Remembering The Dress, The Last Good Thing The Internet Did
Late in 2014 came a viral sensation that captured the world's imagination. It was so strange and yet so universally appreciated, we joked that it represented the peak of civilization—and, in hindsight, we were absolutely right about that. I am of course referring to the video known as Too Many Cooks.
Yes, that was the peak of civilization. But for the peak of social media specifically, we had to wait just a couple months more. Because it was then, in February 2015, that a Scottish bride's mother took a photo of a questionably lit dress and shared it online. If that dress was being lit brightly, then the colors on it appeared blue and black, but perhaps it was instead in shadow, in which case it had to be white and gold.
Thanks to BuzzFeed, a photo of the dress spread widely on Tumblr, which is a thing that occasionally happens even to stuff unconnected with fandoms or porn. Then they posted it to Twitter ...
... and if you look at the little numbers on that tweet, they don't look so big. Heck, Zendaya's tweet hours later about the dress, without a photo, got shared more, and this was before she was a movie star (unless you count her voice role in Super Buddies, the straight-to-DVD thirteenth Air Bud sequel). That's because people didn't want to just share the photo of the dress. They wanted to share their opinion on it, so they all tweeted about it independently—"quote tweeting" didn't yet exist, and wouldn't for another couple months.
Ten million people tweeted about the dress that week. For comparison, only six people alive today have read Shakespeare's King John. That's not a criticism of the dress: That dress photo is BETTER than King John (as far as I know; I haven't read it). To sum up the lasting impact, just type "the dress" into Google, and you'll shockingly receive results all about the dress, rather than comparison sites trying to sell you dresses. And the top result is Wikipedia's article, simply entitled "the dress." Not "2015 viral dress phenomenon," just "the dress." Italicized, like it's the name of an artwork, but no one ever named it. That dress is what "the dress" refers to, now and forever.
Sharing that dress photo was the greatest thing Twitter ever did, and that includes the Arab Spring.
Then Social Media Immediately Rotted
Okay, it's a bit silly to mark any moment as the point right before social media went bad. I could just as easily put on my old man pants and say social media went downhill a decade earlier, as soon as they started letting users post stuff.
Seriously: They didn't always do that. At first, you could write on your own profile or on others', but there was no way to broadcast links or your thoughts to people in general. The closest thing Facebook had to a feed was its list of upcoming events, so you could see who was throwing a party on Ashford Street. Originally, social media wasn't about directing web traffic or shouting into the void. It was literally a medium for facilitating socializing, in-person socializing.
But even limiting our scope to the period in which we all share posts by strangers, yeah, things are worse than they once were. You still do share stuff you find interesting, but as algorithms have grown more powerful and self-sustaining, you'll most likely share just whatever you most strongly agree about. Maybe it'll be something about your how much your enemies suck, or maybe it'll be something totally inane (but so true).
And yet all that agreeing doesn't mean we're more agreeable now. Maybe you're "agreeing" about how bad something is, while someone who thinks you're wrong will post the opposite and get attention from everyone who agrees with them. Then when we divide into camps over which Starburst flavor's best, it might sound not so different from #TeamBlueAndBlack versus #TeamWhiteAndGold, but no one's really intrigued about how interesting the dispute is because it's not really interesting at all.
When we do sink our teeth into something meaty, it does get all of Twitter fixated on a single topic, but it's probably about how much we hate the character of the day. We all leave the encounter feeling a little more dead inside. In an ideal world, this tweet, posted just hours ago at the time of writing, would instead be the one to get everyone talking today:
Not to say that we don't find illusions cool. In fact, the dress opened us up to ...
A World Of Illusion
Thanks to lots of careful diagramming from skilled artists, we all got a good look at exactly why people might perceive the same photo to be such different colors:
This went so against what people instinctively think. "Blue is blue, gold is gold!" people yelled, banging their fists on the table. Colors are objective. We even use the phrase "black and white" to refer to objective opposites.
But as illusions show, a single shade can even appear both black and white depending on surrounding context.
And colors are even more subjective than shades. Sure, color has objective properties—if a ray of light has a wavelength of 700 nanometers, that's the color we call red—but how you perceive it is all in your head.
When red light mixes with green light, they make yellow light, and scientists can prove it with math. But you feel like red and green mixed together shouldn't make yellow. You feel like maybe red and yellow are independent colors that should mix together and make orange. That's how it makes sense to interpret color because in the natural world, we never see two monochromatic light rays mixing. We see red stuff (which absorbs everything but red light) mix with yellow stuff (which absorbs everything but yellow light) and the result lets only 500-picohertz ("orange") light out. So we perceive that orange light like it's a mixture of red and yellow even though it is not.
Sorry, that was a confusing digression there. But the point is that perception comes from preconceptions and experience. Like the circle in the middle of the following illusion. That's bright yellow, of course, while the stripes that aren't black are a dull white or gray? Nope: The circle and those stripes are the exact same color. You just think the center is brighter because you're so used to round central light sources.
Or take these wheels. They never grow, shrink, or shift. But the context around them makes you think they do.
Audio illusions can be even weirder than optical ones. I trust most have you have heard the yanny/laurel illusion (dubbed "this year's the dress" when it went viral). One recording can supposedly sound like either word, depending on how you prep yourself—but for people over a certain age, it only ever sounds like "laurel," because as we age, we lose sensitivity to higher frequencies.
This next illusion (dubbed "this year's yanny/laurel" when it went viral) doesn't depend at all on how many ear cells you've killed. Look at the written word "brainstorm" as the video plays, and the audio sounds like "brainstorm." Look at the words "green needle" instead, and the audio sounds like "green needle." This works no matter how many times you retry it, even though the two phrases are so different and aren't even the same number of syllables.
The sounds we regularly hear are so muffled and indistinct that our brain must use context to interpret them. And it's not like you alternate between just two interpretations. You can perceive one sound as any number of things:
If you're browsing these illusions alone, they're coolest when you're able to switch between interpretations at will. But the dress, originally, was so captivating because we couldn't make that switch. Most of us saw just one set of colors and had to reckon with other people somehow seeing another. We were forced to realize that ...
Oh My, Other Perspectives Exist!
I have vague memories of a scene that appeared in several different kids' books and shows. A teacher holds up an optical illusion, the students see different things, and the teacher reveals this is a lesson about point of view. This always came off as very hokey to me, mainly because the exact illusion being presented was invariably pretty dumb. Like, students would feast their eyes on the classic Rubin vase illusion:
... and I'd think, "Well, of course it can look like either a vase or two faces, that's how it was drawn, big deal. I'm already a level 4 optical illusion fan, you kids are a bunch of morons getting impressed by something so basic."
The dress, on the other hand, really was a big deal. It blew millions of people's minds, to the point that it really should have taught the lesson those fictional kids learned with such suspicious readiness. Which is good, because understanding alternate perspectives is the most important thing.
That last sentence sounds like I got cut off abruptly halfway through, but that's my whole statement: Understanding alternate perspectives is the most important thing. It's also important to determine the truth, with like a measuring tape or whatever, but we're getting better and better at that, so no worries there. Yet when it comes to figuring out stuff that can't be measured, and convincing people of stuff that can, that's impossible without understanding alternate perspectives.
We sometimes call this "empathy," but that's not a very good word because it sounds too much like something we offer to good people, who deserve it, rather than something we should all experience just because our minds aren't broken.
"Compassion" is an even worse word for this. "Understanding" isn't much better—it still sounds like "peace and love," something strong people don't bother with. And yet it is good to understand the reasoning of those with whom we disagree. I can't explain this better than Gen. Mark A. Milley, seen here talking about wanting to understand everything he opposes, from white rage to communism ...
... but I wish I could because his words didn't convince people. People heard him and thought, "There's nothing to 'understand' here. If you read Marx, you're weak and are submitting to the left. And if you're using the phrase 'white rage,' that ALSO means you're weak and are submitting to the left!"
I'd joke here about how you shouldn't read the video's comments, but maybe you should.
On Twitter, I keep seeing questions like "how can people believe it's right to force you to give birth but wrong to force you to wear masks" or "why shouldn't you need an ID to vote if I need a vaccine passport just to eat?" These are rhetorical questions; they're saying "these are irreconcilable beliefs, so no one really holds them, they just claim to because they want control." But if you asked the questions for real, you'd get real answers.
Difficult as it is to admit, other people's perspectives are genuine, built upon sincerely believed premises. If those premises are wrong, understanding them might let you persuade people of what's right. You also might not be able to persuade them even if you do understand them, but you definitely can't persuade them if you don't.
I'm not going to take this opportunity to break down every single exact path of reasoning that leads Republicans and Democrats to different beliefs. But can we agree that some beliefs wholly result from different perspectives, rather than from whether the believer is good or evil?
Like, if you're reading this right now, you have opinions about Presidents Trump and Biden, and I'm not going to argue that the two men are equally good if you just shed your biases. However ... isn't it kind of weird that, based on your thoughts about them, one man's facial features fill you with physical revulsion, while the other looks like a hero? That you see in one septuagenarian smile an obvious sex criminal and a thief, while someone else will see the same thing, but only in the other man's smile? As faces go, these two are extremely similar.
"Hold on," some of you are saying. "Those faces are only so similar because you edited the photos. In fact, that's the exact same face, digitally pasted onto different heads!" Whoops, sorry about that, for a moment I thought we were still talking about cool illusions rather than awful politics.
So, the point here isn't that opposite sides are really the same. There's even a running joke about the media falsely equating opposites that way. There's also a running joke about the media “wanting to understand” stuff through talking to people who have nothing to offer, but when you do newly understand a different POV, it's just as illuminating as seeing that dress lit two ways. Some years back, we put out a piece about Trump voters justifiably seeing themselves as the underdogs from every epic adventure film. You can extend that idea to stuff more controversial than voting. Such as storming the Capitol, the thing Gen. Milley wanted to understand:
I don't want this to be yet another article that ends with me accused of supporting treason, so one more time: This isn't about calling all ideas equally right. The dress was not an argument for pure relativism. It was a photo of an actual piece of clothing, which had only one set of colors, not two.
You are wrong about some things, and there are other things where there's no determining what's right. But you are right about many things, and even with these things, people have alternate perspectives that they came to in good faith. Some people also preach these perspectives in bad faith, and only by understanding the perspective can you can distinguish the earnest people from the grifters.
Since people disagree even when you're objectively right, seeking to understand them needn't mean you're wrong. If you're right, you have nothing to lose from understanding a different perspective ... and if it turns out you're wrong, you have even less to lose from discovering the truth.
I am the first person to draw this lesson from the dress, and because of that, I feel that—
Oh, what do you know. Looks like millions of other people already made this point. Okay, well, this is just a reminder then. And the next time you're in an argument that's going nowhere other than off the rails, you can always defuse the situation by saying, "Yeah, but I think the dress was black and blue." No, it might not resolve anything, but it'll remind you both of a different argument, which felt completely pointless but much more fun.