- In 2015, a BuzzFeed staffer posted a photo of a dress with the caption, “What color is this dress?” And then a viral discussion began.
- This marked the beginning of a decade for Facebook to recognize its power and seek to control it.
- Below is an excerpt from “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral” by Ben Smith.
The day began with a national frenzy over two llamas who escaped from an Arizona nursing home, chased by hapless humans, rampaged through the streets of Sun City, Arizona for nearly three hours, and attracted the attention of millions. collected.
Then, near the end of the working day at BuzzFeed’s home improvement office, Cates Holderness received a message. It read, “BuzzFeed, please help me.”
Cates is one of BuzzFeed’s oldest security guards, having joined the company in 2011. At the time, the company was just attracting people who loved the internet and didn’t think they were working in media. In fact, Cates works at a boarding and grooming kennel in North Carolina, where she read Peggy and Matt’s articles on BuzzFeed and shared their best work on her Facebook page.
That afternoon, a Scottish folk singer named Caitlin McNeil sent Cates a message through the Tumblr that runs his BuzzFeed account, expressing an urgent request for a wedding he attended.
“I posted a picture of this dress,” she wrote of the poorly lit and dirty photo taken by her friend’s mother. She said, “Some people see it as blue, some people see it as white. Can you explain, because we’re going crazy.”
Cates thought the email was strange and inexplicable when she saw a picture of a clearly blue and black dress, but eventually asked the people sitting next to her what color they thought it was. asked. One said “blue and black,” the other “white and gold,” and began yelling at each other, convinced each other that the other was crazy. Before long, she had twenty people standing behind her desk, having an incredible discussion about the point.
So Cates posted the image to BuzzFeed with the headline “What color is this dress?”and he quit his job
Minutes later, her cell phone was bombarded with alarms as her train, F, emerged from a tunnel under the East River. She tried to open them, but they broke. She restarted it and she crashed again.
She rushed to her friend’s house to figure out what was going on. As she was reading fairy tales to her young son, she realized what was happening. I put the book down and desperately allocated more stories to capture what I knew was going to be a flood of traffic pouring out of Cates’ post, which has since racked up over 37 million views.
A reporter called McNeil in the middle of the night in Scotland, and that led to the article, “The dress is blue and black, and this is what the girl who saw it said.” Our science editor called the scientist after bedtime and asked them to churn out another article, “Why do people look different in those awful dresses?”
It was one of the last, greatest, and completely harmless moments in global internet culture when it became clear what was going on.
The dress is dichotomous in the purest sense, with two-thirds of those who see white and gold (according to a BuzzFeed poll of nearly four million votes) and three who see blue and black. split in half. Facebook engineers have been perfecting engagement metrics since the Wyoming move debate a year ago.
And the dress was universal, a media format that didn’t even require literacy to land. Like most memes, it didn’t spread along the upward curve of the virus, it was passed from person to person. Instead, it went viral algorithmically as Facebook showed the dress to users whose friends had not yet shared it, confidently predicting that they would be equally attractive.
Within hours, the traffic increased to 700,000 people simultaneously. This is seven times his normal peak. So our engineers rushed him to add a server to BuzzFeed’s backend. This number had not been reached before or since by his BuzzFeed posts on the web.
A few hours after this article was posted, halfway around the world, Cates’ boss, Scott Lam, was giving his morning speech at a press conference in Jakarta. All the questions he submitted were about dresses.
The dress was a clear win for BuzzFeed and Jonah. It’s the kind of social his content he wanted us to define. I toasted a blushing Cates in the middle of the office with champagne. Jonah boasted about it to advertisers.
Great score. And how wonderful! Perhaps this is what the world will look like in the future. People across countries and cultures talk about the same fun things at the same time, and Facebook and BuzzFeed bring them together.
Jonah misunderstands Facebook’s view when Chris Cox introduces Adam Mosseri at a party on the sprawling roof garden of a Frank Gehry-designed building for Facebook in Menlo Park. I noticed that I was Mosseri was the tall, unusually open Facebook executive who ran the news feed. His decision could sway publishers.
“How often do you think things should go viral like dresses?” Mosseri asked. Jonah was taken aback by the question and his notion that how often things spread was up to Mosseri’s team.
During the conversation, it became clear that Jonah was worried about Facebook losing control of something new. For them, the dress was no goofy win. It was a kind of bug, and it scared them. While the dress itself was harmless, the next meme that took hold across the platform within minutes may not be, and this meme was too fast for the Menlo Park team to control.
Many of Facebook’s critics were happy to see the platform demonstrate this recognition. This marked the beginning of his decade of Facebook recognizing its own power and trying to control it, even if Facebook’s efforts always seemed too little. slow.
Jonah saw it differently.
He still believed in the power of people’s best instincts: a global conversation to tell harmless jokes, act charitably and brag about it. He used to say that it was the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party who truly recognized the dangers of virality. They found that removing some of the content could prevent a social movement from starting, even if it didn’t wipe it out completely. enough to prevent it from reaching escape velocity.
In Mosseri’s worried tone, Jonah sensed the same threat of censorship. And he was more acutely aware than most that the alternative to the wide open viral internet was not necessarily a return to the bland old world of media. This will be an algorithm that recommends content to individuals according to a narrower set of guidelines. Facebook’s solution wasn’t to abandon algorithms that could predict and display user preferences, but to narrow the scope at which those algorithms work.
Going forward, Facebook will do a better job of keeping people in their lanes and bubbles. We at BuzzFeed may have seen the dress as the beginning of a new kind of world culture, but the truth is, it wasn’t allowed to happen again.
from Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in a Billion Dollar Viral Race By Ben Smith. Copyright © Ben Smith, 2023. Published by arrangement with his Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.nms