One weekend in February, a photo of a dress and what seemed to be a simple Tumblr post blasted through the Internet. A user asked: “Is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree.” The picture attached to the post created an online uproar that can only be classified as viral. Media outlets ranging from Wired to The New York Times covered the story, eventually explaining the science behind the phenomenon. We ask regional experts for their take on this phenomenon and how, or if, there is a science behind virality. We’ve talked to: Karim Khalifa, co-founder and CEO, Digital Republic; Mayang Gore, director of performance, Havas Media ME; Akanksha Goel, director, Socialize; and Wael Bittar, general manager, Tonic International.
What color do you think the dress was?
It doesn’t matter what color the dress was or wasn’t. Or even if it was related to screen resolution, or your room lighting was a factor, or perhaps it was your mood at the time, or even whether it was a mutation of the human retina – none of this made this fad interesting to me. What I did find intriguing, eye-opening and frankly slightly disturbing, was the level of interest and attention given to such a banal issue – Khalifa
The dress is blue and black – Goel
Black and blue, initially. Although having looked at the picture again, I saw white and gold. This change, after having a full-blown debate with friends about how they could possibly see white and gold, confused me – Gore
Red and green. No, of course I see black and blue due to the visual illusion. Visual illusions are nothing new but it is good to educate the world about it – Bittar
Why do you think it went viral?
With the capacity of our attention virtually drowning in data overload through multiple screens 24/7, one would have thought, or at least hoped that adding more meaningless Internet ‘noise’ would result in a natural inclination to filter this noise and stay focused on more important matters. However, the opposite seems to be true. Perhaps, with all the serious and disturbing issues that constantly clog up our timeline, from Islamic State to climate change denial, we find it more natural and appealing to fall back on the simple, non-complicated purity of basic mystery and humor as a form of respite and release – Khalifa
The most interesting part was the varied answers, hence the reason this went viral. People are always more engaged when trying to convince others of their opinion or point of view during a disagreement. In this case, the disagreement was on the color of an item: something that is commonly considered as a fact. This, combined with the fundamental nature of the question, ensured most people had an opinion and shared it – Goel
With all the negative news at the moment, we are seeing that emotions play a huge role in driving content virality. The emotions that make a story viral are not fear and anger – they are awe, laughter and amusement. The Internet freaked out because there was a lack of understanding about how this was possible. It created a debate and forced conversations to occur, across social platforms as well as face to face. The fact that celebrities and highly influential people also jumped on the bandwagon gave it an extra push, which created a snowball effect – Gore
While the virality is interesting, honestly, who knows? Today you take a video of a sleeping goat and it can go viral. People have too much time on their hands, add to that the fact that people have different interests and different levels of amusement. Finally, the accessibility helps. Funnily enough, this actually renews my faith in human beings; we are simple creatures that are amused by simple things. At least one great idea came out of this: the Salvation Army South Africa campaign against domestic violence – Bittar
What are the key elements of virality?
Elements that are central to achieve virality are all related to our wants and needs. We like being challenged; humans are competitive by nature and we love a good challenge and some controversy. Personalization is also key. A story that can be personalized will naturally strike a chord and we will want to share it because it’s about “me”. And finally, content should be simple and entertaining. If what we are asked to do, watch and interact with is not simple and fun, then in today’s world, we will lose patience quickly and move on – Khalifa
Firstly, virality takes a creative idea that is fundamental and open to all, regardless of gender, education and geography. This is critical, as the more fundamental the message and simpler the mechanics, the wider your viral audience becomes. Secondly, virality is related to disrupting and/or disputing a fact that seems intrinsic to people. The more basic the fact, the wider your viral audience becomes – Goel
Two major factors of virality are simplicity and something that invokes strong emotion. When a piece of content includes both of these, virality is not far behind. The amazing thing about the dress mystery is its simplicity. Some see it as black and blue and some as white and gold. Everyone sees it differently, opening an opportunity to debate and discuss thus ensuring shareability that leads to a viral piece of content – Gore
Content has to be interesting, different, unusual, new and it has to appeal to the masses. It has to be amusing whether in a good or bad way. It has to create emotions – Bittar
Why is it that individuals are far more successful at creating viral content than brands and what can brands learn from this?
Maybe brands shouldn’t take themselves too seriously online if they also want to achieve the sort of “virality” that something so simple and banal as the color of a dress can achieve – Khalifa
Individuals share content that is interesting, appealing and relevant to them. Their agenda is purely intrigue or amusement and thus appeals to others like them. On the other hand, most brands focus on how to make the brand part of the conversation by highlighting interesting or relevant stories about their brand. Many times, this causes a loss of the human essence in storytelling. Successful brands focus on working the brand into a human story, rather than building a human story around the brand – Goel
Shareability, and everything that comes with it, is what makes content viral. Consumers are at the heart of this, if that means user-generated content (UGC) going viral or users amplifying branded content to go viral. If a piece of content contains the key elements of virality, which are shareability, simplicity, invoking emotion and something out of the ordinary, then regardless of the source – UGC or brand-developed content – consumers are the drive to make it viral – Gore
Humans are curious. We want to peek into the lives of others; we want to see the real thing. This is why reality TV became popular and created celebrities. To think about it positively, this curiosity is good, as humans, we are curious about each other, and we want to know what others see, believe and do. After decades of corporations and institutions telling us what we should think and feel and controlling our viewership, we are now in charge, we are creating the news rather than the news creating us. In fact, I love it when clients ask us to create viral videos for them – Bittar
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