Yanny Or Laurel & The Dress: Why We'll Forever Experience The Same Debate On Social Media

The great debates that have enraged, enthralled, and animated our trigger-happy social media era always begin innocently enough. In 2015, it was "what color is this dress?", more commonly known as #TheDress. Now, it's "what do you hear?!" (Let the record show this writer hears Laurel.)
Behind the throngs of people willing to defend their opinion to the grave (It's obviously Yanny! It's obviously Laurel! Blue and black, forever! White and gold, always!), is some simple science. With the dress, which was actually black and blue IRL, a number of factors influenced how your brain perceived the hue — the angle you saw the photo from, the device you viewed it on, and the lighting in the room. The same thinking applies to the audio clip of Yanny versus Laurel: What you hear is impacted by how you hear the synthesized speech (are you wearing headphones or not wearing headphones?) and what you hear it on (are you listening from your phone or your computer?).
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What's most interesting about the debates is not the internet's quest to figure out the "right" answer, or even attempts to convince others that you're in the right; it's why they spread like wildfire in the first place and what that says about how we interact online.
Part of the magic of #TheDress and Yanny-Laurel is that they're rare. It's taken three years for a debate even close to the magnitude of #TheDress to pop up, although others have tried. Over the course of two days in February 2015, #TheDress sparked more than 4.4 million tweets. In the 12 hours since Yanny-Laurel picked up on Twitter, it's sparked over 750,000 Tweets.
Think about it: Are you sitting at your desk, trying as hard as you can to hear Yanny instead of Laurel? As Twitter put it, "there are two types of people in the world: Those who hear Laurel and those who hear Yanny." Once you hear one, it's very hard, if not impossible, to un-hear it.
"This type of content can't just be recreated," Stephanie Abrams Cartin, co-founder of social media agency Socialfly. "Mainly because one person can't see both sides at first. There has to be more than one person involved that disagree on the topic."
The magic of these sorts of debates, and why they intrigue us so, is that they prove two of our most basic assumptions wrong.
"The first assumption is that there is an objective, single, correct interpretation of sounds and colors, which isn't true at all — we're always using context to interpret even the most basic of stimuli," Abby Walker, an assistant professor and co-director of the Speech Lab at Virginia Tech told Refinery29. "The second assumption is that other people see the world the same way we do. The fun of these particular examples is that you can share a bed and political views and taste in music and DNA with someone, and then realize in a moment that you still experience the same things differently."
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"You can share a bed and political views and taste in music and DNA with someone, and then realize in a moment that you still experience the same things differently."

Abby Walker, an assistant professor and co-director of the Speech Lab at Virginia Tech
Once these differences are established, social media is ready and waiting for the spark to ignite. That's how these simple questions end up fueling debates of epic proportion. While there is no recipe for creating a viral moment that spans platforms — #TheDress started on Tumblr and quickly spread elsewhere, while Yanny-Laurel was cross-posted to Instagram Stories and Twitter — there are a few factors that help.
"The Dress and Yanny versus Laurel are both simple in nature, relatable, and provide opportunity for a fun debate," Joe Martin, the head of social analytics at Adobe, told Refinery29 over email. "You can find colleagues, family members, friends, neighbors, and social connections who all have a different point of view on the viral moment. They also create a moment in time [and] that is really what social is all about."
The playful nature of Yanny-Laurel, combined with the fact that anyone can weigh in, regardless of what language you speak, where you live, or what your follower count is, turns it into a conversation that crosses all boundaries. Second only to emoji and GIFs, it's one of the rare examples of a social unifier. As much as Yanny-Laurel might haunt you in the deep recesses of your mind (how are people hearing Yanny?), the way the debate brings us together, even as it divides us, is probably a good thing. Social media can feel like a minefield — just look at all of the new policies and reporting tools popping up to fight hate speech and misinformation. This moment is one we can all disagree on, while laughing.
In another 24 hours, Yanny-Laurel might die down, and in a month we will know each other's unchangeable opinions on it. Once that happens, it'll be boring and we'll all move on. But don't be surprised if in a year or two, another similarly viral moment pops up, drawing emotional recollections of the great Yanny-Laurel debate of 2018.
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