A picture of a dress posted on Tumblr set the Internet ablaze last week. The photo’s ambiguous light source creates a powerful visual illusion: to some viewers, the dress looks black and blue; to others it’s plainly white and gold. Social media users around the world latched on, and the science behind the illusion has been a major part of the conversation. Hashtags such as #TheDress, #teamblueandblack, and #goldandwhite trended as users weighed in, sharing articles from Wired to Slate (also here) to Vice to Buzzfeed about the cognitive psychology behind why people perceive this photo in different ways.
You can’t buy this kind of popular attention to a scientific question. But you can learn from it. How can scientists and science communicators get better at igniting this type of widespread, passionate, educational, and fun conversation online? What are some of the key lessons we can draw from the phenomenon of the black and blue dress (I swear, it is black and blue).
- The photo was directly, personally relevant to viewers, who discovered an individual tic in their visual perception, shared it with the world, and learned about the perception of those around them.
- It offered an emotional experience. Roughly three-quarters of viewers saw the dress as white and gold — yet it’s actually black and blue. So, in addition to the initial intrigue, people felt surprise, disbelief (if they saw white and gold), smugness (if they saw black and blue), and a host of other feelings.
- It was quickly comprehended and easily shared. What made the dress interesting could be gleaned from the picture and a short caption. Social media users could tell which colors they saw simply by looking at the thumbnail, without even clicking a link. These “bite-sized” pieces of easily shared content can go a long way toward encouraging social media users to start a conversation about science. Linking simple, shareable visual content to more in-depth information gives interested users a way to dig deeper into the topic.
- It sparked friendly but passionate debate. Viewers of the image couldn't help but choose a side, sparking an intense desire to compare their own take with that of others. Ellen DeGeneres tweeted, “From this day on, the world will be divided into two … Blue & black, or white & gold.” Hyperbolic language (“It’s tearing our friendship apart!”) abounded as social media users learned that sometimes, individuals quite literally see things differently. Yet it was all in good fun.
- It emerged organically. The picture wasn't created in a vision science lab or posted on a science communication site. It came from laypeople sharing an experience they encountered in the real world. This helped the message hit home on several levels: Our perception of the world is constructed by our brains and is often subjective. And science doesn't live in a separate category; it’s part of everyday life for all of us.
- It offered multiple ways of engaging. Even social media users who might not typically share educational science content had plenty of ways to engage with the image. Some simply asked themselves and others which colors they saw. Others used the image to create social or political commentary (see image below, one of many memes involving the dress). But whatever their point of connection, these people may have found themselves learning a little bit, or even a lot, about the science behind it.
Not that the science communication community was passive, of course. As soon as the dress went viral, scientists and science journalists and bloggers dove in, successfully making vision science part of the conversation. Scientific voices gained a prominent space in the discussion, in part, by...
- Acting quickly to capitalize on online trends. The Internet is fickle; this week’s trending topic becomes next week’s old news. News and opinion websites like Slate, Salon, and the Atlantic often pick up stories that bring an intelligent lens to the latest pop-culture sensations—but none of it matters much if the Internet isn't still talking about, and clicking on, the topic under discussion. You need to move fast.
- Offering a variety of “entry levels.” The most frequently-shared articles about the science behind the dress offered explanations that could be understood at both a general level and a deeper, more technical level. For example, readers of this piece at Wired can scan the page to learn the gist of the illusion’s source, but they can also delve into the details about color constancy. (Science and natural history museums, the kind I work with as a researcher and evaluator, call this ‘layering.’) Equally importantly, the piece frequently mentions Wired staff members’ own reactions to the dress photo, anchoring the science in personal experiences just like those of the reader, while also giving a nod to the current internet frenzy.
- Highlighting the public’s contributions to science. Several of these articles emphasized that this photo is as fascinating to vision scientists as it is to the rest of us. It poses some unanswered questions that scientists will now explore. Even if the line between established scientific knowledge and open questions is highly technical and difficult to explain to general audiences in an infographic or social media post, emphasizing that scientists will explore a trending topic can help social media users feel closer to the process of science.
Not all of these lessons will apply to every online science communication initiative, of course. Science communicators are already using social media to powerful effect to educate the public about many topics, with a variety of audiences and goals in mind. But the frenzy surrounding this blue and black dress shows that viral, passionate online attention isn't reserved for cat pictures with funny captions or celebrity meltdowns. Under the right conditions, science communication can also go viral — and science engagement professionals can help shape a collective conversation that captivates and educates the public.