Why We Share: #TheDress

On February 26th, 2015 #TheDress became the meme of the moment. Grace Johnston was getting married within the year. Her mother was getting closer to picking out the dress that she would wear to the ceremony. As most mothers would, she took a picture of a dress she was thinking of wearing and sent it to Grace. As Grace and her soon-to-be husband took a look it wasn’t the style that caught their attention, it was the color. They couldn’t agree on the color, and this was odd.

As most would do, they took to Facebook. They asked their friends what the color of the dress was. As their friends were beginning to realized they couldn’t come to an agreement either, another friend posted a picture of the dress on Tumblr and the meme took off. The debate caught fire. Was it a white-and-gold dress or a black-and-blue dress?

The dress is important, because it provided a glimpse into what motivates people to share and exchange content – in vast amounts- online. Currently, there is over 30 billion pieces of content shared just on Facebook each month. All of this content – user-generated, status updates and shares – contribute to the flow of social. It is an input. It is informative.

What can we learn from the popularity of The Dress that addresses the motivations for sharing? How can it be used as an input? First, we can begin to uncover these drivers that motivate sharing.


We share to connect. We want to feel like we are a part of what is going on in our immediate world. Not only was sharing what colors a person saw, an act of participation, but it was also a signal that you were there. According to a study conducted by the New York Times, 69 percent of respondents said they share content to actively participate. Just like in real life, we do not like to be left out.

We Are Driven By Emotion

Emotional responses boost our desire to communicate with others. Individuals share things that arouse both positive and negative emotions and talk about products and services that fulfill certain emotional needs. In this case, it was how one viewed a dress. Research has shown that individuals share 90 percent of what they experience emotionally with others.

Researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman found that emotional responses to content impacted the propagation of New York Times articles. Using data from the New York Times’ most emailed list, Berger and Milkman discovered that high-arousal (positive or negative) articles were more likely to be disseminated among individuals who exchange emails. Debate over the dress’ color seemed to evoke emotion, in that people wanted to proclaim that they saw the “correct” color.

Similarly, controversy can spark sharing. In a sense, The Dress was a public debate. What colors were seen? Why did people see different colors? Aside from declaring what colors people saw, we began to see articles the described what was causing this dynamic in color to be shared.

Provide Value

We often share to bring value to others. How much and what kind of value people derive from sharing is dependent on context, but most people do share after careful consideration of the recipient. Research examining this motivation adopts a social exchange perspective. We provide useful information with the hope that it may increase our ability to deliver value. We share to increase the receiver’s perception that we actively participate in culture, or that we are an active consumer (or expert) of culture.

The Dress provided a great case study on the psychological drivers of sharing. Studying these triggers will not lead to the ultimate formula for viral content, but they should be used in the context of examining the communities that are relevant to a brand. With enough observation, or participation, the actions that may support these triggers should surface. (See: Stephen Rappaport’s Digital Metrics Field Guide for a great framework).


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