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The Dress: Not Just a Dumb Meme

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

The online phenomenon that we can probably just refer to as “that dress thing” may have seemed like yet another example of silly viral time-wasting. And it was. But that’s not all it was.

The Dress was also an unusually instructive and even productive example of a ridiculous meme.

Sure, the zero-stakes debate over whether the image in question depicted a white-and-gold or blue-and-black dress soaked up a lot of the world’s time and mental effort: We could have been curing the common cold, or at least improving the Wikipedia entries for “House of Cards.” Every nuclear-hot meme does that: the runaway llamas, Left Shark, Alex from Target, and all the other ones that nobody remembers anymore.

But The Dress wasn’t just another time-suck. It was (perhaps accidentally) a smart time-suck. That’s partly because, in addition to, or maybe as a direct result of, the silly arguments about the “right” answer to The Dress proper-color debate, this particular meme sparked a virtual seminar on optics, the eye, and vision.

And along the way, the sheer speed and scope of Dress-Mania (also perhaps accidentally) threw up some thoughtful insights about the flow of information today.

Interestingly, even the backlashers — people who felt compelled to complain in public about all the attention devoted to “that damn dress” — contributed useful points.

So before The Dress disappears down the hazy-memory hole of Left Llama and Shark From Target and … who was Runaway Alex again? A Kardashian? Whatever. What I mean is: Here’s what was good about The Dress, before some new episode comes along to make us forget everything about it.

Look again

As you already know, The Dress phenomenon was all about bickering: Did the image depict a white/gold dress or a blue/black one? While the actual disagreement was not terribly compelling, some of the attempts to explain it were. And here’s what was even more instructive: the disagreements about the explanations.

One example involves “color constancy” theory, which involves accounting for how context affects color perception. The consistently brilliant XKCD addressed the phenomenon with this relevant visual example, showing how the same image can take on what seem to be different colors depending on its background.

I might be biased, but I think our own David Pogue offered a particularly useful walk-through of possible explanations. The most intriguing basically combined a version of the color-context factor with a fairly common, minor manifestation of colorblindness — a “red-green color deficiency.” The most interesting upshot: Up to 10 percent of men cannot see the number within this image.


(Interesting related side note: This “colorblind designer” explains why designers should not rely solely on color to convey information.)

Many other observers have offered other explanations invoking vision science. But yet another one of my favorite sources, neuroscience/psychology blog Mind Hacks, grumpily complains that none quite satisfy. To sum up the doubts that critique left me with: We ought to be able to replicate The Dress response with a new image, but so far as I know, that hasn’t happened.

More Hater-ade, please!

My point is that the higher-level disagreements — not “What color is the dress?” but “Why do people see the dress differently?” — have been a learning experience. Surprisingly, that extends even to commentators who seem to be against The Dress phenomenon in general.

I’ve been particularly pleased with the outpouring of posts that amount to: Here Are Some Optical Illusions That Are Way Better Than That Stupid Dress. Specific headlines vary. Point is, there have been a lot of these posts, and I’m a sucker for them.

For instance, some pointed to this, from National Geographic’s “Brain Games”:

 “What would you say if we told you these two boxes were the exact same shade of gray? Can you see it? Gradients and shadows give your brain clues based on your past experiences with shadows. But shadows can lie to you.”

I think what I’d say is: Cool!

And multiple sources recalled one of my personal favorites: The “Spinning Dancer” illusion. Some see the “dancer” rotating to the right, others to the left. I’m among those who have found that, by staring long enough, I can “see” it change direction. The key is the absence of “visual cues for depth.”

If you’re most intrigued by the effect that lighting can have on perception (the crucial factor, many say, in The Dress disagreement), check out this music video: Using nothing but lighting effects, it makes the “actress’ face appear to be constantly in flux,” says Film School Rejects (adding: “It’s much cooler than The Dress.”)

To go meta on all this: It turns out there is research suggesting that exposure to optical illusions such as the “spinning wheels” below (they are not moving) and their explanations could help make people more open-minded.

 Another Spinning Wheel example, with explanation (via BPS Research Digest)

And finally, if your beef with The Dress extends to optical illusions in general, well, Beckett Mufson over at The Creators Project may have just the thing for you: a roundup of dresses that actually change color, by design.

To wit:

The “Sun-Reactive Dress” by Amy “Rainbow” Winters is among the garments she has created from fabrics that react to sunlight by shifting color.

Dumb, you say

So do you see it now? If you look from the right angle, The Dress thing wasn’t a distraction at all. It was a huge educational opportunity opening doors into learning more about vision, the brain, and even fashion technology!

Still, I understand if you still view the entire episode as somehow fundamentally ridiculous. But I’d say there’s even a useful lesson or two in that. In the course of basically taking all the credit for Dress-mania, BuzzFeed asserted that: “What might, a few years ago, have been a web culture phenomenon is today a cultural phenomenon, and the distinction between the two isn’t really intelligible.” This isn’t quite irrefutable, but it’s a fair argument, and something worth a good brood if you’re interested in where social-era media is headed.

But before you start brooding, I recommend this interview with Neetzan Zimmerman, who has been relentlessly touted as the de facto Rain Man of Viral-ness, offering his views on what made The Dress a traffic monster. “It definitely has all the qualities of a viral hit,” he offers. “It’s dumb, divisive, visual and eminently shareable.” He adds that people like to argue, and “even words are too labor-intensive” these days.  

Obviously, that’s a much more cynical take than mine: Combine these expert opinions and you land on the idea that that the common culture will be nothing but shareable arguments, delivered in digital grunts.

So maybe the whole phenomenon was dumb on one level, but compared to most viral outbreaks, it sure left me feeling I’d learned a lot.

I’m not saying I’d get a Dress tattoo or anything. But the episode left me seeing the world a little differently.

But not the dress, of course. White and gold, case closed.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.