Seinfeld with a cast of millions: what #TheDress tells us about internet culture today

Blue Black dress

Twitter is a giant episode of Seinfeld with a cast of millions. That was my first reaction to the conversation around #TheDress when I checked my timeline on Friday morning. With the whole of the US entranced by the #llamadrama the previous night, it was a golden 24 hours in social media – one that read like plot lines in a sitcom that dominated the 1990s with its comedy “about nothing”.

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Last week, half of the online world argued about the colour of a dress worn by the bride’s mother to a wedding in a remote corner of Scotland. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Wired and The Guardian got in on the conversation. Predictably, many commentators were appalled. Why did people care so much about #TheDress? Why talk so much something so simple and pointless?

Actually, I suspect the reason that this conversation took off the way it did was that it was simple and pointless. And while #TheDress might not, in and of itself be especially important, it does reveal a lot about internet culture today.

Here’s what I found most interesting about last week’s most popular meme:

Simple and easy is good

#TheDress was simple: a picture of a dress. It was easy to have an opinion on it: did you think it was blue and black, or gold and white? And because different viewers really did perceive the dress differently, nobody was prepared to back down, and the argument was constantly regenerated.

#TheDress was a reminder that nothing generates conversation like a simple, binary argument about something that doesn’t actually matter. (This is also why football matches generate so many tweets.)

Conversation is truly global

Something big can start anywhere. The dress in question was worn reached our attention thanks to a singer who lives on a tiny Scottish island and saw the dress at the wedding of a friend. She posted it to her Tumblr, and the rest is history.

Conversation shapes social media, not the other way around

It’s easy to assume that social media has changed the nature of conversation. Thanks to social media, goes the logic, we’re now talking about stupid shallow things instead of what matters. But how true is that? People have always argued endlessly over the banalities; if anything, this is the kind of conversation that has always taken place every day across the world – it just wasn’t visible.

#TheDress was just a very ordinary conversation, amplified. Three people would have argued about it in a pub ten years ago. Today, 300-million did the same in their offices and on their phones.

Brands jumping into conversations awkwardly

#TheDress — simple to understand, non-controversial, massively viral — was a gift to brands looking to jump into conversations. By the time I woke to #TheDress, there were already plenty of sardonic observations about how brands were nagging at their social media people to get involved. Savanna did a good job in South Africa, mainly because it has a black and a gold bottle already, and was able to produce an animated gif that was relevant to both the brand and the conversation.

Wait too long, or overdo it, however, and goodwill can be eroded. A colleague who buys regularly from Spree loved its first tweet about #TheDress. But then it went and overdid it. “By the 20th tweet, I’d had enough,” she said. (Technically it was only three, but you get the point.)

Here’s the question I’m sure many marketers are asking: can the phenomenal — if ephemeral — impact of #TheDress be replicated by brands? I doubt it. Even if you were to recreate the conditions, you can’t be sure of the result. #TheDress took off precisely because it was accidental and authentic, and the moment

Until the next accidental conversation piece comes along – perhaps a weasel riding a woodpecker, for instance, or, even better, Vladimir Putin riding a weasel riding a woodpecker – we’ll just have to wait for something else to talk about.

PS. For the record, I know the dress was black and blue, but I’m #TeamWhiteGold and I don’t care what anyone says.

Image: Tumblr.

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