Meet Cates Holderness, the BuzzFeed employee behind #TheDress

The photo of The Dress originated from a woman in Scotland, who posted it on Tumblr with a simple question: What color is it?

Holderness, Cates
Cates Holderness, courtesy David J. Bertozzi/BuzzFeed

But it wasn’t until Cates Holderness, the community growth manager at BuzzFeed, posted it online at around 6 pm ET Thursday night that it lit the Internet on fire. It was a seemingly benign question — surely we could all agree on what color a simple dress was.

But before long, the photo became a sensation — some saw white and gold, others blue and black, still other blue and gold. Friendships were soon called into question, families torn asunder.

Having unwittingly unleashed the #TheDress phenomenon on the world, Holderness watched in disbelief as her BuzzFeed post garnered 28 million views in just 24 hours.

Her employers were in a celebratory mood Friday night. While her BuzzFeed colleagues waited to fête her with food and drink at the office tonight, Holderness took a minute to give us the backstory about how it all happened.

Tell me everything.
I was in the office. It was around 5, 5:30. Around that time, I’m usually finishing up doing community post moderation. As community growth manager, part of my job is to run BuzzFeed’s Tumblr. We have an “Ask” box, and our users on Tumblr know the person who runs the blog responds to messages. Yesterday, we had a message from a Tumblr user saying, “Can you settle this argument for us?”

What tipped you off that there was something big here?
I got so confused, because it’s clearly a blue dress. So I’m looking at the comments, and people on Tumblr were freaking out and basically just yelling at each other. I called a couple people over and asked them, and half thought it was blue and half thought it was white. We started freaking out. There was a crowd of people looking at this photo and yelling at each other. One of the things we go by at BuzzFeed is, if it makes you feel something, you should post it. I realized if we were having this discussion, other people would, too.

Your post got more than 28 million views. How long did it take for you to do it?
It took me five minutes. I just pasted the Tumblr embed code and put up a poll. Then it was 6:15 and my day was over. I went and bought some yarn. I was going to knit a scarf for my friend. I didn’t really think anything of it. I got off the subway and I had gotten 300 Twitter notifications and 20 text messages.

What did you do?
I go to my friend’s house because we were going to order pizza and watch Walking Dead. So I sign in and there are a ton of emails. My tweet stream is just out of control. I look and see it’s made it to the BuzzFeed Facebook page and it’s been tweeted by the main account. And this is in the span of like two hours. It’s so funny. I never expected it to do this. It shows this level of community engagement can have massive payoff.

So what happened next?
I watched Walking Dead and New Girl, and then I went home. There were so many email threads, I wanted to contribute. I basically sat up until 3 in the morning watching Twitter. Kim Kardashian was tweeting about the dress! The most fascinating part to me was watching it go from East Coast to West Coast to International twitter.

You’re a celebrity now.
Oh my God, I can’t believe all of this. I wouldn’t call myself a celebrity. I definitely got a round of applause when I walked in this morning and I got as red as the BuzzFeed logo. But my colleagues — they are the ones that turned it into a phenomenon. They reached out the woman in Scotland, they looked into the science. I had to apologize to my system administrator because I kind of broke the website.

How about today? Things must have been a little bit anticlimactic after yesterday.
I tweeted, “Good morning, y’all.” Someone said, go back to bed, you’ve done enough. But I had a job to do. It’s been a delightful day. Seeing the strife it’s caused worldwide is hilarious to me. I can’t believe I’ve been the source of so many arguments around the world.

A lot of people are also saying there are so many more important things we should be focusing on. How do you feel about that?
I think being happy and excited about one thing does not mean you’re not upset about others. I don’t see a cognitive dissonance about those things. And BuzzFeed does that. We do in-depth reporting from Ukraine, Liberia. We also do cat GIFs. And those things can live side by side.

On a deeper level, why do you think this particular post took off?
There’s the whole argument about the perception of reality being objective or subjective. There’s definitely an objective reality of this color being this color. And that disconnect really triggered that debate.

So what color do you think it is?
Oh, it’s definitely blue. I’ve never been able to see it as white. One of the fascinating things is, most of the traffic has been from the mobile site. I don’t know if it has something to do with the screen or the lighting. People far smarter than me I’m sure have weighed in and will continue to weigh in. I just think it’s cool.

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