What did you see? White and gold, or black and blue? It was the question that divided workplaces and households all over the world this weekend, even more than ‘Republican or Democrat?’ And while it was eventually revealed that the dress was blue (and designed in this writer’s hometown of Birmingham) that didn’t sway the retinas of the millions who saw it as gold. Over 36 million people viewed the BuzzFeed article in question, although the debate originated on Tumblr. The dress phenomenon could be described as BuzzFeed, crystallised; you needn’t actually create anything to go viral, merely have a keen eye for anything that might capture people’s attention. And capturing people’s attention on a day when headlines also include a televised llama chase is a tall order; which is why they were literally popping champagne corks at the BuzzFeed office on Friday.
“BuzzFeed sprouted from the depths of web culture, and began its life as a place to find delightful things on the internet,” stated Editor-in-chief Ben Smith in an email to his staff. “The explosion of Cates Holderness’ post about The Dress… is a reminder that while we now do so many more things, we’ve never moved away from out roots. Indeed, we launched the Cute or Not app yesterday. What has happened instead is that the world has moved toward us.”
Smith took the opportunity to praise not only Holderness but all of the writers who are using BuzzFeed’s vast audience to spark international conversations about issues slightly weightier than the colour of a dress, such as LGTBT rights. “Some of the muscles we used in our, er, comprehensive dress coverage were the ones we’ve had for years; others, like rigorous science writing, were very new ones,” he writes.
BuzzFeed has been working for a couple of years now to forge a reputation as a serious journalistic platform, and while The Dress may be one of its most successful posts to date, that doesn’t take diminish the site’s less frivolous reporting, such as Smith’s scoop on Uber VP Emil Michael’s muck-raking practices.
What many seem to be taking away from DressGate is that viral phenomena have infiltrated mainstream news and offline consciousness to a greater extent than ever before. As Edmund Lee at Recode puts it; “Web culture is now just culture and BuzzFeed owns it.”