A moratorium on the dress: Honoring the life of the latest, most terrifying evolution of the internet meme

by Will Weiner

Remember how fun and relevant #thedress was last Thursday? I do. In fact, I will always remember the moment when I first saw #thedress. The confusion, the awe, a visceral anger towards those who thought it was blue, the rush of adrenaline and fear because I needed to post something funny about it while it was still relevant.

#thedress was briefly the great mystery of our time; truly a mystery made for our time. On the surface it was a pointless question. But we all understood that it was of the utmost importance we answer it. There were no experts on the subject, the mystery of #thedress could only be solved by the pooling of our collective brainpower –this crisis could only come to an end if you and me and KimYe and T Swift and The Prime Minister of Singapore lent our voices.

And lend we did, all across this beautiful nation. The 24-hour fever of #thedress reached across demographics. Corporations and institutions joined in the fun. There was a booming body of literature on #thedress, with articles on essentially every major news site explaining why we saw it one way or another. Columnists gave  definitive reasons why it was blue and black or white and gold, offering their own unique  playfully aggressive quips about the true colors of the dress at the center of #thedress. How the hell did we end up like this?

Without hyperbolizing, this was literally among the most intensely viral bursts of a story in the history of the internet.  The share of voice was unreal. It was the number one topic on every social media site, number one topic on every news site. These stats aren’t available in aggregate, but I would estimate that posts related to #thedress comprised at least 50% if not two-thirds of my Facebook newsfeed. #thedress shattered the record for the most simultaneous visits to a Buzzfeed post by 63%. Over 670,000 people navigated to the post at once, compelling Buzzfeed to boost server capacity by 40%. Buzzfeed’s #thedress post currently has 37 million views,  increasing by only the last million since Saturday, when it was at 36 million total views). For comparison, Buzzfeed’s next most-viewed post this week got 6 million views.  #thedress was the number one topic on Twitter for about a 22 hour period.  Full stats won’t be available for a while, but anecdotally, I don’t think anything was so immediately and fully taken up online in such a short time-span, even when comparing it to successful hashtags about more serious current events like Ferguson or viral “hashtag activism”, like everyone’s favorite, #Kony2012.

TheDressGraph-hashtagThe rise and fall of #thedress, seeing it’s activity over a 27 hour window. Source: hashtag.org

#thedress’s impact was not felt just online, but across all forms of media It made cable news headlines and was ubiquitous across Friday morning talk radio shows. It was among the most momentarily-intense memes ever, but it also had one of the shortest half-lives, because really, it was a survey. And when the results of the survey don’t matter, why should you follow up once you’ve answered?

You shouldn’t. There was no reason to. Which is probably why the storm of #thedress has largely blown over.

What can we take away from this phenomenon, besides the satisfaction of participating in the madness and a few brief lessons from Neuroscience for Dummies on how the brain processes images? What can learn from this distant, very stupid nightmare? I want to take a look at what #thedress tells us about how our relationship with memes has evolved over time. Why the dress? What was it that made us care ever so briefly? What does this mean about our relationships with memes and viral content in general?

TheDress Graph

Frequency of Google searches for a few recent memes.

I want to start with a step backwards and take a brief look at the evolution of internet memes thus far. The viral video really saw its peak in the early 2010’s, with “Gangnam Style” achieving the greatest success. However it also began to spell their doom. Something very important happened, somewhere right before “What Does the Fox Say” (which was the next most viral video after Gangnam) took off, something that perhaps led to our souring on the very content that begged for our attention. Viral videos were now “a thing.” People–and worse, brands– tried to replicate the success of unexpectedly viral content. Consumers could sense their inauthenticity, which only bred cynicism. Virality for virality’s sake didn’t appeal to us; the appeal of the meme had always been that felt like we were discovering something or in on something secret, not fulfilling someone’s desire for internet stardom.

In 2012, we got #Kony2012, which represented an important breakthrough in how memes spread. Outwardly, its MO was as a viral video: watch this video, learn about Kony. The new factor here was the call to action. You weren’t just instructed to share the video with your friends, you had to show your support through a hashtag. Suddenly, you not only had to worry about not being relevant because you didn’t watch something viral, you were able to make a change through the internet. This was one of the first supernova memes: intensely popular for a short amount of time, but with a lifespan of less than a week..

Around this time, user-generated memes really took off. During the late naughts, it became common for people to use sites like Meme Generator to add captions to “viral photos”. The meme was no longer about consuming a funny image or video; it was now about you and your friends contributing to a body of memes for the characters you were captioning. Virality wasn’t the only goal, you were also taking a universal language and tailoring it to fit your joke. These memes felt ubiquitous (think Good Guy Greg, Insanity Wolf, Scumbag Steve, etc.), but didn’t have the same stranglehold over our attention as something like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or  Psy’s “Gangnam Style” did.

Arguably the most recent supernova meme was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Consider it a strange love child of #Kony2012 and The Harlem Shake. Like both of its predecessors, it required your participation. Like the Harlem Shake, it required you to create something simple and fun, but like Kony, Ice Bucket was tangentially related to doing something good. The ultimate goal wasn’t virality, it was asserting relevance. The buy-in was also lower. You didn’t need nearly as much creativity as “Harlem Shake” to get involved, you didn’t need a bunch of kooky friends and costumes. All you needed was a camera phone, a bucket, access to water and a friend who would nominate you . “Harlem Shake” wasn’t explicitly built to be a participatory meme, but it became one based on the popularity of the initial video. It was self-perpetuating, but not be design. The Ice Bucket Challenge was designed to be sharable, like chain mail for Facebook.

The Ice Bucket Challenge existed for the purpose of virality in a way no meme really did before. While there wasn’t the opportunity for the peak of internet stardom, there also wasn’t a valley of making something no one watched. With this meme, your input was validated and equal. Everyone was meant to have a small say to make a larger movement. Each person’s Ice Bucket Challenge was meant to be watched by their friends. Famous people would get the number of views you’d expect famous people to get, normal people would get the number of views you’d expect normal people to get. The goal was to be counted as a participant, to do your part in creating virality, advancing something bigger than yourself. This was the internet we’d been promised, one universal forum for all.

An interesting difference in the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it died down faster than a lot of the consumable memes. If you look at the Google trends graph above, you’ll see that it was more engaging than any of the other memes I included, but it also died out the fastest, with it’s popularity dropping tenfold after a month. We all had to participate, but once we participated there was nothing more to contribute. With nothing more to consume, the trend ended.

All that said, the Ice Bucket Challenge was very successful. ALS Society raised about $100 million versus their usual $2.5 Million annually, it made us all feel good about ourselves, and it gave us some laughs and validation on social media. Whether it could work again is another question. My guess is that its success will hold back future charity memes. Part of the power of the Ice Bucket Challenge was that it was so organic. The vibe was that we were a part of something good that no one was telling us to do. The challenge came in the form of  a dare from a friend, not an edict from on high. I’d be surprised if any cause or brand is able to design such a genuine-feeling participatory campaign again.

So participatory memes are the content du jour. It’s unlikely that we will replicate the perceived neo-sincerity of the crowd generated Ice Bucket Challenge. What could be next? In hindsight, the answer is clear: the terrifying logical conclusion was #thedress.

#thedress was built on the same participatory impulse as the Ice Bucket Challenge, but with a much lower buy-in. You didn’t have to worry about charity, or getting wet, or a nomination, or a 24 hour window. All you needed to participate was your eyes and your social media platform of choice. But beyond having all the tools to contribute, you were also bound by duty to contribute. We needed to know the color of the dress. We needed it now. And you could tell us, because, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, your participation was mandatory, and it counted as much as Taylor Swift’s did.

Then again, it didn’t really matter what your answer was, because that wasn’t the point. We rushed to contribute in whatever form best suited our needs. If you needed to be right, you could say the colors you saw; if you needed to be funny, you could crack a joke; if you needed to complain, there was much to complain about. As a picture of a dress became #thedress, the possibilities for contribution grew and grew. And if you didn’t, you’d find yourself at the height of FOMO.

Social media runs on our need to be noticed and loved. By participating in #thedress, you were declaring that your life mattered, because everyone else around you was asserting their value by participating, too. Saying something about #thedress gave you confirmation that you were a part of society, that society needed your voice, and that you had a voice. This was an open invitation from the universe (Buzzfeed) to add your opinion to the chorus of opinions flooding the internet on topic that really didn’t matter.

Of course the beauty of such things is that it’s not just us laypeople who felt compelled to chime in. Most celebs posted with famous people across professions, even a fair number of politicians (my favorite being John Boehner’s, which read “FACTS: #TheDress is blue & black. Senate Democrats are blocking Security funding to protect president’s #immigration overreach.”) Just as you and I feared being viewed as irrelevant if we didn’t post, so too did the celebrities we worship and the leaders of our nation.

But why limit it to just human beings getting in on the fun? Corporations and larger institutions chimed in as well. The ACLU tweeted a picture with the quote, “We all see the world differently. We should not be discriminated against because of our beliefs.”  I looked up the Twitter accounts of the top 100 retailers in America on my lunch break (a fun and terrifying activity in its own right) and as of early Friday afternoon, 23% of them had tweeted about #thedress. Among the 17 of them who primarily featured blue in their logo, that number jumped up to 35%. Of all of the companies I looked at that tweeted about #thedress, only three linked directly to merchandise. The rest were just making novel statements, asserting their cultural relevance just like the rest of us.

The other unique characteristic of the new age of memes that #thedress brought to life was the new-ish phenomenon of Meta-Meming. Consuming a meme was no longer sufficient. As we consumed, we needed to comment on our consumption (see: this review). It was no longer sufficient to consume the strangeness that was #thedress. We had to meld it with other memes. It was a race to not only opine about the dress, but we had to make the first best joke about it, to have the first analysis of why it mattered, the first proof of what the color truly was. My first thought Friday morning (besides my usual “Would anyone notice if I didn’t shower today?”) was “I should write something about #thedress.”

Within four hours of Buzzfeed’s original post, they made seven additional posts on the topic. Yes, the internet demanded seven fucking listicles/semi-journalistic essays on #thedress. Between those seven and the original post, Buzzfeed got 41 millions views as of this Friday afternoon. Now, that’s probably closer to 50 million, although official statistics aren’t available.

But it wasn’t just Buzzfeed. Vice, which is Buzzfeed’s hip older brother that went off to some liberal arts college in New England, but really has the same genes, posted four articles in a similar time span. CNN, Buzzfeed’s once respectable uncle, who fell on hard times and made some weird Faustian pact with their dark Buzzlord for whom they are now a shadow puppet, also posted SEVEN FUCKING ARTICLES ABOUT #thedress. CNN, AMERICA’S NUMBER ONE NEWS SOURCE, A CORPORATION THAT EMPLOYS JOURNALISTS WHO PROBABLY WENT TO REALLY GOOD SCHOOLS AND HAVE NICE BIG BRAINS,WROTE SEVERAL DIFFERENT ARTICLES ABOUT HOW WE’RE LOOKING AT THIS DRESS.

It wasn’t just online. Friday evening, I was in an airport and I glanced up at an array of the airport TVs. Two separate news channels were playing, AND GUESS WHAT? BOTH FEATURED STORIES ABOUT #THEDRESS. It was everywhere. It was everyone. Real scientists and journalists and other smart folks all chimed in, rushing on tight deadlines to display their relevance before the meme was no longer relevant. We were bombarded, we were the bombardiers. But it was a flash flood. Saturday, there was hardly a peep.  The well had run dry.  The feverish night terror had finally run its course. The sun was out.  We could go back to our corners of the internet and resume our normal consumption.

***

In the wake of this madness, I wonder what will grip us next. It’s difficult to repeat memes, so surely it will be something unexpected, something that at least feels authentic, fresh, and organic.

Memes seem to be getting simpler. A catchy song with unbelievably dumb lyrics begets a catchy song where we can’t understand any words besides ‘sexy lady’ (but at least there’s a fun dance), which begets a 30-second clip of a catchy song that is accompanied with goofy dance videos (which you can make) which begets videos you make of yourself pouring ice on your head which begets describing what colors you see. The problem with this progression is it seems we’ve hit a low point. No matter how fun and catchy a dance is, it won’t catch. Shmoney dance wasn’t as big as Soulja Boy, even if it was as catchy.

If I told you last Thursday afternoon that a grainy picture of a dress, which is essentially an optical illusion, would be posted on Buzzfeed and become the number one national topic across pretty much every form of media, would you have thought it was possible? As dumb as the above description would have sounded as first, in hindsight, the whole thing makes sense. It’s not about the dress or your perception, it’s about ease of participation. The Buzzfeed post was brilliant, though they admittedly didn’t know it at the time because it was 1. Unexpected 2. Had a low buy in 3. Required your input to demonstrate your relevance.

Was the immense popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge really fueled by our desire to do good? It seems the real draw was the chance to participate in something bigger than ourselves. The pessimist in me sees the charity as a front for the true driver of our actions:a need to be heard, participate, and feel relevant. The good causes behind the Ice Bucket Challenge and #Kony2012 were just masks that allowed us to assert our relevance by participating. #thedress removed that mask.

See, we’re all the wiser now. We so badly craved the opportunity to be sucked up into a tornado of viral nonsense that we happily dropped any pretense of contributing to the betterment of the human condition and just stood out in the open, arms cast wide, pleading to be sucked in. This begs a terrifying question: if we follow this trend, where each successive meme is simpler than the last, where do we go? What can possibly be as perfectly captivating and pointless as #thedress? The question of the color is inane and pointless. What can follow? “Share this image to demonstrate you are a member of society?” What follows that? What is the meme singularity that we’re approaching?

Isn’t the logical conclusion that one day, one of our descendants, hopefully my grandkid, will create the UberMeme. S/he will post the word “meme” and everyone else will see the word and be compelled to contribute to the meme, so they too will post the word “meme,” and then the people on TV will see that everyone online had been posting “meme,” so for their lead story, they will smile into the cameras and clap and nod their heads and start saying “meme” over and over until all the people who are tuned in also start saying “meme” over and over in unison and the chanting will grow loud enough that any remaining humans who aren’t watching TV or online will hear their fellow man chanting, and they too will join in. Humans across the world will break from their work or wake from sleeping to join in chanting the word “meme” in unison until we achieve the true meme singularity and all humans are crying out “meme” in unison and we will all finally experience human connection. We’ll look around and see we are all the same—the dresses we all wear in this strange future will no longer look blue and black or white and gold, in fact all signifiers of difference will melt away and we’ll finally feel like we’re a part of a community.

 ***

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