware that their activity is going to be shared.

"Some services, like Viddy, make it easy to opt out, but Socialcam makes it difficult not to share. That's why their engagement has gone up so much, but it's also why they're close to crossing that line into becoming spam."

Some users remain unaware that the Socialcam small print, to which they agreed when adding the app to Facebook, allows it to post the salacious names of videos they've watched, not just those they've made and shared deliberately.

The app has recently modified its default settings to allay controversy, but not before another of my friends – who happens to be married – inadvertently broadcast the fact that he'd been watching a clip called: "This is how a red dress should be worn. HOT DAMN! Supermodel Marisa Miller on Conan O'Brien."