How 'the dress' broke the internet — and pushed Facebook to force everyone into their own filter bubble
- In 2015, a BuzzFeed staffer posted a picture of a dress with the caption, "What color is this dress?" and kicked off a viral debate.
- It marked the beginning of a decade in which Facebook would start to realize its own power and try to control it.
The day began with a national frenzy over two llamas that escaped from an Arizona retirement home and ran wild for nearly three hours through the streets of Sun City, Arizona, pursued by hapless humans and capturing the interest of millions.
Then, near the end of the workday at BuzzFeed's offices over the Home Depot, Cates Holderness got a message. "BuzzFeed, please help," it read.
Cates was one of the old guard at BuzzFeed, hired way back in 2011 when the company was just pulling in people who loved the internet and didn't even really think of themselves as working in media. Cates, in fact, had been working at a boarding and grooming kennel in North Carolina, reading Peggy and Matt on BuzzFeed and sharing the best of their work on her Facebook page.
That afternoon, a Scottish folk singer named Caitlin McNeill had messaged Cates through Tumblr, where she managed the BuzzFeed account, with her urgent request about a wedding she'd played.
"I posted a picture of this dress," she wrote of the crappy, badly lit photograph taken by a friend's mother. "Some people see it blue and some people see it white can you explain because we are goING CRAZY."
Cates looked at the photograph, plainly of a blue-and-black dress, and thought the email was weird, inexplicable, but eventually asked the people sitting next to her what color they thought it was. One said "blue and black" and one said "white and gold" and they started yelling at each other, each convinced the other was crazy. Pretty soon she had 20 people standing behind her desk incredulously debating the point.
So Cates posted the image to BuzzFeed under the heading "What colors are this dress?" and left work
When her train, the F, emerged from the tunnel under the East River a few minutes later, her phone was flooded with alerts. She tried to open them, and it crashed. She restarted it, and it crashed again.
She hurried to a friend's house to figure out what was going on. I was reading a fairytale to my young son when I realized what was happening. I put the book down to frantically assign more stories to capture what I knew would be a flood of traffic spilling over from Cates's post, which would go on to receive more than 37 million views.
One reporter called McNeill in the middle of the night in Scotland, which led to "The Dress Is Blue And Black, Says the Girl Who Saw It In Person." Our science editor dialed scientists after bedtime to churn out another piece, "Why Are People Seeing Different Colors In That Damn Dress?"
What was going on, it emerged, was the last, greatest, totally harmless moment of global internet culture
The Dress was divisive, in the purest sense, dividing (according to a BuzzFeed poll with nearly 4 million votes) the two thirds of people who saw white and gold from the third who saw blue and black. Facebook's engineers had been perfecting its engagement metrics since the debate, a year earlier, over who was destined to move to Wyoming.
And the Dress was universal — a form of media that didn't even require literacy to land. It didn't spread, like most memes, along a rising viral curve, passed hand to hand. It spread, instead, algorithmically, as Facebook showed the Dress to users whose friends had not yet shared it, confidently predicting that they would find it just as engaging.
Within a couple of hours, our traffic rose to 700,000 people simultaneously, seven times our usual peaks. That sent our engineers scrambling to add servers to BuzzFeed's back end; it was a number not reached before or since by a BuzzFeed post on the web.
A couple of hours after it was posted, on the other side of the world, Cates's boss, Scott Lamb, was giving a morning speech at a media conference in Jakarta. All of the questions he fielded were about the Dress.
The Dress was an unmitigated triumph for BuzzFeed and for Jonah — the kind of social content he'd hoped would define us. I toasted a blushing Cates with champagne in the middle of the office. Jonah bragged about it to advertisers.
What a score — and also, what a nice thing. Maybe this is what the world would be like in the future — people across nations and cultures all talking about the same fun thing at the same time, with Facebook and BuzzFeed uniting them.
Jonah learned that he'd misunderstood Facebook's point of view when Chris Cox introduced him to Adam Mosseri at a party on the sprawling roof garden of the building Frank Gehry had designed for Facebook in Menlo Park. Mosseri, a tall and unusually open Facebook executive, was in charge of News Feed. His decisions could make or break publishers.
"How often do you think things should go viral like the Dress?" Mosseri asked. Jonah was surprised by the question — and by the idea that the frequency of things going viral was up to Mosseri's team.
The conversation made clear to Jonah that Facebook was worried about something new: losing control. To them, the Dress hadn't been a goofy triumph: it had been a kind of a bug, something that scared them. The Dress itself was harmless, but the next meme to colonize the entire platform within minutes might not be, and this one had moved too fast for the team in Menlo Park to control.
Many of Facebook's critics were glad to see the platform make this realization: It marked the beginning of a decade in which Facebook would start to realize its own power and try to control it, even if the company's efforts always seemed to be too little, too late.
Jonah saw it differently.
He still believed in the power of the global conversation to bring out people's best instincts — to joke around harmlessly, to act charitably and brag about it. The people who really saw the danger in virality, he liked to remark, were the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, who had discovered that they could stop a social movement from starting without totally wiping it out — just by deleting some of its content, enough to stop it from achieving escape velocity.
In Mosseri's worried tone, Jonah detected the same threat of censorship. And he saw more clearly than most that the alternative to a wide-open viral internet wasn't necessarily a return to the placid old media world. It would be an algorithm that recommended content to individuals according to a narrower set of guidelines. Facebook's solution wasn't to abandon its algorithms, which could predict what you'd like and show it to you: it was to tighten the scope in which those algorithms worked.
Going forward, Facebook would do a better job of keeping people in their lanes and in their bubbles. We at BuzzFeed might have seen the Dress as the beginning of a new kind of global culture, but in fact nothing quite like it was ever allowed to happen again.
From TRAFFIC: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral by Ben Smith. Copyright © Ben Smith, 2023. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.nms
- Elizabeth Holmes ordered dinners for Theranos staff but made sure they weren't delivered until after 8 p.m. so they worked late: book
- The CEO of software giant Intuit, which has avoided mass layoffs, says tech firms axed jobs because they misread the pandemic
- Elon Musk told Chinese Tesla workers in a late night speech that their hard work 'warms my heart' — 6 weeks after some complained about bonus cuts
- Major train accidents that India witnessed in last 15 years
- Odisha rail crash: Rescuers try to raise buried coach, death toll at 238
- Largest road networks in the world – India beats China to take the second spot
- Manoj Bajpayee joins the league of on-screen lawyers like Pankaj Tripathi, Shriya Pilgaonkar & more
- List of famous things to buy in Lonavala