Our Viral Media, Ourselves: What 'The Dress' Says About the Future of the Internet

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The infamous dress.  (Wired via Swiked)

One Thursday last February, on a relatively slow news day -- two llamas running amok in Sun City, Arizona were, initially, the primary story being passed around social media -- someone probably G-chatted, Facebooked, or texted you about The Dress.

"What color is it?" screamed the Internet. Was it blue and black? Was it white and gold? What was the meaning of this witchcraft?! Nearly every website whose success depended on clicks -- which is to say, most websites -- picked up the "story" and ran with it. (For what it's worth, I might be biased, but this is probably my favorite Dress-related headline.) So the person who first posted the photo and query surely (surely!) must have made a boatload of money off it, right? That's how virality works, in this age of Davids After Dentist and Charlies Biting Fingers.

Except that it's not. In a fascinating if unsettling piece published on Fusion, Oakland writer Joe Veix uses the story of The Dress -- a photo posted to Tumblr by a Scottish 17-year-old named Caitlin McNeill, whose friend's mother had snapped it unwittingly while shopping a few weeks earlier -- to illustrate the precariousness of business models like BuzzFeed's, which rely in large part on "curating" content already posted elsewhere on the web.

It took a BuzzFeed employee all of five minutes to repost McNeill's photo as an article. And then:

Almost immediately, traffic went gangbusters. By the end of the night, it had about 10 million views. It became the most popular post in BuzzFeed’s history, garnering roughly 38 million views to date, with 670,000 simultaneous views at its peak. The site threw money and people at the story, including an extra tech team and two editorial teams, as if a president had been shot. They sent out a press release, taking credit for the phenomenon. The next day, victorious, they celebrated in their office with champagne.

It’s hard to determine exactly how much money The Dress made, cumulatively, for BuzzFeed and the other news sites and social media services and brands and stores that sold the dress. McNeill, however, got nothing.

In the weeks that followed, the woman who took the photo and her daughter -- who had posted the image to Facebook weeks before McNeill's Tumblr post -- even had a falling out caused, in part, by attempting to reap some small financial gains from The Dress.


What does it say about the future of internet media that the most successful post in history, on one of the most successful internet properties in existence, amounted to a cut-and-paste job? Not to mention one in which nobody involved in producing the original content actually benefited from it?

A similar albeit less blockbuster-type viral story about dogs and how they might wear pants, were they to wear pants, took off last week. And while it's entertaining (to say the least) to watch respected news organizations scramble to find remotely respectable ways to cover these stories (because they have to), it also raises questions about the economy of how "the viral internet" happens. And here's where -- from a pop-culture blogger's chair, at least -- it all starts to feel a bit like we're building a five-story brick mansion on plastic egg crates. What could possibly go wrong?

In any event, the whole piece is worth a read.  And, you'll note, it was definitely worth reblogging.

How 'The Dress' Exposes Viral Media's Shaky Future