Dress Colors, Social Media, and Questionable Research

Last week on Thursday, there were two hot topics on Social Media that kept many people amused (and somewhat less than maximally productive) for quite some time. The first was a debate on the color of a dress. 

Someone posted a picture on tumblr in mid-February and asked for help determining what color it is. (Here is the link, note there is some questionable language in the post.) 

Given a few weeks and a snow storm in the Southeast of the US, which gave a number of people downtime to try to discover the end of the internet, and presto!, we have a viral debate raging on social media about absolutely nothing. It's sort of like an episode of Seinfeld, only it lasted more than 22 minutes and really isn't nearly as funny.

For nerds (and I include myself in this descriptor), the science behind the confusion is pretty interesting. In fact, I found the post at Wired that explained the nature of the confusion to be enthralling. There is a scientific explanation for the perception of different colors depending on the setting.

The Social Phenomenon

More significant to my mind, though, is the way that such a benign and pointless social phenomenon has been reported in the media. Not only did it inspire Wired to write a post to cash in on the web traffic, but all of the major news network jumped on the story.

To put this in plain English, with everything going on in the world, a story about a social media debate got picked up by the news.

This reveals some of the significance of social media. It isn't just a fad that will be gone like slap-wrap bracelets (which are still around, just not as popular as when I was a kid). Social media is driving the way society thinks.

Is this the way it should be? I don't think so, but that's not the point. This particular cultural event reinforces the reality that we cannot simply ignore the phenomenon of social media or demonize it. We have to figure out how to meaningfully engage this tool without allowing it to cheapen our own way of thinking. To that end, Karen Swallow Prior has written a helpful blog at Christianity Today that details some of the potential lessons to be learned from #TheDress.

I have written previously on some of the dangers of social media, based on their potential to damage personal relationships. I have also written about reasons why Christians should (and should not) blog, which is pertinent because social media is the platform that conveys the bloggers message to a broad audience.

The answers are not immediately obvious, but a debate over dress colors and coverage of escaping llamas drew national attention and broad social media engagement. The church needs to figure out how to use this tool and how it fits into a Christian worldview.

The Research Phenomenon

A second significant issue is the way that informal reporting and researching techniques are being used to promulgate internet news. One example of this is, ironically, this post, which relies on internet searches and cultural artifacts to present a case. Recognizing this irony, and not claiming to be an actual news source, I press on with my opinion.

In a 1995 book, Telling the Truth, Lynne Cheney notes,

From 1968 to 1988, the average sound bite for a presidential candidate on the network evening news had plummeted from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. In the 1992 campaign the length of time would become shorter still: 8.4 seconds. Meanwhile, the portion of the news taken up by correspondents’ comments rose to 71 percent, with candidates sharing the remainder of the time with voters and political experts. A study of the New York Times showed a similar trend. From 1960 to 1992, the average continuous quote or phrase from a candidate in a front page story fell from fourteen lines to six lines. In both television and print, reporters increasingly had power to turn the candidates’ words and deeds into illustrative material for the stories they wanted to tell.

Twenty years after Cheney wrote this, the problem has not gone away. Indeed, if anything, social media platforms like Twitter have caused people, politicians included, to self-limit to 140 characters and thus strip their own comments of context. We have made it easier for someone to reframe our comments according to their own liking.

But a second significant theme is the prevalence of telling stories. In many cases the point is no longer to reveal truth, but to tell a compelling stories. This allows bloggers and media personnel to look for rapid sources of some credibility that will carry their message in a way that will get clicks and support their narrative.

Often this results in a tight circle self-reference with dubious credibility. This Tweet, captured on the day after the dress color debate went viral illustrates the research phenomenon:

Does this mean that the analysis is not correct? No. It may be correct. In fact, it may be so inconsequential that it doesn't matter if it is correct. After all, do we really care what color the dress is?

However, this is merely an illustration of what I believe to be a broader phenomenon that includes more significant topics. Experts are citing experts citing experts. Who knows that the chain of proof doesn't lead back to my blog, or another similar platform that also lacks credibility on a particular subject? 

We must seek truth. This means that we need to be skeptical of some of what gets conveyed as news. Just because we read it on the internet, even from a widely published source, does not mean it is credible or true. This also means we need to avoid crucifying people because of the way someone presents someone else's opinion on a blog or social media. Learning to do these things well is a critical task for Christians in the 21st century.