February 19, 2015
White or gold? Blue or black? The social-media world nearly imploded last week over the color of a dress. Although some surmised this silly argument in many ways marked the end of civilization, I could not help but think about “Spreadable Media,” a fun and fantastic book by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, published in 2013 by NYU Press. In it, the authors talk about all manner of media that appears to be “spreadable.”
“Spreadable,” they write, is preferable to a term like “viral,” which implies a helpless passivity of sorts among social-media users. “Our use of spreadable media avoids the metaphors of ‘infection’ and ‘contamination,’ which overestimate the power of media companies and underestimate the agency of audiences,” they write. I’m personally on board with that. After all, we humans make intellectual choices all the time about the media we consume, produce, generate and share, and that’s how this particular piece of media spread.
So, how did a simple call-to-action — the original Tumblr post read,“Guys, please help me – is this dress white and gold or blue and black? Me and my friends are freaking the f— out” — turn into an international two-day phenomenon covered in news outlets from Buzzfeed to the BBC and Wired to NBC News?
The content was classically “spreadable.” The Dress Question was provocative and participatory in the best possible way, at least as these concepts relate to social media. It asked for an answer and easy, simple participation that didn’t threaten to offend other people in the way that a religious or political question might. The barrier to entry was low. You simply had to look at a photo and post an answer to a question.
The feedback was immediate. People either publicly agreed or disagreed with you. Some bothered to offer biological or technical explanations for why we were all seeing the dress in different colors. Some just “favorited” or “liked” your response.
In other words, the engagement was palpable and measurable. And that crazy engagement made it rise to the top of all the social and search algorithms. The most spreadable media does this. It’s not just easily shared, but it provokes a response that feels like a contribution to something bigger than oneself. Indeed, we probably should feel some collective shame that our big contribution to cultural discourse was an argument about a dress’s color, but there’s also something beautiful about that triviality and the curiosity manifested through that. And the fact that we are all likely to forget this happened in three months’ time? All the more beautiful.