The Story Behind #TheDress

Black And Blue Edition

Jenna Bromberg
Senior manager of digital engagement, Pizza Hut, as told to BuzzFeed

“The best part of the internet and the best part of social media is that laser-focused engagement on one thing in the same time and this profound sense of community. And, you know, our generation — we never had a moon landing. We had a dress and some llamas.”

Rather than “Where were you when we landed on the moon?” will the question asked of Millenials be “Where were you when you first saw #TheDress?”

Perhaps that’s a bit much. But really—you remember where you were, don’t you?

So many much more important things were happening on Thursday, February 26, 2015…including the FCC ruling to reclassify broadband internet service as a utility, essentially preserving net neutrality…but nothing was so personal as an argument with a coworker in which both parties felt irrational, not having much to say for themselves other than things like “I just…I just see blue and black,” and “How do you not see white and gold?!”

What Went Down

BuzzFeed is credited with hurtling #TheDress into the social media stratosphere. Everything started when Cates Holderness, who runs BuzzFeed’s Tumblr page, received a message from a user named swiked.

swiked had published this now iconic image (owned by Cecilia Bleasdale) to her tumblr with the caption: “guys please help me—is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the f—out.” (The post has since been removed from tumblr.)

spiked is the tumblr account of Caitlin McNeill.

Two of her friends were getting married, and the mother of the bride took a photo of The Dress to send to her daughter, looking for her opinion. The bride and her fiance disagreed on the color, so the bride sent the photo to McNeill, whose band Canach was set to perform at the wedding. McNeill posted the photo on The Internet, and the rest is history.

  • 6:14pm

    Buzzfeed’s Cates published a post sharing the image.

  • 6:36pm

    Just 22 minutes later, Twitter reported that #TheDress was already averaging 5,000 tweets per minute.

    Tom Christ, the director of data and systems at Tumblr, said that, during peak viewing, “the article was being viewed 14,000 times a second compared to the normal state of well under 1,000.”

  • 8:31pm

    Twitter reported over 11,000 tweets per minute about #TheDress.

  • 9:02pm

    The Dress broke BuzzFeed’s traffic record (431,000 concurrent visitors). It topped out at 673,000 concurrent visitors.

Samir Mizrahi, social media manager at BuzzFeed, was interviewed on the What’s The Point podcast and explained how the reaction to the @buzzfeed tweet sharing Cates’ post was off the charts in their analytics. According to Samir, they got feedback instantly.

Samir Mizrahi
Social Media Manager at BuzzFeed

“Depending on [the post], people will either be really click-heavy and go to it, or [it] gets a lot of retweets but not a lot of clicks. But this had both, and it was a huge surge.”

Samir said that the post was not as successful on Facebook. Interestingly, there have “only” been about 180K posts tagged with #thedress on Instagram, as well. It seems that this type of quick, shareable, debatable conversation was best suited to the hashtag-optimized platform named for “a short burst of inconsequential information”: Twitter.

4.4 Million

in less than 24hrs

11 Million

in one week

The original BuzzFeed post has almost 39M views today, and 2.3M people participated in the poll embedded in the post. BuzzFeed published seven more stories on The Dress, as related stories linked at the bottom of the original post, accumulating millions more views.

Divided Reaction

Some people didn’t take sides, they were just funny, and many created memes

The Gold is Blue and Dress
Elizabeth Banks

Countless brands got involved in the conversation around #TheDress. Many were lame enough to elicit pity and/or confusion. Others nailed it:

Perhaps the biggest winners of the day came from South Africa, where a local branch of the Salvation Army used #TheDress to bring awareness to domestic violence:

The Truth

The Real Dress is Black and Blue

In case you dropped out of the conversation—or fell off the side of the earth—before the truth came out: the real dress is blue and black.

Though the creator, Roman Originals, did come out with a white and gold dress for funsies—and sold it at an auction for £1,200 with funds donated to Children in Need.

Before #TheDress, Roman Originals projected to sell 200 dresses in a week. They ended up selling 3,000 in a week and a half.

Science Vs Stupidity

Not only were people divided into team #blueandblack and team #whiteandgold; they were also divided into camps of “what a cool phenomenon found by the social media masses” and “social media is destroying society”.

Wired was on top of it with a quick sciencey follow up that had over 130K shares on Facebook. Bevil Conway, the Wellesley neuroscientist quoted in the article, told BuzzFeed, “This is a really important modern example of how important color is to our cultural behavior and how we choose to identify ourselves.”

Slate published a science report on #TheDress over a year later.

A geneticist at the University of Maryland, a personal genomics company, students in a psychology class at NYU, and even the peer-reviewed Journal of Vision have shown interest in the phenomenon.

Luke O’Neil

Luke O’Neil declared February 26, 2015, “The Single Worst Day on the Internet in 2015,” saying that #TheDress represented “the collective media-induce psychosis that gripped us throughout 2015.”

Annalee Newitz thoughtfully compared #TheDress and #Ferguson as “the two sides of social media explosions”. And Ariana Grande got annoyed.

If one more person asks me what color I think this damn dress is
Ariana Grande

As did the head writer at The Dish, Maureen Driscoll

I think it's a really pale "this is stupid," with "I don't give a fuck" trim. What Colors Are This Dress @midnight
Maureen Driscoll

Of course, the term “viral” has two definitions, the primary being “of, relating to, or caused by a virus <a viral infection>”.

Attempts to Replicate

“Brandon Silverman, CEO of the social media monitoring platform CrowdTangle: We’ve seen other stories go viral, but the sheer diversity of outlets that picked it up and were talking about it was unlike anything we had ever seen. Everyone from QVC to Warner Bros. to local public libraries to Red Cross affiliates were all posting links to it on their social accounts. That kind of diversity in who’s sharing a story pretty much never happens…and certainly never to that degree. Even in the year since and with a million different people trying to replicate it, nothing has come close.”

Middle East scholars, human rights activists, China economists, and foreign correspondents on my feed have all weighed in on the dress.
Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan

“Give me something that will go viral!” shout bosses in the nightmares of content creators. These nightmares must be reality for some, as evidenced by the existence of content like this:

  1. Mashable’s quick and equally lame attempt to usurp BuzzFeed
  2. #TheJacket on the one-year anniversary of #TheDress. It also came from a tumblr post and got picked up by folks like The Huffington Post, though the writer there at least has the decency to recognize what fools we all are: “...people seem a lot less interested in arguing over #TheJacket than they did #TheDress. Many cite sheer exhaustion over the pointless color-based arguments.”
  3. The cat, climbing up the stairs or down?
  4. Bernie Sanders’ suit during the Democratic Debates on March 10: here and here.
  5. AOL’s terribly written article about an intentional optical illusion that is not anything like the dress and is in fact a far easier Where’s Waldo...Also, as we know now, this guy didn’t bring the world #TheDress…what’s going on AOL? Do you need someone to talk to?

Lessons (That the Media and All of Us) Learned

#TheDress was covered by everyone from small blogs to major media entities like TIME and the BBC, all in a race for page views, which, of course, translate to advertising dollars.

And print media struggled to get their piece of a story meant for the web, due to its timeliness, its conversational quality…and the fact that it portrayed a digital image. After all, once you print the image using colored ink, you’ve kind of committed to a color palette.

The impact of #TheDress is rooted squarely in digital culture.

Tom Coates

“The day reminded me how, early on, it felt like everyone would talk about one thing online. And that feels like it’s rarer now. I got into [the internet] for that sense of somebody creating something or doing something and the world reacting and responding and chatting and conversing.”

As much as BuzzFeed may have felt like it won that day and as much as others—including those on team #whiteandgold—may have felt like they lost…perhaps it’s best to view #TheDress as nothing more than a little fun in a now-giant, far-reaching digital community.

Experience #TheDress live at the upcoming art exhibition, Hashtags Unplugged in NY.

Get Tickets