The Dress Heard 'Round the World: What the Phenomenon Says About Us

Jessica Schiffer

With today’s 24-hour news cycle and intimate access to the lives of the rich and famous, we hardly expect an item of clothing to be the topic that trumps them all. Last night, however, a humble (and fairly unattractive) dress managed to do just that. After a BuzzFeed writer spotted a growing controversy on Tumblr about whether or not the dress in question was white and gold or blue and black, she posted it to their site, where the debate grew to massive proportions. At around 10p.m. EST, everyone everywhere seemed to be talking about this—I received emails from colleagues, messages from various friends, and saw the discussion blowing up on Twitter. A phenomenon it certainly was, but the question is WHY?

The dress itself isn't special, and everyone seemed in agreement on that. What drove the story’s meteoric rise was a combination of mystery and fear—two elements, which, if the film industry is any indication, our society can’t get enough of. We’ve all had arguments with people about whether or not something is, say, black or navy blue, but they’re very occasional, and the tendency is to think that something is simply “wrong” with the other person’s sight. But when this color-reading discrepancy is seen on such a massive scale, to the point that nobody is really in agreement about what shades they’re seeing, it’s a lot more troubling. Have we been seeing the world that differently this entire time?! What other senses might this dispute apply to? Sounds and smells, perhaps? Put simply: It’s freaky.

And you know what else? It’s a little bit sad. Numerous sites (including ours—right here, right now) picked up this story. Everyone wants a piece of the record-breaking numbers that it delivered for BuzzFeed, because as we Internet-weaned ladies and gents know, numbers reign. But is it too much to ask for the stories that are truly important to gain some similar steam? I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if topics like elections, civil rights, or even simply a dress worthy of our attention (read: art) garnered the same attention. I can’t help but wish that success online privileged a diversity of stories, rather than the recycling of topics that “work.” Now that would be a phenomenon worth talking about.

What are your thoughts on this whole phenomenon? We would love to hear from you in the comments!

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