This morning I listened to The Edge on my way to work instead of the CBC. I heard the announcers discuss an inane story about #thedress, a dress that looks different colours dependent on lighting conditions and your eyesight. During my prep at work I noticed that not only was this phenomenon trending in the right hand corner of my Facebook homepage, the story has appeared numerous times in my newsfeed, was on the front of news websites, and my students kept asking me about it.
What appears to be something incendiary is, in reality, merely a distraction. I've read article titles from reputable organisations stating that #thedress is dividing the internet. What passes for controversial today is abhorent. The fact that something so completely irrelevant can go viral is already sad enough. However, when you consider that there are so many other stories right now that deserve our critical attention, it actually hurts. Imagine if everyone were devoting this level of interest to issues that have an actual social and material impact?
I remember when reality television emerged at the turn of the millenium. It changed our patterns of media consumption dramatically, and viral social media is another step in this direction. I've worked hard, admittedly, to have a news feed that mostly shares stories about racism, sexism, homophobia, terrorism, poverty, and other crises that I find fascinating. But even at that I'm constantly running into trivialities, and apparently #thedress was a breaking point for me.
Another element of this particular story that I find compelling is that you get to pick a side, and the defense of the side involves no work or justification. I read a really great piece a few months ago by a friend who runs a blog called Gin and Tacos. In it he talked about his experience teaching undergraduates who have minimal interest outside of themselves. The idea of bringing identity into viral campaigns is part of its success, and we don't have to go far to find examples. Just think about the Ice Bucket Challenge from last year.
Entertainment is great. And there's nothing wrong with disagreeing about the colour of a dress. But think twice before you share an article about it and consider the footprint you're leaving and the chance for something else to take root.