The internet was taken by storm five years ago over a photo of a dress posted to Tumblr alongside the question, “Is this dress white and gold, or blue and black?” Ever since, it’s been referred to as #TheDress and is known by social media users and scientists as a phenomenon that divided people into two camps determined by the colors they perceived. Now, half a decade later, people still have strong feelings about that dress and its colors. The same phenomenon has even been applied to other viral examples since.
The Feb. 26, 2015 social media post is a prime example of how social media fuels journalism, as reporters dug at the mystery behind the dress after the masses, including celebrities, debated the color. Although the woman behind the post, Cecilia Bleasdale, couldn’t figure out why.
“I’m not a very public person,” the 57-year-old told The Guardian at the time, before her partner, Paul Jinks, commented that the mass attention was “bizarre” as they watched it take off online and in the media.
Ultimately, reporters took to experts, including Bevil Conway, PhD, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision, to understand why people saw different colors. Conway and his colleague ultimately ran some experiments and published a paper on the topic.
“In it, and a subsequent report, we showed that differences in assumptions about the lighting conditions explain why different people see the image in different ways. Some people infer the light is warm, and so they color-correct the image to remove some of the orange in the image, which causes them to see the dress as blue and black,” Conway tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Other people infer a cool, blue-sky, illuminant, and their brains color correct the image by removing some of the blue in the image. That causes them to see the dress as white and gold. Amazingly the phenomenon is seen categorically: that is people fall into discrete ‘camps.’”
Conway’s experiment additionally explains that the two camps are a result of the question posed in Bleasdale’s original post, which only gave those options. Otherwise, he explains that people might pick up on other colorways such as blue and brown, or even blue and orange.
In an OpEd that Conway wrote for The Guardian in 2015, he said that the mass attention was a result of the inherent fascination with optical illusions.
“Our strong desire to have visual images resolve unambiguously, coupled with our irrational passion for colour, is, I think, at the heart of why we find the dress so compelling,” he wrote. “And why the two camps will probably keep fighting to try to prove that they are right.”
The dress is blue and black, according to British retailer Roman Originals, which made a white and gold dress to auction off for charity, per its website.
Since the 2015 debate, social media has engaged in similar face-offs. Most notably, with an Adidas jacket in 2016, which people argued over whether it was blue and white or black and brown, and a pair of Vans sneakers in 2017, which were seen as pink and white or teal and grey.
Both examples led people to exclaim “not again!” Conway explains that the science behind the succeeding phenomenons is “generally similar.” And like the longevity of the debate surrounding #thedress, people were still debating what colors the Vans were in 2019 when Lizzo and Will Smith brought attention to the matter yet again.
The internet was divided again in 2018 when people on social media were exposed to an audio clip where listeners couldn’t distinguished between hearing the words “Laurel” or “Yanny.”
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
Still, no debate seems as heated as the one still going on today, on the 5th anniversary of the original illusion, #TheDress.
On this day 5 years ago, something I helped to create, divided the world, strained friendships and families. It baffled scientists and became one of the biggest news stories of the year. #thedress@BBCBreakfast @GMB @BBCNaga @StormHuntley @guardian @The_Gazette #Sorry— Paul #TheDress Jinks (@meatybeefy01) February 26, 2020
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