Internet finally fulfills its promise with global debate over what color a dress is

posted at 3:01 pm on February 27, 2015 by Allahpundit

I’m not even kidding with that headline. This BuzzFeed post, which has been shared nearly 28 million times in 18 hours, is the apotheosis of viral content. It’s visual, not textual, it’s simple enough for a four-year-old to understand, and there’s a mystery at the heart of it guaranteed to spark ferocious debate among everyone who views it. Weirdly enough, it reminds me a little of why the Rathergate memos broke big online back in the day. That was the first time I can remember that a major political story revolved around evidence that the viewer could examine for himself right on his screen as the story unfolded in real time. You didn’t need to follow links and sit through long ideological arguments to participate in the debate. You were a co-investigator, able to judge with your own eyes how similar a modern Word document was to memos purportedly written on a typewriter 30 years earlier. The dress uproar has a whiff of that. Is it blue and black or white and gold? Are there other photos in different lighting? Will the mystery be solved? Because the central question is so simple, everyone who views the image forms an opinion instantly and is completely wedded to that opinion. No wonder Neetzan Zimmerman, a guy who knows something about viral content, called it the “viral singularity.”

At one point last night, BuzzFeed was hosting more than 670,000 users simultaneously, a population greater than Washington D.C.’s. Recognizing that they had unwittingly won the traffic equivalent of Powerball, the writing staff bought a bunch more tickets by publishing no fewer than seven follow-up posts. (Follow the links at the bottom here.) CNN.com rushed out a video about the dress photo at 3:14 a.m. ET this morning to buy some traffic-lottery tickets of its own. The paper of record was up bright and early with a story about how the photo had “melted the Internet.” Surely the august Wall Street Journal would pass, right? No — they’ve got a story up too. Of the two dozen major papers I follow on RSS, I’m reasonably sure that every one of them has at least a small item about this. That’s what kind of pageview gold rush we’re talking about here. Celebrities chimed in too:

So did quasi-celebrities. Note the number of retweets on this one:

Politicians? Of course:

I’m not even the first HA blogger today to tackle this topic:

All this — for a fairly easily explained optical illusion.

Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.” (Neitz sees white-and-gold.)

Usually that system works just fine. This image, though, hits some kind of perceptual boundary. That might be because of how people are wired. Human beings evolved to see in daylight, but daylight changes color. That chromatic axis varies from the pinkish red of dawn, up through the blue-white of noontime, and then back down to reddish twilight. “What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.” (Conway sees blue and orange, somehow.)

It all comes down to the ambient light. If you perceive the background lighting as more bluish, your brain will assume that the bluish color on the dress is actually blue light hitting a white fabric and will adjust for that. If you perceive the background lighting as more gold, you’ll see the fabric as a darker blue that appears faded because of the color of the light. I thought the dress looked blue and black from the word go and that it wasn’t a close call, but to my amazement, plenty of commenters chipped in on our Headlines thread this morning to say, “nope, looks white and gold.” Good lord. You people probably think “gif” is pronounced with a hard “G” and that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie too. Never again will I doubt American decline.

In lieu of an exit question, here’s my attempt to achieve the smartest of all global Smart Takes about the dress: It’s really a metaphor for religion, no? The atheist looks at life and sees gloomy deep blues and black. The believer looks at it and sees lovely golds and white. “What am I missing?” the atheist wonders. “Why can’t I see what they see?” Some us are just wired differently, my friends. Wired, that is, to see … the truth.


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Comments

i still don’t understand how so many people see blue and black! wtf!! if something white and gold is in a shadow, the white can look like a dull pale blue and the gold looks darker and dull. not sure how people are seeing black when there is clearly a yellowish brownish tint. and the “blue” is so pale it looks like white. i saw the website of the company that makes the dress and i saw the blue color of the dress. it’s a dark, royal blue, not even close to the grayish pale blue in the photo. aaaaaargh i know the dress is blue and black but that photo does not show it!

Sachiko on February 27, 2015 at 5:35 PM

I’ve been waiting all day for AP’s take

…though, admittedly, I was hoping for a headline more along the lines of, “I guess we need to talk about this dress which is obviously gold and white.”

calbear on February 27, 2015 at 5:40 PM

I see blue and gold — whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Aizen on February 27, 2015 at 3:22 PM

Navy.

Buck Farky on February 27, 2015 at 5:45 PM

Whoa, that’s freaky. The Five were just talking about this, and one of the fill-in hosts said to focus on the gold, and to tell yourself to see it as brown. Once I started focusing on the darker “gold” section, the white turned blue and the brown slowly became black. Neat!

Stoic Patriot on February 27, 2015 at 5:46 PM

I saw blue and brown, but the dress is obviously darker as the photo is terribly overexposed. The argument in my house was how dark the blue was.

Buck Farky on February 27, 2015 at 5:47 PM

I see all the images and all I see is blue and black. I can’t even express how crazy it is for my entire family to be divided on the same picture, same screen, same resolution.

Bee on February 27, 2015 at 5:52 PM

So much for eyewitness evidence in criminal cases.
It’s well known that people see colors differently (especially blues and greens) and that the lighting affects perception.
So, the truth is, nothing is any color at all?!?!

It’s all in the mind.

AesopFan on February 27, 2015 at 6:08 PM

My husband couldn’t understand the big deal when it was obviously blue and black. No, honey, I said. It looks white and gold. He was aghast. The dress is actually blue and black but I STILL see white and gold. I guess he’s going to be picking out the house colors.

Alibali on February 27, 2015 at 6:09 PM

Photoshop tells me the dress in the picture is a dirty orange and a desaturated light blue/white with a bluish tint.

Science.

What it’s like on the other side of the lens I don’t know and don’t care.

JSchuler on February 27, 2015 at 6:14 PM

This is seriously the most awesome thing ever….

Seamus on February 27, 2015 at 6:36 PM

I initially saw white and gold. But if I look at the picture with the dress isolated, peep-hole through my fist, I can only see blue.

Serious Cat on February 27, 2015 at 7:13 PM

It’s whatever colors you think it is. Yeah! You get a trophy, too, just like everyone else who knows it’s blue and black!

SouthernGent on February 27, 2015 at 7:14 PM

I’m an atheist and it looks white and gold to me.

Tzetzes on February 27, 2015 at 8:04 PM

So, the truth is, nothing is any color at all?!?!
It’s all in the mind.

AesopFan on February 27, 2015 at 6:08 PM

Perception isn’t reality. The dress is actually blue and black, even though I see it as white and gold. Colors can actually be measured- each color has its own wavelength.

Just like with tone-deaf individuals. My tuner can pick up minute differences in pitch, I have better pitch than most people, and one of my best friends is so tone-deaf she’s almost singing in a different key…well, several different keys.

Cheshire_Kat on February 27, 2015 at 9:59 PM

My new avatar. LOL

StubbornGreenBurros on February 27, 2015 at 10:15 PM

http://i.imgur.com/qShH5re.gif.

JetBoy on February 27, 2015 at 9:44 PM

LOL

StubbornGreenBurros on February 27, 2015 at 10:16 PM

It is white and gold. Only liberals and other marxist trash see any black or blue.

HugoDrax on February 27, 2015 at 10:35 PM

Tolerance, I say. Even those who see blue-and-black deserve to be able to hold their foolish opinions.

Surellin on February 27, 2015 at 10:42 PM

I just don’t understand the point. It’s a stupid dress, and the ONLY answer that counts is, “No, dear; that dress does not make you look fat.”

Also…why does it sometimes say I’m not logged in when I am logged in?

Othniel on February 28, 2015 at 12:27 AM

It is white and gold. Only liberals and other marxist trash see any black or blue.

HugoDrax on February 27, 2015 at 10:35 PM

Pope, is that you?

HugoDrax on February 27, 2015 at 10:20 PM

WryTrvllr on February 28, 2015 at 12:46 AM

For the record, it’s actually blue and black.

Schadenfreude on February 28, 2015 at 1:25 AM

It’s like an old Tibetan carpet. Look at it one way, and it’s cobalt blue or lapis. Look another way and it’s turquoise.

Christien on February 28, 2015 at 1:28 AM

Anybody do a send of this and The Throbbing Memo from Rathergate?

Alternate images of the memo and dress.

Christien on February 28, 2015 at 1:40 AM

send up

Christien on February 28, 2015 at 1:41 AM

See, I see it as gold and white, so I had to pull it into paint and see what the real color values are.

In the picture it is Mustard and Gull Gray. The people who are seeing it as black and blue are compensating for the color changes due to the photograph lighting. Those of us who see it as gold and white, we are not compensating for the lighting at all.

Voyager on February 28, 2015 at 4:33 AM

Well, if nothing else, it seems like a useful lesson in how peoples brains process optical data.

Ramadahl on February 28, 2015 at 5:23 AM

The next question that should be asked and hope it goes viral,how was obama elected president twice? Oh this post answers it, 30 million morons.

phatfawzi on February 28, 2015 at 7:59 AM

Well, if nothing else, it seems like a useful lesson in how peoples brains process optical data.

Ramadahl on February 28, 2015 at 5:23 AM

No the Optical Data shows ISIS slaughtering and killing with tepid unprecedented challenge from a sitting US President. Lets get back on track.

malkinmania on February 28, 2015 at 8:14 AM

Good lord. You people probably think “gif” is pronounced with a hard “G” and that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie too.

Die Hard is a Christmas movie, you candyass heretic.

thirtyandseven on February 28, 2015 at 1:04 PM

Obama: that dress,…has acted stupidly,…and I……

Mr Soames on February 28, 2015 at 1:17 PM

The one in the middle has a white dress – pretty sure of that. The transgender guy on the right has a kind of rug around his waist. The one on the right appears to have only one arm. Yes, it’s quite a mind-bender!

virgo on February 28, 2015 at 9:24 PM