A Moment for the Internet

From Ben Smith’s new book Traffic (2023), on the “last, greatest, totally harmless moment of global internet culture” (it happened in 2015):

The Dress was divisive, in the purest sense, dividing (according to a BuzzFeed poll with nearly four million votes) the two thirds of people who saw white and gold from the third who saw blue and black. Facebook’s engineers had been perfecting its engagement metrics…[A]nd the Dress was universal—a form of media that didn’t even require literacy to land. It didn’t spread, like most memes, along a rising viral curve, passed hand to hand. It spread, instead, algorithmically, as Facebook showed the Dress to users whose friends had not yet shared it, confidently predicting that they would find it just as engaging. Within a couple of hours, our traffic rose to seven hundred thousand people simultaneously, seven times our usual peaks. That sent our engineers scrambling to add servers to BuzzFeed’s back end; it was a number not reached before or since by a BuzzFeed post on the web.

That does seem like a moment to remember: when a medium designed to transmit streams of text transcends itself, delivering something “universal—a form of media that didn’t even require literacy to land.”

Tags virality universalism engagement internet