Alex Eben Meyer for BuzzFeed News

2/26: The Oral History

From two llamas escaping an Arizona retirement community to fashion’s most notorious optical illusion, February 26, 2015, was the day that everyone — everyone — came together online to cheer, then argue. One year later, the people who accidentally created a phenomenon remember the internet’s perfect storm and what it wrought.

February 26, 2015, was hardly one minute old when the day’s first big news broke. At 12:01 a.m., Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser allowed the city’s marijuana legalization law to take effect. Plenty more news would follow. As the East Coast braved its morning commute, the Palm Beach Post reported news of a man who checked into a local hospital complaining of a headache, before doctors found a bullet lodged in his head. The New York Times reported news of “3 Brooklyn Men Accused of Plot to Aid ISIS’ Fight.” British intelligence officials identified the notorious ISIS executioner Jihadi John.

A paper in Nature discovered evidence of a “Supermassive Black Hole Dating to Cosmic Dawn.” The Federal Communications Commission was scheduled to vote on net neutrality, prompting the editors of Tech Policy Daily to ask, “Will February 26, 2015 Mark the Death of Internet Freedom?” And late-evening reports that billionaire Donald J. Trump was “more serious than ever about pursuing a run for the White House in 2016” began to meander across cable news chyrons.

It was also the day that two cheeky llamas broke loose from an Arizona retirement home, bringing the world’s screen-gazers together in glee, just hours before an optical illusion in the form of a sensibly priced evening dress tore us all apart.

Outrageous, controversial, and frivolous things catch fire online all the time, but February 26 was different. The Great Llama Escape and The Dress besieged our timelines just hours apart, almost as if connected, in some unknown way. On an internet that can feel increasingly toxic, these two back-to-back news events were nearly impossible to politicize. They were silly and fleeting — but, a year later, they’re still lodged in our collective cultural memory.

They were divisive, sure, but in the kind of low-stakes way that affirms, rather than threatens, our shared humanity. And they were purely joyful and universal in the way that the best things on the internet can feel. Simply put: We lost our shit, and we lost it together twice in the same day. And we had fun doing it. And we haven’t seen anything like it since.

This is the story of that day.

Karen Freund

“Nothing touched the world like two llamas in Sun City.”

Around 12 p.m. ET, Karen Freund and Bub Bullis, two longtime llama owners from Sun City, Arizona, take three llamas — Kahkneeta (tall, white), Laney (shorter, black), and Alejandro — to a retirement home for a late-morning meet-and-greet event.

Karen Freund, llama owner: Richard Falkenberg is a friend who we’ve known for the last 10 years, since we got into llamas. We became good friends, caravanning to all the llama shows. Eventually Falkenberg retired and sold his house and llamas and he moved into his retirement home. He wanted to do this therapy thing for his retirement home community thing, and so he asked us, “Would you bring them over?” I had a friend come because Richard wanted the three llamas.

Stephanie Schmidt, ‎director of sales at The Carillons Retirement Community: The old director of our place didn’t want to have llamas visit, but we pushed and pushed and we brought the llamas.

Llamas at the Carillons Retirement Community

Freund: We get there and it’s great. We walked the llamas into the community room and they meet and greet with people. We want everyone to get to pet the llamas, so we parade them around out there and everything is great.

The llamas finish the scheduled part of their visit around 1 p.m. ET.

Schmidt: All the residents pet them and posed with them, and some residents who were sick were visited by the llamas in their apartments. It was a very nice day. The next thing you know they’re loading them up to leave and one of the llamas gets spooked. It spooked the other. Pretty soon the two llamas, Kahkneeta and…god, what’s the other’s name? They were loose, having fun, a good ol’ time, trotting and being free. But then, just like that, it stopped being fun.

Freund: Near the end, a couple of Richard’s friends wanted to see the llamas. So the llamas are handed off to Richard. And, well, Richard is getting older, and he’s not quite holding the rope right…he has this cowboy hat on and he’s messing around with this bag that he has and not holding the rope as well as he should. And I don’t know what spooked her, but something did, and Richard got knocked off balance. I’m freaking out, thinking he’s gonna break a hip, and poor Richard — he’s still holding on to the rope with his cowboy hat, and this just freaks her out even more. She starts stepping back, and he’s getting dragged, and we’re yelling, “Let her go! Let her go!”

Schmidt: It was like the llamas were little kids playing a trick on their parents — they were all giddy at first. We didn’t know what to do. We were yelling, and Karen, the owner, was yelling, “Put your arms up!”

Freund: We were all yelling. I ran to the back of the trailer, made sure the door was closed, and jumped in the truck. I look in the side mirror and see my second little llama coming out the back of my trailer! The door was closed but not latched. I go check on her, and she sees the other llama running around. And she takes off. I’m just about ready to throw up because I have two llamas running loose. We’re trying to get them rounded up and nothing is working. We have people in walkers and wheelchairs and motorized wheelchairs trying to help us, but this area is so big it can’t be contained.

2:48 p.m. ET: Initial news reports begin to circulate on Twitter. Llama tweets begin flooding in at a rate of around 120 tweets per minute.

w.soundcloud.com

3:05 p.m. ET: Articles began to appear reporting that the FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify broadband internet service as a utility. Broadly speaking, the ruling allows the FCC to prevent providers from creating so-called “fast lanes,” where certain companies have to pay extra money for full-fledged fast internet speeds. The ruling was seen as a huge, decisive win for net neutrality advocates and a guarantee of a free and open internet for the coming years. “The American people reasonably expect and deserve an internet that is fast, fair, and open,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during the ruling. “Today they get what they deserve.”

Kate Forscey, associate counsel, government affairs, public knowledge, net neutrality advocate: People really stepped forward and acknowledged that the internet belongs to all of us. I’ve been working on this issue since 2010, but I have colleagues who’ve worked so hard for this for 15 years. We were ecstatic.

The llamas, now free from the backyard space of The Carillons, trot into unknown territory: the sprawling expanse of downtown Sun City. Led by Kahkneeta, the two creatures amble gamely down parkways with grass-lined medians. Early on, they meander with little urgency, utilizing sidewalks with surprising frequency and occasionally pausing to rest on a lawn or in the shade of a roadside tree.

Freund: All of a sudden I hear the lights and sirens, because somebody from the home called the police. It’s getting worse and worse. Next thing I knew the llamas broke through whatever little defense we had. Boom. They’re in traffic.

Steve Watkins

Schmidt: It got scary, frankly. I headed into my office because there was nothing I could do, and by then the helicopter had come.

Stephen Watkins, news helicopter pilot: The station called us at about 1 p.m. and I remember they were like, “We’ve got some possible horses or llamas loose in Sun City.” We’re like, “OK.” It usually tends to be some lame mini–petting zoo or something that turns out to be nothing — a knee-jerk reaction because somebody went on social media. But as soon as we pulled up, all of a sudden I see a llama running right down the middle of a big highway, and we’re like, “OH MAN.”

Sgt. Philip Hilliker, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department: At first glance I didn’t really believe what was going on. There’s quite a few times you get a call and what’s described isn’t what’s really happening. Figured it was probably somebody dressed in a llama costume or something.

As law enforcement officers attempt to create a perimeter, Kahkneeta and Laney amble their way into dead ends, often sidling suspiciously close to police officers and concerned volunteers. Tense but unhurried, the llamas wait until the last moment to elude their pursuers, summoning a second gear to buck and dodge lunging would-be wranglers.

Watkins: They’re darting all over and watching the police and sheriff trailing them with no way to catch them. There was nothing they could do. They’d pull alongside the llamas while they’re catching their breath, and the second they’d open the door the llamas would take off. It was so comical watching the cops go in circles. Thank god they didn’t try to shoot or anything.

Troy Barrett, news helicopter cameraman: We’re like, “Oh man, this is getting good.”

As teams on the ground race to secure the llamas, a nation of deskbound workers watch the chase percolate across Twitter and Facebook. Links to the live chase feed pop up across the internet, and news aggregators begin to GIF the highlights. Fox News cuts into its national broadcast to take the chase live.

“Why are we doing this, you may ask,” Fox News anchor Shepard Smith says on the air. “Well, because we have live pictures of llamas. What would you do? I mean, we got through the ISIS stuff, and, you know, there are other things, and we’ll make time for them — we’ll kill the commercials if we have to.”


Barrett: As people noticed that the news chopper picked it up, they came outside and tried to help. There were old ladies in housecoats and nurses from the hospital that was close. People in chef’s coats. This amazing array of people who were coming out to catch this thing. But the llamas weren’t having it. It was definitely akin to a police car chase — a very slow, hilarious one.

3:15 p.m.: As if sensing the newfound media attention coming from the hovering helicopters, the llamas split up and begin to gallop down long stretches of open road. The news cameras zoom out from above, revealing to an onlooking nation a majestic, live picture of freedom.

Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County sheriff: I’m very tough on animal cruelty. I’m not saying these llamas were abused or anything, but they could have been put in danger or put the people in danger. I know it made national news and put Sun City on the map, but I’m an animal guy and I’m glad they’re OK. We had an ostrich called Sadie that went missing once in the wilderness, and I sent our helicopter to find her. I took some heat for that. “Why are you spending money on a helicopter to find an ostrich?” they said. Well, that’s what we do to protect animals.

At 3:19 p.m., the llamas are cornered in a parking lot. With lasso-wielding pursuers on either side, the llamas decide to split the defense, with Kahkneeta taking the lead. Using superior speed, Kahkneeta eludes all grasps, running into a narrow strip of parking lot, but Laney, who is following behind, is wrangled dramatically by a man in a black shirt and baseball cap.

Minutes later, as Kahkneeta makes her way down a red dirt–lined access road behind Sun City’s hospital, a pickup truck quietly pursues the white llama. In the truck bed, the same man in a black shirt and cap twirls his rope above his head and quickly drive-by lassoes the second llama.

Schmidt, Carillons sales director: Finally, they were lassoed. Both by the same guy, from the back of a pickup truck. The lone mystery man — nobody knows who it is because he took off.

Freund, owner: My understanding is that he’s a landscaper. One of the news crews that came to the house that night said they’d tracked him down and he didn’t want to talk. They thought maybe he had been involved in something bad or wasn’t here legally, perhaps. I don’t care if he has a warrant out for himself — he brought it to an end, and that’s all I care about. He has some skills.

Watkins: I was so happy for that guy. The only way to catch those guys was to wrangle them like a cowboy. This guy was down there and he was so skilled. He must have been a cowboy or something, because he did it within minutes. I was like, Dang. We’d followed them for a good 40 minutes, thinking, There’s no way this ends well. And then this guy just comes up and lassoes them. I mean, what a great ending!

Spredfast, a social media tracking tool, calculated that the llama chase hit its peak at 3:30 p.m. ET on Twitter, with 3,084 tweets per minute. As the afternoon wore on, four of Twitter’s top 10 Trending Topics (#LlamaWatch, #TeamLlama, Sun City, White Llama) belonged to the llamas.

Freund: So it’s finally over and I’m putting the llamas in the trailer and I hear one news guy say to another, “How’d you find out about this?” and he goes, “My friend from Virginia called me.” I stopped dead in my tracks and go, “VIRGINIA?!”

Schmidt: Phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Jimmy Kimmel called!

Freund: It went nationwide. I threw my phone in my truck trailer and it’s just beeping with texts, Facebook posts. I click on the first Facebook post and it’s a friend saying, “Karen, did you hear about these llamas escaping? So funny! You should’ve been there to help them.” And I’m thinking, OH MY GOD!

Lt. Brandon Jones, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department public information officer: I’m getting calls and I can’t answer fast enough. I can’t even dial out or send a text, because the phone won’t stop ringing. I can’t eat my sandwich — I can’t do anything. CNN, Fox News, Telemundo. Good Morning America called, and it wasn’t during normal hours for them.

Freund: I had voicemails from everyone. I talk to Channel 3 and next thing I knew my whole cul-de-sac is full of news crews. It’s lit up like daylight until 11 p.m. with their trucks, and then starts it again at 3 a.m. when Good Morning America shows up. It was just going on nonstop with CNN and MSNBC — they each spent a day with us. And then the BBC called me. The BBC!

Sheriff Arpaio: I don’t want to be egotistical. Usually all this media stuff occurs because of me and my name. On this one, I have to give credit to the animals. They outgunned me on the publicity.

Barrett: It was a very odd but proud moment. We were able to capture this thing, and I don’t know…for the lack of something better to say, we broke the internet. In my 12-plus years of being in television, I’ve covered presidents, earthquakes, all that stuff. But nothing touched the world like two llamas in Sun City.

According to Twitter, there were more than 220,000 global tweets surrounding the escape in just 90 minutes.


 “Oh shit, what did I do?”

Minutes after the chase’s dramatic conclusion, as a nation turns back to its neglected work, Cates Holderness, who runs BuzzFeed’s Tumblr page, receives a message from a user named swiked:

Early that February, in Cheshire, England, Cecilia Bleasdale had taken three hasty photographs in the Cheshire Oaks mall of a number of dresses she’d been trying on for her daughter’s upcoming wedding. Settling on the third, she texted her daughter, Grace. Grace saw white and gold; her mother saw blue and black. Baffled, Grace eventually posted the picture to Facebook. Swiked, aka Caitlin McNeil, was a friend of Grace’s, who, according to The Guardian, had seen it and “not been able to stop thinking about the image.”

Cates Holderness: I looked at the post and was like, that’s weird — that’s just a blue and black dress. I didn’t really think anything of it and went along with my day and went back two or three hours later, toward the end of the day — like 5 or 5:30 or something — I go and I look back and it’s gotten like 5,000 more notes in a span of two hours, which on Tumblr is insanely viral. The comments were all people just screaming at each other — just losing their minds. So I lean over to the rest of the Community team sitting beside me, and I’m like, “Hey, guys, what color is this dress?” and at the same time, one said “blue and black” and one said “white and gold.” And then they started yelling at each other. Within five minutes there were 20 people standing behind my desk just raucously debating. One art person was like, “Send me a file. I need to isolate the colors on Photoshop.” Everyone was losing their minds. I took like three minutes to copy and paste the Tumblr embed code and do a very simple “Hey, people are losing their minds on Tumblr and they can’t decide what color this dress is” poll. And I hit publish and left work.

 

Left to right: Cates Holderness, Annalee Newitz, Adam Rogers

Cates publishes her post at 6:14 p.m. ET. Just 22 minutes later, Twitter reports its first noticeable uptick in tweets about dresses. #TheDress is already averaging 5,000 tweets per minute (2,500 white and gold, 2,500 blue and black).

Amanda Brennan, community and content associate, Tumblr: It was right when I was finishing work. I’m just scoping my dashboard one last time and I kept seeing this post of the original photo. It came through a few times before I saw white and gold and blue and black one after another. I was worried I was having a stroke or something. I was really getting worried, taking all these screenshots and using color picker and Photoshop trying to make sure this isn’t my brain or my eyes. And I couldn’t help thinking, like, Whoa this is going to be really big.

Tom Christ, director of data and systems at Tumblr: At the peak of the viral wave we were doing some big numbers — the article was being viewed 14,000 times a second compared to the normal state of well under 1,000. It was a fairly substantial piece of content.

Holderness: When I came off the train in Brooklyn, I get reception and my phone fucking explodes. Text messages. I couldn’t open Twitter because it kept crashing. I thought somebody had died, maybe. I didn’t know what was going on. People were texting me from work, as well as my relatives, being like, “You’re ruining our lives!” And I was like, oh shit, what did I do? And then I started laughing because I realized it was that dumb fucking post.

Annalee Newitz, then-Gizmodo editor-in-chief: I was at dinner and people are sitting at the table practically having orgasms over this dress. They’re pulling up the numbers, which are just insane.

8:31 p.m. ET: Twitter reports that it’s seeing over 11,000 tweets per minute about #TheDress (5,700 blue and black, 5,500 white and gold).

Karen Do, senior manager of brand social media at Adobe: I first heard about it from somebody on our team, and in seconds we’re having this debate around our desks. It got to the point that somebody went and made a printout of it to make sure it wasn’t just our monitor.

Adam Rogers, science editor, Wired: We’re kind of rolling our eyes here, but it kept popping up, and so I finally get up and go talk to our executive editor and I say, “Can you believe people are making a big deal out of this like they don’t know what color it is? I mean, it’s obvious it’s blue.” And he looks at me concerned and says, “It’s white.” And I just step back and think, Whoa. I’d been a Knight fellow at MIT in the science journalism program, and I’d fallen down this fairly deep rabbit hole of human perception of color. It was very serendipitous. But I suspected we were in a race — that every science reporter in the country would see this same angle.

Do: We started combing Twitter and we were flabbergasted that this was trending like it was. So we’re monitoring our feeds and we saw this person who @-mentioned Adobe. She was genius enough to use one of our apps to isolate the colors of the dress and prove what it was, once and for all. And so we made this modified tweet and gave her full attribution, since it wasn’t really our idea. We jumped in the conversation and thought, Let’s see what happens.

Jenna Bromberg, senior manager of digital engagement, Pizza Hut: I was in Silicon Valley at a conference, and my husband texted me, “You missed the best day on the internet.” And I went back and saw there were these loose llamas and I immediately went to go watch the footage. Once I did, I went to Twitter to tweet about it even though I was super late. But then I saw this stuff about a dress. I look over on the sidebar and see it’s trending, too.

Holderness: The most interesting thing to me, is that it traveled. It went from New York media circle-jerk Twitter to international. And you could see it in my Twitter notifications because people started having conversations in, like, Spanish and Portuguese and then Japanese and Chinese and Thai and Arabic. It was amazing to watch this move from a local thing to, like, a massive international phenomenon.

Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College: I was answering student emails when one pops in my inbox at 8:44 p.m. from Adam Rogers at Wired. He sent me a link to the picture and said, “What color is it?” I looked at it and said, “Well, it’s comprised of brown and blue pixels,” but he told me those aren’t the choices. When you’re looking at the photo — this particular photo — there’s something different. In real life you’d have enough information from your eyes to know what the light source was and thus the color. But the beauty of the picture is that it is surprisingly crappy. You don’t notice it’s crappy at first. But the environment around the picture is unusual, and so you have a fairly high-level brain phenomenon going on here. Some people think it has to do with eyes, but it’s really that different people have different priors of what they think the light source is and their brain is either getting rid of the orange or the bluey component. I thought this was pretty straightforward.

By 9:02 p.m., The Dress breaks BuzzFeed’s traffic record (431,000 concurrent visitors). The post tops out at 673,000 concurrent visitors.

Conway: Anyhow, [Rogers] says, “Thanks for your help,” and by the time I went to bed, it was 9:30, 10. But before I hung up, [Rogers] said to me, “Your tomorrow will not be the same.” I rolled my eyes a bit and thought, Sure whatever. I didn’t appreciate the full extent of what was about to happen. Not even close.

By the time the fervor dies down, Rogers’ story will have 32.8 million unique views.

 

Left to right: Jenna Bromberg, Karen Do, Bevil Conway

At 9:14 p.m., Taylor Swift tweets that she’s “confused and scared” and registers her support for blue and black. The tweet receives 111,134 retweets and 154,188 likes. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom — where The Dress began — millions begin to wake up to the phenomenon.

Ian Johnson, creative manager, Roman Originals (the U.K. company that manufactures the Royal Blue Lace Bodycon Dress): I woke up, saw my Facebook friends discussing this bizarre color-changing dress on my News Feed. Once my eyes adjusted after waking up, I was pretty gobsmacked. I just laughed and told the wife that I’d better get to work. Our director was busy with his morning yoga when he got the call — I think it was the “inverted Atlas.”

Bromberg: I saw white and gold, and because I’m always thinking about this sort of thing, I immediately made the connection that the best thing in the world is white and gold: a cheese pizza. So I went to my phone to the reserve of high-resolution pictures of cheese pizza in my camera roll — it’s always really nice to have a camera roll full of ready-to-go pizza photography — and I fired off a tweet. It literally took 30 seconds. I was pretty proud of myself. I chuckled to myself and went to bed.

Do: It was literally a tweet heard around the world. It went viral in a way that was very unexpected for us. Every single country minus a couple African countries were tweeting about it.

Between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., swiked’s Tumblr post receives approximately 140,000 page views per minute.

Johnson: I quickly put some imagery together and got it out into social media. We had the answers! There were even people in the office that just could not agree what color the dress was, and we had it right in front of us!

Conway: I woke up the next morning and opened my email and there were dozens, maybe even hundreds, of emails in my inbox. I thought I must’ve been hacked. Then I scrolled down and it’s all legit newspapers. The New York Times, The Guardian, MSNBC. I did 10 interviews and had to have a colleague take my class that day. It was kind of extraordinary.

Johnson: I think I gave five or six radio interviews that morning alone.

Brandon Silverman, CEO of the social media monitoring platform CrowdTangle: We’ve seen other stories go viral, but the sheer diversity of outlets that picked it up and were talking about it was unlike anything we had ever seen. Everyone from QVC to Warner Bros. to local public libraries to Red Cross affiliates were all posting links to it on their social accounts. That kind of diversity in who’s sharing a story pretty much never happens…and certainly never to that degree. Even in the year since and with a million different people trying to replicate it, nothing has come close.

All told, the original BuzzFeed post has reached 38.8 million unique views, as of this writing.

Holderness: Honestly, I’ll probably never know what made me go back and look at that Tumblr message a second time, but I’m glad that I did.

According to Twitter, there were 4.4 million tweets about #TheDress in less than 24 hours. The social network included The Dress in its year in review as one of the biggest social media events of 2015, alongside the Women’s World Cup, #BlackLivesMatter, #ParisAttacks, #MarriageEquality, and #RefugeesWelcome.

For Bleasdale and her family, The Dress landed them on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, on which Grace and her new husband received $10,000 inside a briefcase for a honeymoon. But for Bleasdale, the days following The Dress were perplexing and stressful. A story in The Guardian reports that she and her husband now “talk wistfully” about the whole affair. “We kind of have different priorities to what’s going on in the media,” she told the paper.

And while McNeil’s Tumblr post was viewed over 73 million times, racking up 483,000 notes and contributing to over 5,000 fresh emails for McNeil, it was not long for this world. Cecilia Bleasdale, the original copyright owner of the photo of The Dress, had the photo taken down over a copyright issue. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed reached an agreement with Bleasdale to acquire the rights to the photo.

Cecilia Bleasdale: Sorry, I have no more to say on the matter.

Caitlin McNeil: I’m afraid I’m not doing any interviews now. Sorry about that! Cheers.

Not everyone on the outside was delighted by the phenomenon, either. Maureen Driscoll, a novelist and former writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, tweeted, “I think it’s a really pale ‘this is stupid,’ with ‘I don’t give a fuck’ trim.”

Maureen Driscoll: Viral media ephemera like this is definitely exhausting. To see basically your whole feed become one thing, and it’s not anything of substance. And it’s everywhere — not just Twitter, but the news and everything you can read online. It’s very weird to see this hive mentality of everyone talking about the same thing, and something as inconsequential as what this damn dress looks like.

At Esquire, Luke O’Neil declared February 26, 2015, “The Single Worst Day on the Internet in 2015,” citing The Dress as “the defining image of the year, and not just because of its immense virality … but because of what it says about the collective media-induced psychosis that gripped us throughout 2015.”

Luke O’Neil, writer: I definitely thought it was the perfect metaphor. We quite literally can’t agree what we’re looking at when we look at the same thing. This to me is what we’re talking about every day in this [election] cycle. There’s no such thing as the truth; we all bring our own facts to the debate until there’s no such things almost as facts anymore.

Among his complaints, O’Neil suggested that the viral events drowned out the day’s more important news, including the black hole discovery in Nature magazine and the net neutrality ruling. “Many things happened on February 26 this year, but you probably only remember two of them,” he wrote.

Xuebing Wu, associate director and professor at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University: Everyone in the U.S. and U.K. and the domestic newspapers — they all contacted us very frequently on that day. So I didn’t have a chance to check out any of the other news media events that day.

Forscey, net neutrality advocate: This [net neutrality] process was really a call to the people to say, “The internet is yours; do what you will with it.” And that particular day, it was that they wanted to argue about the color of The Dress and get excited over llamas. Sometimes it’s a higher calling — it’s protecting a tool of discourse, protecting how you apply for jobs, protecting the birthplace for social and civil rights movements. And other times it’s a strange meme phenomenon.

Over at Gizmodo, Newitz wrote about trying to understand the underlying social logic behind The Dress, and, more important, the hysteria around it. In a post titledThe Dress and #Ferguson Are the Two Sides of Social Media Explosions, Newitz found what she called “a disturbing undercurrent” inside “flash media hysteria” events like this.

Newitz: With The Dress, sure, it’s fun! There’s something deeply wonderful that millions of people wanted to get together and giggle over a dress and maybe learn some science. We want that! But I think there is this dark or rather problematic side that feeds into political amnesia. The harm is done with something like Ferguson, which, in a mass media way, can bring about this flash of salience and people think, Oh now I understand something like violence against black people! And I released the feelings I had and the collective fear and outrage experience and now I move on!

O’Neil: The Dress and the llamas aren’t harmful on their face. But with viral stuff, I often feel like we’re softened up by it all. Every day we give it our attention for an hour and then blissfully forget and it’s softened up our skepticism immune system. It feels like we haven’t even done the assigned reading and yet we’ve shown up to class ready to argue. Hell, we haven’t even read the same text.

Newitz: The Dress is a perfect use of flash media hysteria — everybody freaks out and nobody gets hurt. But those same impulses that allow us to freak out and forget can be very harmful when applied to complex political things.

Amanda Brennan, Tumblr: One thing I’ve seen is more people who I don’t normally see as part of internet meme culture sharing viral stories quicker than ever before. Even my grandma — even she wants to be part of these things. Events like the The Dress show mainstream media this other weird, lesser-known side of the internet, and teaches them how to mine it.

Driscoll: The best thing about The Dress is you didn’t need to fact-check it — it’s just your opinion. I feel that a lot with this election as well — there’s such a strong meme culture with this election already, which plays to your confirmation bias. I almost look back at The Dress with nostalgia. We’re talking about ridiculous things right now, and I wish they were as inconsequential as The Dress. I mean, I wish the damn Dress could be president now.


 “We never had a moon landing. We had a dress and some llamas.”

The collective enjoyment was familiar, even comforting — somewhere between a glorious workday distraction and something of actual importance. For some, it was a callback to an earlier time online.

Tom Coates, technologist and early blogger: The day reminded me how, early on, it felt like everyone would talk about one thing online. And that feels like it’s rarer now. I got into [the internet] for that sense of somebody creating something or doing something and the world reacting and responding and chatting and conversing. And it’s certainly rarer today. My first sense that this global conversation wasn’t going to be sweetness and happiness all the time was just after 9/11. That aggressiveness wasn’t there until that moment. And it feels like today there’s just a lot more division and argument and aggression and frustration.

Watkins, pilot: There’s so much awful stuff in the media lately, all the shooting and protests, and this kinda hit during the peak of a lot of stuff. And no matter where you lie with politics — whatever race, whatever you are — it’s just a blast.

Barrett, cameraman: There must be something about the human spirit that connected us to this event. These two animals are normally living their lives in this confined space, and then all of a sudden they have the chance to break away and do something weird. I think we all sort of live for that deep down. Everyone’s trapped at work and feels very connected to the llamas, thinking, Hell, I’d love to go run around the streets right now if I could. People are rooting for them to go be free.

Sheriff Arpaio: I’ve been in law enforcement for 55 years. Nothing ever surprises me. People like llamas — if this were horses, nobody would probably care about it.

Holderness: I didn’t think anything was going to top escaping llamas in terms of sheer delight. My theory is that this great thing had just ended and there was this two-hour cooldown period and then happy hour started and then The Dress hit and people were primed. People were sitting around like, “Hey, did you hear about those llamas?” and showing people on their phones and then segueing immediately into, “Well, here’s the next fucking ridiculous thing.” I don’t know if The Dress would have been as big without the llamas.

Rogers, Wired: It wasn’t a thing where people were dying or anything, but people were genuinely alarmed. And you could calm people down by saying, “Hey, it’s science.”

Conway, Wellesley neuroscientist: This is a really important modern example of how important color is to our cultural behavior and how we choose to identify ourselves. In this image, what is unmasked are these much more sophisticated operations for color processing. This unequivocal experience of color and the way it’s been wired up for you — it now becomes your team, your camp. It turns it into this social media fiasco or playground, where anyone who disagrees with your perception threatens something fundamental with how you experience the world.

Bromberg, Pizza Hut: The best part of the internet and the best part of social media is that laser-focused engagement on one thing in the same time and this profound sense of community. And, you know, our generation — we never had a moon landing. We had a dress and some llamas.

Schmidt, The Carillons: It did a lot of publicity for us. People come in all the time and say, “Oh, this is where the llamas were!” The hospital next door had a llama hamburger!

Freund, the llamas’ owner: I’ve now seen the footage. Sometimes I get a glimpse of myself in there and I can see how frustrated I was. The white llama, she’s never really come back around. She learned what she can get away with. She was always a bit difficult to deal with. Bit of an attitude.

Do, Adobe: We printed out The Dress and have it framed on our wall at Adobe. It’s our joke now that we have to figure out how to do that sort of viral thing again. But, of course, you can’t.

Conway: It was only later that it sunk in that this was perhaps a genuinely real and important scientific discovery. I just thought it was cool and good for our field, since nobody cares about us, usually. Of course, we still don’t know the actual reason. No matter how right it seems, it’s just a hypothesis, but it quickly became a standard account in the field.

Freund: Here’s a story nobody else knows. A week before last, somebody contacted me about a friend looking to purchase a llama, and I said I had one I would consider selling. They ended up buying her, and I delivered her. That was a Monday. On Saturday my husband and I are out hiking when I get a phone call and it’s the lady who bought the llama, and I can tell she’s totally stressed out. She says, “I went out to feed her and she’s not in her pen — she’s gone and I don’t know what to do.” We raced over and found the llama fast — she was a quarter mile away. It’s anticlimactic, but, oh my god! We almost, almost had a second incident. And then I get home that evening and I look on Facebook on the lost pets of Northern Arizona page and I see the page posted on the lost llama. It almost started again. Can you imagine?


































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Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at charlie.warzel@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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