Brow Beat

How One Dress United the Internet

The perfect meme.

Photo illustration by Slate; Jacob Ammentorp Lund / iStock

Yesterday, a pair of llamas escaped from their ranch in Sun City, Arizona. The two domesticated camelids—one white and saucy, the other black and shy—led police and citizens on an adorable high-speed chase through the city streets, evading capture for an hour as a local news helicopter tracked them live and beamed the video across the Internet. We watched, we shared, we created content. Looking back now, the whole llama kerfuffle feels a little ominous, like animals scattering before a natural disaster. Soon after the llamas were lassoed, the Internet was hit by one of the most viral events of all time: A photograph of a mysterious dress that looked black and blue to some people, and white and gold to others.

It was the perfect meme. In an interview with Vice last night, Internet virality expert Neetzan Zimmerman noted that the dress “went viral on Tumblr yesterday, on Twitter today, and will probably hang around Facebook for the rest of the week. This seems to be the new Viral Cycle.” But somehow, the dress meme didn’t degrade or mutate as it jumped between platforms and social networks. Most times, when you miss the Internet meme of the hour, it feels a little bit sad to catch up—nobody likes to have to explain a joke. Only people who were parked in front of their computers in the middle of a Thursday saw the llama live-stream in all of its nervous excitement. If you missed it—because you were, I don’t know, working?—you could watch the instant replay on Deadspin (set to “Yakety Sax”) or Slate (set to “Born to Run”), but, eh—you kind of had to be there. The silly soundtracks felt like strategies to recreate the pure and irreplaceable delight of watching it in real-time. Compare that to the dress: No matter when or where you saw its horizontal bands, you could still play the game.

Zimmerman noted that much of the appeal of the dress meme was in its divisiveness: “We like to argue, and we like being right, and we like proving other people wrong, and we like taking sides, and we like sharing our unsolicited opinion, and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have made us all the centers of our own Universes, and every piece of content is a new planet, and every follower is another inhabitant of that planet who makes us feel like a god.” But the dress debate offered up something much more delightful than the typical Internet fight. For one thing, it wasn’t something that could be resolved over a simple presentation of facts—even once we discovered that the dress was blue and black as sold in stores, that didn’t settle how it could look so different in the photo. And it wasn’t based on some deep personal identification, like a demographic group or sports team allegiance—the stuff that people get really, actually mad about. The dress controversy was centered in a much more universal vulnerability—the suggestion that our human senses are fallible—and it sent us all into spirals of self-doubt and defensiveness. Am I colorblind? Can young people see it right?? Is there something wrong with my brain??? And what’s wrong with you???? The dress managed to sort the Internet into tribes—Kim saw white-gold, Kanye saw black-blue—that felt simultaneously irreverent and deeply personal.

Those of us who blog for a living have long been told that the most “shareable” content is stuff that people want to blast out because it makes them look smart or generous or knowing. Most memes travel between social circles like shiny little postcards: I like this, and maybe you will, too. The sharing of the dress felt more like a 3 a.m. phone call: Look at this and tell me I’m not going crazy! Because some people feared that the whole thing was some kind of prank, they felt compelled to shoot the picture to their most trusted friends and relatives. In order to prove that it wasn’t all just a secret Internet in-joke, it was even safer to send the picture to someone who doesn’t normally obsessively follow Internet stuff—we called our moms, J.K. Simmons! Meanwhile, because the dress puzzle raised questions of perception and light, the best-case scenario would be to look at the dress on the same screen, in the same room, at the same angle as another person in real life. I was alone in my apartment when I saw the dress, and I badly wished that someone else was around to stare at my screen with me.  It was the rare meme that instantly begged for a more traditional kind of human connection.

Crucially, no matter what color combination you saw when you looked at the dress, nobody was actually wrong. Both views had neurological explanations. So soon, the rift that had formed between the white-gold camp and the black-blue camp was closed in the hopes of solving an Internet-wide logic puzzle. As xkcd put it: “The white-balance illusion hit so hard because it felt like someone had been playing through the Monty Hall scenario and opened their chosen door, only to find there was unexpectedly disagreement over whether the thing they’d revealed was a goat or a car.” In the rush to figure it out, it felt like the answer could come from anywhere—the Twitter account of a 17-year-old superfan of the boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, or an editor at Wired magazine.

Now that we know the rational explanation—when a bunch of human brains receive ambiguous information, they sometimes process the info differently—the magic spell appears to have broken. As the meme advanced, some on Twitter started little arguments about whether it’s bad to pay attention to the dress instead of, say, abortion and solar power; others indignantly tweeted that their publication’s think piece would be better than the other publications’ think pieces. Today, a branded tequila tweet sealed the dress meme’s fate. Oh, well. I guess you had to be there.

Read more of Slate’s very comprehensive coverage of The Dress.