Why Did 'The Dress' Go Viral? We Asked Meme Traffic Expert Neetzan Zimmerman
The dress. Photo: swiked.tumblr.com
On Thursday night, a picture of a dress posted to Tumblr went viral. That's "viral" in the old school sense—as opposed to the over-engineered, genetically modified "virality" of BuzzFeed or Spartz Inc—meaning it was passed around from person to person through social media and word of mouth until it felt like everyone was talking about the same thing. Like, everyone on your boyfriend's Twitter feed and also your Twitter feed. Even your boyfriend's roommate who doesn't really use Twitter. Even Taylor Swift.
The thing about the dress, now a meme, is that in this particular photo it appears to be blue and black to some people. To others, it looks white and gold. And to some, it looked one way but when they looked at it later, they saw the other.
This widespread disagreement made it easy to argue over something we can all ultimately recognize as insignificant, leading some to compare the dress color debate to sports, in that sometimes it's fun to just have something light to yell at each other over. But that didn't seem enough to explain how the dress had captivated the hive mind; spreading organically on Tumblr and elsewhere before being picked up and repackaged by BuzzFeed and other aggregators, which amplified the meme even more.
Neetzan Zimmerman was Gawker's unofficial Viral Editor (also "viral content expert," "viral guru," and "viral click whore," according to various media blogs). It was his job to mine sources like Reddit, panning for stories like " Artist Pays Tribute to Dead Pet Cat by Turning Him Into Flying Machine," "Mom Fined $140 Every Day Until She Circumcises Her Child," and "Woman with 'World's Most Instagrammed Ass' Gives Rare Video Interview."
Even Zimmerman, now Senior Director, Audience & Strategy at The Hill (after a year at the startup Whisper, which ended poorly but that's irrelevant here), was impressed by the power of The Dress. "This is the Viral Singularity," he tweeted.
We caught up with him to find out what the hell happened.
Motherboard: You called this the Viral Singularity. Is this dress the most viral thing you've seen in your career?
Neetzan Zimmerman: This is certainly up there. I definitely can't recall the last time I saw a single meme trend so powerfully so quickly, but it does represent a larger trend of explosive-but-short viral lifespans that has been visible for some time now.
How can you tell that it's so huge?
BuzzFeed's news guy tweeted out that (at the time of writing) the dress post alone was bringing in half of BuzzFeed's entire traffic. And the traffic I'm seeing on other sites suggests to me that this is not a hyperbolic statement, which is insane.
HOW MUCH TRAFFIC do you think this will get in total?
BuzzFeed just released some stats on the post. Looks like it already surpassed 10 million. With the long tail of Facebook shares, it could very well be their number one post of all time by tomorrow.
It hasn't even hit Facebook yet really!
This meme more than anything really underlines the differences between Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. It went viral on Tumblr yesterday, on Twitter today, and will probably hang around Facebook for the rest of the week. This seems to be the new Viral Cycle. (I'd note that this is at least partly because BuzzFeed gets a lot of its material from Tumblr.)
If you were still blogging for Gawker with an eye on discovering the next big hit, would you have guessed this would be so huge?
It definitely has all the qualities of a viral hit: It's dumb, divisive, visual and eminently shareable.
Why does being divisive make us want to share things?
I think it's because we like to argue, and we like being right, and we like proving other people wrong, and we like taking sides, and we like sharing our unsolicited opinion, and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have made us all the centers of our own Universes, and every piece of content is a new planet, and every follower is another inhabitant of that planet who makes us feel like a god.
Why do you think it hit so hard?
There's certainly no shortage of news, but it is mostly pretty wonky stuff: DHS funding, executive actions on immigration, Net Neutrality. People just needed something silly to chew on.
What does that say about internet culture right now?
This is probably less about internet culture, and more about social web culture. The internet is a pretty great place—you can watch old British Pathé newsreels for free. But social networks have conditioned us to trade only in things that are legal tender in the attention economy. And the attention economy is currently undergoing its Great Depression.
Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook—bite-size, high-visual, low-friction content is how we communicate now. Even words are too labor-intensive, so we text entirely in emoji and flirt in favs. Attention is hard to come by, and meme-mongers who need traffic to sustain their business model have resorted to pushing the content equivalent of a baby mobile which is just about the only thing anymore that can keep us from fussing.
Does it mean anything that this happened on Llama Day?
Likely a coincidence, but Twitter certainly lends itself to this sort of content. If Llama Day didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it.
What do you expect its half life will be?
I imagine we've already passed it. Viral stars burn much brighter nowadays. You can't tell me what the meme du jour was last Thursday, let alone last year.
What other viral memes or stories are in its league?
I honestly don't know what I would compare it to. It is a viral phenomenon in every sense of the term.
Did you see black and blue or white and gold?
Black and blue. Come at me.