Friendships were tested last week. Relationships were nearly torn apart. People began to doubt their abilities to separate fiction from reality. How, in 2015, could this possibly happen so swiftly and ferociously? Because the Internet.
It all started when a Tumblr user posted a seemingly simple photo of a dress. Buzzfeed, deeming the photo worthy of further online discussion, posted it to their website and across their social channels.
What ensued was an eruption of digital chaos. What color IS that dress: white and gold, or blue and black???
Opinions and hashtags flew from people’s fingertips like wildfire. Even celebrities joined in on the debate. Here’s why I think people have been (and are still) talking about this dress.
The photo of the dress produced a simple question: Is it this color or that color? Choice A or Choice B? Since this photo had such a polarizing effect on viewers, it was almost second nature for Twitter enthusiasts to create the “#TeamWhiteandGold” and “#TeamBlueandBlack” hashtags. When given a large number of complicated choices to make, most people take time to weight the pros and cons and think about their opinion. When given two very simple, distinct choices to make, people usually can’t wait to take a side and show their pride. And the best part about it: all you have to do is look at a photo. Whether you show it to your 4-year-old cousin or your 70-year-old grandmother, anyone can play.
For many, the photo of this dress was “mind-blowing.” How could the same picture appear one color to some, and a completely different color to others? Like with many optical illusions, this is a fun picture to keep coming back to in an attempt to force your eyes to see the opposing color. The idea of why the dress looks so drastically different among different viewers creates a sense of curiosity, wonderment, and a desire to “solve” the mystery. And what better way to solve a mystery than by sharing it with your friends to see what they think? (Spoiler alert: the dress is blue and black, but it appears white and gold to some as a result of poor lighting).
Think of other times something on the Internet has gone viral. Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” tweet is often referred to as an incredible example of real-time social media marketing. One of the reasons it worked so well: there were already millions of people on social media talking about the Super Bowl. Oreo just put some relevant content in front of all those users’ eyes at the right time. Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a selfie at the Oscars last year, and it was retweeted over 3 million times. Where was the attention of millions of Americans’ being focused during the Oscars? On social media. Ellen simply shared a fun and relevant photo where people were already looking.
Regarding the dress example from last week, a pretty intense llama chase had occurred a few hours earlier. News coverage of this event made its way to the Internet, drawing a lot of people’s attention to social to see what this ridiculous #LlamaDrama was all about. Once again, the photo of the dress happened to be shared at the right time, when a lot of attention was already focused on social.
A lot of stuff on the Internet exhibits one or two of these qualities. But having all three at the same time seems to have greatly increased the chances of #TheDress going viral. Here’s the real question: Can these three qualities be used to predict the potential of virality of a particular content piece in the future? My guess is probably not. As John Mayer said, you can’t force viral.
And if you can’t trust John Mayer, who can you trust?