The internet has a bottomless appetite for new trends, songs, memes, scandals, jokes, and other distractions from productive work. It tends to chew these things up and spit them out pretty quickly nowadays, always moving on to whatever’s next. But the online world has never enjoyed such a sumptuous feast as the one it was served a year ago on February 26, 2015 when two of the biggest viral sensations in recent internet history occurred back to back. In Sun City, Arizona, a pair of recalcitrant llamas decided to ditch a planned meet-and-greet session with the residents of a retirement community and began boldly roaming the streets, with the flustered authorities in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a dress photographed in Cheshire, England was at the center of an improbably heated online debate over its color. Remarkably, the dress story began gaining momentum just as the llama story was wrapping up, almost as if it had been planned that way. And now at BuzzFeed, a year after the storm, Charlie Warzel has commemorated these completely separate yet intertwined events with an article titled “2/26: The Oral History.”
The saga of the Arizona llamas was a comedy of errors, the article reveals. The plan had simply been to bring three llamas to a retirement community called The Carillons so that the residents there could see and pet the animals in a controlled environment, with the owners right there to supervise. But then, the ropes holding the animals were handed over to an elderly gentleman who proved unable to control his charges, two of whom made a break for it. There followed a highly publicized chase that was broadcast live on television, with Fox News even interrupting its normal broadcast to switch over to the llama footage. “Why are we doing this, you may ask,” Fox anchor Shepard Smith said at the time. “Well, because we have live pictures of llamas.” The internet shared Fox’s interest in the story, with the llamas generating 3,084 tweets a minute at the story’s peak.
The dress story also began in a humble way with a simple Facebook post, Warzel writes, before leapfrogging to Tumblr. The garment was already the source of controversy on two social media sites before Cates Holderness, who runs BuzzFeed’s Tumblr, was tipped off about it. Once the dress was mentioned there, it took less than half an hour for the story to start gaining momentum on Twitter. Holderness didn’t initially understand what she had unleashed upon the world, but it soon became clear when Twitter kept crashing and relatives began complaining that the dress was ruining their lives. From there, Holderness could only sit back and gaze in amazement over what she had unwittingly done:
The most interesting thing to me, is that it traveled. It went from New York media circle-jerk Twitter to international. And you could see it in my Twitter notifications because people started having conversations in, like, Spanish and Portuguese and then Japanese and Chinese and Thai and Arabic. It was amazing to watch this move from a local thing to, like, a massive international phenomenon.