To understand the mass hysteria around The Dress last week, you can't compare it to other memes. You have to compare it to political events like #Ferguson, which are its diametrical opposite. Except in one way.
Photo by Jeffrey B. Banke via Shutterstock
But first, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that The Dress came out of nowhere. It's part of a long history of crazy freakouts spawned by the mass media. And most of them had a disturbing undercurrent.
A History of Mass Media Hysteria
In the early twentieth century, newfangled mass media like movies and radio were blamed for all kinds of social meltdowns. In Nathaniel West's amazing 1939 Hollywood satire novel The Day of the Locust, people waiting for a movie premiere go completely nuts, their excitement over seeing celebrities finally exploding into a homicidal riot that burns Los Angeles to the ground.
From the 1975 movie version of The Day of Locust
But there were real-life examples, too. Perhaps the classic example of mass media hysteria was the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. After Orson Welles read a version of the classic H.G. Wells' Martian invasion novel live on CBS radio, hundreds of panicked callers slammed the station switchboard with questions about the imminent alien attack.
The complete War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
The War of the Worlds hysteria was hyped the next morning by newspaper stories about terrified radio listeners fleeing the streets to hide in their homes. We can't be sure exactly how many people lost their shit over the broadcast at the time, but it became a famous example of media-inspired freakout. At least a million people all across the country simultaneously experienced an intense wave of feeling, mediated entirely by their radios.
In the years since 1938, these mass hysteria events have been rare. There have been franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek that became cultures unto themselves, but their enduring nature is basically the opposite of the ephemeral paroxysms inspired by War of the Worlds or The Dress. We've also had hit TV shows that millions of people watched together, more or less simultaneously. But TV-related waves of feeling — from "Who shot JR?" to "Who killed Laura Palmer?" and "WTF was that on Lost?" — are more like giant conversations rather brief fits of media insanity.
What happened with The Dress should be compared to what happened to the stock market during the flash crash. Mediated by advanced information technology, it was more rapid than almost anything that came before. Call it a flash media hysteria event, stirred as much by audience neuroses as by our curiosity.
Flash Media Hysteria: Balloon Boy and The Dress
The gold-and-white versus black-and-blue debate may have the distinction of being the most innocuous argument in the history of the internet. In terms of its virtual meaninglessness, it resembled memes like Snakes on a Plane, Numa Numa, and the Ice Bucket Challenge. But a typical meme circulates for weeks, or even years, forking into millions of variants. The meme's power comes from all the different versions it spawns over time.
The Dress did not inspire a meme-like proliferation of itself. A few pictures of it ripped across the internet in a matter of hours, largely unchanged, inspiring debate and outpourings of hastily cobbled-together explanations. Audiences clicked and shared, clicked and shared, asking each other what colours they saw.
Nobody could meme-ify The Dress because it was a ultimately a self-contained story with a definitive ending. The fun didn't come from making variations, but from solving a mystery. It began with the question posed on Tumblr by Swiked, asking what colour The Dress really was. Buzzfeed turned the question into a quiz on Thursday, which Facebook amplified to tremendous proportions, reaching tens of millions of readers over just a few hours. Other publications (including Gizmodo) followed suit. And then the mystery plot kicked in. It was underwritten by an odd current of anxiety. Why are we all seeing different colours?! By Friday morning, we had our answer. The Dress was actually an example of a well-known optical illusion, caused by a trick in how our brains process our perception of illumination and shadow. The mystery was resolved. The flash hysteria was over.
A few precursors to The Dress phenomenon share a similar mystery story structure. Consider the Balloon Boy freakout of 2009, when the entire world followed breathlessly online as a homemade hot air balloon carried a little boy 7,000 feet into the air for fifty miles. Was the boy OK? Would he die? How did his parents let this happen? These horrifying mysteries were resolved within a couple of hours, when the balloon landed empty — and the boy's father admitted that his "missing" son had been hidden in the attic the whole time.
You can even seen the same narrative trajectory in the llama frenzy that captivated people just a few hours before The Dress burned out our retinas. What would happen to those escaped llamas? Would they be killed before our eyes? Once the llamas had been lassoed safely, the hysteria fizzled out.
But these practically absurdist freakouts over Balloon Boy and The Dress spawn their own mysteries. What is it about these odd events that drew our fascination, when thousands of other equally bizarre things happen every day? To answer, I'll leave the vapid side of flash media behind.
Flash Media Politics: OJ Simpson and #Ferguson
The Dress debate was what can only be called aggressively apolitical. But it shares an unexpected structural resemblance with the outraged political debate that was #Ferguson on social media. Both are examples of flash media, where a set of images and ideas took over the internet overnight.
Possibly the biggest flash media experience of the television era was the live helicopter broadcast of police chasing OJ Simpson in Los Angeles in 1994 as he fled from the murder scene at his home. Rumoured to have a gun pointed at his own head, Simpson drove slowly along the southern California highways in his white Bronco, tailed by almost a dozen police cars. The whole slow-motion chase was filmed from 20 helicopters simultaneously, and preempted regular programming on CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN. In that early-cable era, this meant that pretty much every major channel was giving audiences live, streaming updates. Audiences were riveted by watching a crime investigation unfold in real time, and it didn't hurt that a beloved celebrity was involved too.
For a day, television media were essentially broadcasting nothing but the OJ chase and aftermath.
News excerpts from the O.J. Simpson chase and post-chase coverage
Coming as it did less than two years after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, however, this was more than just lurid gawking. Memories of the Rodney King video — where white police beat a black man nearly to death — were fresh in people's minds. Watching white cops chase a suicidal black man down, for allegedly killing his white ex-wife, was a racially loaded experience. That's putting it mildly. When CourtTV covered the trial, pollsters reported that the nation's opinions about OJ's guilt were sharply divided by race, with black people far more likely to believe in OJ's innocence than whites.
But it wasn't until the rise of the internet, and specifically social media like Twitter and Facebook, that millions of people experienced the same kind of sudden, simultaneous emotional intensity over a political disaster.
And that's exactly what the internet went through during the first night of the Ferguson riots. Images of the fires and demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb pulsed across Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr feeds — and made the television news. Hashtags about racial violence erupted, shared by millions. You couldn't look at any media feed — whether from a major news corporation or your friends — and not witness what was happening in the wake of local police shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Every news outlet was covering Ferguson, and every social network was ripped apart by debate over its significance.
Photo of police in Ferguson, by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo
Like the OJ chase, the events in Ferguson were overshadowed by another recent racial trauma, the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Just as many felt a horrified sense of injustice in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, the people who participated in the flash media politics of #Ferguson were smarting from the wounds of the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon.
Audiences were primed for the flash media circus of Ferguson by recent events that unfolded in everyday slow time. Public emotions were already simmering, ready boil over in unison. So news about the Ferguson riot and social media reactions to it spread more quickly than for almost any other political event in recent memory.
Flashes and Amnesia
It seems obvious why Ferguson captured worldwide attention in just one media-saturated night. But, to return to where we began, what about the colour of a dress? What makes one mysterious image on Tumblr explode almost instantly, while millions more go undiscovered?
The question seems trivial when you ask it about The Dress. But it takes on a much more troubling cast when you realise that many people have been asking roughly the same question about Ferguson. Black men are killed by the police every day under questionable circumstances, and it goes unreported and unshared on social media. Why did Michael Brown's death spark a flash political movement, while so many others didn't?
Sometimes an empty triviality like the international frenzy over the colour of a dress can teach us something profound about how nations deal with collective traumas like racial conflict and the history of slavery.
In terms of political significance, nothing could be farther from #Ferguson than The Dress. But there is one specific aspect of the flash hysteria phenomenon that seems relevant here. After The Dress frenzy died down, a lot of people were trying to figure out what to compare it with. "I know I've seen these happen all the time," one of my colleagues said. "But I don't remember them." A lot of people were saying same thing online, as we all wracked our brains for explanations. One of the characteristics of flash media hysteria seems to be its forgettability. The intensity of public amnesia about it seems commensurate with the intensity of our obsession.
Flash media hysteria isn't really about The Dress or the llamas. It's about the bliss of amnesia.
Think of it this way. When you look through every oddity and diversion on Tumblr, you can't process the sheer number of them. It's overwhelming. But they stay somewhere in the back of your mind, piling up. All those strange pictures! All those weird people, asking bizarre questions! Then suddenly, they erupt, in one focused burst of hysterical attention. The Dress was like a release valve for social media audiences whose minds have been overclocked by information overload. Great — we all shared in the internet weirdness. We can forget again.
And sadly, for many people, that's what #Ferguson was about too. When social media focused intensely on one example of racial injustice, when Twitter and Facebook users put all their emotional energy into it, audiences could finally release the pressure from all those voices in the backs of their minds that have been telling the nation for years and decades and centuries that in fact the mystery has not been solved and it is not alright and black men are still being shot right now by police who will never face trial.
But, as a great philosopher once said, the repressed always returns.
The U.S. media goes through phases of repressing, or forgetting, stories about racial conflict. Then, after years of silence on the topic, these stories roar through Facebook and across the front pages of news sites. Currently the media is going through a flash of recognition over racial injustice. But what was happening before Trayvon and #Ferguson? It's not as if there weren't appalling racial injustices going on. Maybe the media turned a blind eye. Maybe, even when the media did report on black men being shot by police, you didn't share those stories with your Facebook friends or your Tumblr followers or your Pinterest pals.
It's not that we didn't know this before. We just forgot.