White and Gold Or Blue And Black?: Why #TheDress Went Viral And Divided The Internet

If you are looking for a Friday night debate, just ask your friends and colleagues whether the dress pictured to the right is white and gold or blue and black?

Now, you may be scratching your head right now wondering why people are arguing over it. It’s clearly white and gold, right? Well, ask the person next to you and they could well swear blind it’s black and blue.

It’s a debate that has divided opinion across the internet over the past 24 hours. Taylor Swift has had her say, even the Kardashian-West household is at loggerheads over it, with Kim Kardashian tweeting: “What colour is that dress? I see white & gold. Kanye sees black and blue, who is colour blind?”.

Some are questioning their eyesight and their sanity – others are even questioning their friends.

The Big Dress Debate (or simply #thedress) all began when 21-year-old Scottish wedding musician Caitlin McNeill posted a picture of ‘The Dress’ on her Tumblr, asking “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 out”.

Within half an hour, the post had received 500 likes. Within an hour, this rocketed to 10,000 likes. Then Buzzfeed ran the story, taking a straw poll of their users. Now the internet is creaking under the weight of differing opinions. The original Tumblr post now has over 450,000 likes.

But what’s made it go viral? Well, firstly, let’s face it, it’s an easy debate to take part in and to have an opinion – everyone can join in and no expert knowledge is required, just an opinion – and there’s no shortage of these online!

Most important of all, it’s polarizing – you’re either Team #whiteandgold or Team #blueandblack. The internet loves a good argument and the Internet thrives on strong opinions that can be quickly expressed by one person and rubbished by another. When you have a commenter culture that only supports 140 characters, there’s no room and no time for nuanced debate.

Also, it’s not the image itself that’s gone viral, it’s the divided opinions it provokes. Viral content elicits a really strong emotional reaction in the viewer. The trigger here is disbelief, amazement and shock that people don’t see the world the same way that we do!

Internet culture and meme culture take an idea and it can spread like wildfire around the world in minutes. Social media is both a global watercooler and an echo chamber. We hear about the latest video or celebrity slip very quickly via Twitter and then we want to take part in the conversation. We have a fear of missing out so we post an opinion or RT an image so we feel that we have our finger on the pulse and are part of a broader conversation.

Then we see the same conversation echoing round and round, often amplified by media outlets wanting to drive traffic to their sites or by celebrities wanting to make themselves seem relevant and relatable to their audiences. So it’s not just about the inherent viral potential of a piece of content that accelerates viral velocity – it’s the extrinsic factors such as what’s going on in the news and commercial interests.

But what’s causing the confusion? Well, sorry to break this to Team #whiteandgold, but the dress is in fact black and blue. Although, apparently, the company behind the dress is now considering a white and gold version.

The confusion is caused by the differences in how our brains process colour. Speaking to Wired, Neuroscientist Bevil Conway said: “What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.”

Update: The thing with viral phenomena is they tend to be “flash memes”, rising as fast as they fall. Within minutes of Unruly’s Sarah Wood discussing #TheDress on Simon Mayo’s #DriveTime, Leonard Nimoy’s death was announced and the Internet moved swiftly on.