White and Gold (No, Blue and Black!)

The mother of the bride wore white and gold. Or was it blue and black?

The dress in a photo from Caitlin McNeill’s Tumblr site.

From a photograph of the dress the bride posted online, there was broad disagreement. A few days after the wedding last weekend on the Scottish island of Colonsay, a member of the wedding band was so frustrated by the lack of consensus that she posted a picture of the dress on Tumblr, and asked her followers for feedback.

“I was just looking for an answer because it was messing with my head,” said Caitlin McNeill, a 21-year-old singer and guitarist.

Within a half-hour, her post attracted some 500 likes and shares. The photo soon migrated to Buzzfeed and Facebook and Twitter, setting off a social media conflagration that few were able to resist.

As the debate caught fire across the Internet — even scientists could not agree on what was causing the discrepancy — media companies rushed to get articles online. Less than a half-hour after Ms. McNeil’s original Tumblr post, Buzzfeed posted a poll: “What Colors Are This Dress?” As of Friday afternoon, it had been viewed more than 28 million times. (White and gold was winning handily.)

At its peak, more than 670,000 people were simultaneously viewing Buzzfeed’s post. Between that and the rest of Buzzfeed’s blanket coverage of the dress Thursday night, the site easily smashed its previous records for traffic. So did Tumblr.

Everyone, it seems, had an opinion. And everyone was convinced that he, or she, was right.

“I don’t understand this odd dress debate and I feel like it’s a trick somehow,” Taylor Swift wrote on Twitter. “PS it’s OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK.”

“IT’S A BLUE AND BLACK DRESS!” wrote Mindy Kaling. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME,” she continued, including an unprintable modifier for emphasis.

Celebrity couples were torn asunder by the controversy. “I see white & gold,” wrote Kim Kardashian West. “Kanye sees black and blue, who is color blind?”

Politicians were eager to stake out their positions. “I know three things,” wrote Senator Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, on Twitter. “1) the ACA works; 2) climate change is real; 3) that dress is gold and white.”

Sorry, senator. The dress, as we all now know, is blue and black. It goes for 50 pounds at Roman Originals, a British retailer.

In an era when just about everyone seems to be doing anything they can to ignite interest online, the great dress debate went viral the old-fashioned way. It just happened.

Unlike other Internet sensations — remember Alex from Target, the 16-year-old Justin Bieber look-alike (and Target employee) whose picture lit up the smartphones of teenagers across the country last fall? — this was less an Internet meme than a national, even international, conversation. Or maybe argument.

Our perception of color depends on interpreting the amount of light in a room or scene.

At its center was a simple yet bedeviling mystery with an almost old-fashioned, trompe l’oeil quality: How could different people see the same article of clothing so differently? The simplicity of the debate, the fact that it was about something as universal as the color of a dress, made it all the more irresistible.

“This definitely felt like a special thing,” said Buzzfeed’s editor in chief, Ben Smith. “It sort of erased the line between web culture and real culture.”

The Internet, and social media in particular, are known for accelerating and accentuating divisions. In a sense, the dress debate was no different. It, too, hinged on a matter of perception. Only in this case, the polarization wasn’t ideological, or political, or racial. It was physical, based on how our brains were processing visual information. And it was harmless.

“It was delightful,” Mr. Smith said. Unless, of course, you happened to be with someone who saw white and gold when you saw black and blue. Or vice versa.

Various theories were floated about why the dress looks different to different people. (No, if you see the darker hues of blue and black it doesn’t mean that you are depressed.)

Duje Tadin, associate professor for brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, says it may be because of variations in the number of photoreceptors called cones in the retina that perceive the color blue. The human eye has about six million cones that are sensitive to green, red or blue. Signals from the cones go to the brain, which interprets them as color.

“It’s puzzling,” conceded Dr. Tadin. “When it comes to color, blue is always the weird one. We have the fewest number of blue cones.” He added, “If you don’t have very many blue cones, you may see it as white, or if you have plenty of blue cones, you may see more blue.”

Joseph Toscano, an assistant professor in the Villanova University Department of Psychology and an expert in illusions, said the image seems to be a type of reversible figure, or a figure that can be interpreted in two different ways. The classic example of this is the Necker cube, a drawing of a three-dimensional cube that seems to be facing one way to some viewers, and another way to others.

“Your interpretation depends on several factors, such as which part of the figure you attend to,” Dr. Toscano said. “Something similar is likely going on with the dress.”

Another theory involves color perception. When cues about the ambient light are missing, people may perceive the same color in different ways.

The one thing scientists could agree on was that this is a very unusual illusion. People who see the dress one way do not eventually begin to see it the other way, as is common with many optical illusions. “This clearly has to do with individual differences in how we perceive the world,” said Dr. Tadin. “There’s something about this particular image that just captures those differences in a remarkable way.”

Demand for the dress has been high, to say the least, since Ms. McNeill’s post went viral.

“My phone wouldn’t stop vibrating at about 5 o’clock this morning,” Roman Originals’ creative manager, Ian Johnson, said in an interview from Birmingham, England.

Mr. Johnson wouldn’t specify how many of the dresses Roman Originals has sold since the company was identified as its manufacturer, but he said the dress was responsible for 60 percent of the company’s business on Friday.

The woman who unwittingly unleashed the pandemonium watched it unfold on her iPhone in a hotel in Oban, Scotland. She was stranded there after the wedding, when high winds prevented her from returning to her college on the island of North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides.

At one point, Ms. McNeill said, the notifications on her Tumblr page were streaming in so furiously that her phone almost burned itself out in the palm of her hand. “I turned it off and let it cool down for a while and it was fine,” she said.

The bride is still on her honeymoon in Jamaica. As of Friday morning anyway, Ms. McNeill hadn’t spoken with her since her post blew up. “I don’t really want to harass her on her honeymoon,” she said. “But I think it might have gotten to the point where she has to know.”

Source: New York Times


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