Washington – Banksy recently released a documentary about some murals he painted in the Gaza Strip. The work was political, provocative, typically Banksian: kids swinging from guard towers, veiled women crying.
But in one bombed out neighborhood in Beit Hanoun, the artist painted a picture of a mewling kitten with a pink bow around its neck.
“What does this mean?” A local man purportedly asked him.
“I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction of Gaza by posting photos on my website,” Banksy wrote, after the fact. “But on the Internet, people only look at pictures of kittens.”
Pictures of kittens; pictures of dresses; videos of llamas running through the streets. The idea that the Web has somehow reduced us to a race of mindless meme-zombies is an often-repeated criticism of Internet culture – and it has arguably never been truer than it was in the hours since 2 pm Thursday.
So seriously, a dress and a llama are the talking points of the day? So this is what humanity’s collective descent into insanity looks like?
First two llamas escaped their trailer in an Arizona retirement community, briefly paralyzing Twitter with unabashed joy and generating roughly a hundred million memes.
Shortly thereafter, a community manager for Buzzfeed found a curious picture on Tumblr: An overexposed photo of an elastic-and-lace dress, which appeared white and gold to some people … and black and blue to others. Her post on the “phenomenon,” if we can really call it that, racked up 26 million views in the span of 16 hours. It was tweeted more than 855,000 times, including, predictably, by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Dennys. On Google this morning, nearly every trending search involved “the dress” in some capacity: “white and gold dress,” “black and blue dress,” “what color is the $%^&ing dress.” (The profanity is admittedly inferred.)
In the span of an evening, this stupid dress – in every way a confection, manufactured by Tumblr and Buzzfeed – became the sole story of the day. The only thing that mattered. The graffiti plastering each and every social feed.
And yet just as quickly as the dress spread, you could see the anti-dress backlash following it: calls to shut up, tweets that intellect was dead, takes and talks and think pieces intended to elevatethegarishviralspectacle into something respectable people could read. Even Buzzfeed, equivocal on the value of this monster it had made, followed the initial dress post up with a serious, reported story on the science of why people see colors different ways.
The morning-after internet looks something like a battlefield, the gore of a hundred internal conflicts splattered across news sites and social streams: “I am above this dress,” vs. “this stupid thing fascinates me.”
How to be funny: Say the dress is a different color than the two options.
How to be cool: Say you think the dress debate is stupid
Or: I don’t care about cats, I really care about Gaza.
Or: Forget the llama chase, there are llamas in captivity.
Perhaps my No. 1 biggest Twitter pet peeve is people who, as memes take off, tweet things like “WELL CHILDREN IN SYRIA ARE DYING” – as if Twitter invented the notion of popular culture, and as if Left Shark and Syria are mutually exclusive things that cannot possibly coexist in the human brain. (In an excellent piece for The Atlantic, Megan Garber dubs this tendency “attention policing.”)
But we know, of course, that that isn’t true: Frivolity like #thedress existed (and coexisted, with “serious news”) long before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. That very famous optical illusion of an old woman and a girl first ran, in a print magazine, in 1915. Deadspin has a great essay about a piece of sensational “clickbait” that ran in 1922. And earlier this month, a study out of the University of Illinois documented 2,300 cat stories in the New York Times archives — beginning as early as the 1870s.
“We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss (these stories) as trivial,” the researcher Matthew Ehrlich said.
The Internet hasn’t reengineered the human attention span — it’s only quantified it, in a way that’s so much easier to bemoan and criticize. I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that people love pictures of cats in 2015, because we have pageviews and tweet counts and other metrics that put a specific number on how many people read things about cats. I suspect that, in 1870, people also blew through somber Reconstruction news to read about pets. But there’s only suspicions, anecdotes – no hard evidence that people have always been so “idiotic.”
And thus, as is usual, the Internet absorbs the blame. Tweeted one man: “Tonight a dress on the Internet showed me why western civilization is slowly collapsing.”
But civilization will survive to meme another day. After all, it always has.