the lonely web

How the weird, unfiltered internet became a media goldmine

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Cecilia Bleasdale was mulling over an outfit for her daughter Grace’s wedding, at a Roman Originals store about 30 minutes outside of Liverpool in early February 2015. The 57-year-old snapped photos of three possible dresses and texted them to Grace. Bleasdale decided on the blue and black option for $74, and on the drive home, texted Grace that she bought the dress in the third photo.

“Oh, the white and gold one?” Grace texted back.

“No, it’s blue and black.”

“Mum,” she replied, “if you think that’s blue and black you need to go and see the doctor.”

Unable to agree about the dress colors with her fiancé, Grace uploaded the optical illusion to Facebook. A handful of people liked it; five or six friends debated it in the comments.

At the wedding later that month, the dress was mostly an afterthought. Still, something about the Facebook post stuck with Caitlin McNeill, Grace’s friend and guitarist for the folk band Canach. After the ceremony, the 17-year-old posted the image on Tumblr to her 2,000 followers under the username Swiked. She added the caption: “guys please help me – is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the fuck out.”

The post took off quickly, then jumped to Twitter, where it became a hashtag. Soon, the dress became The Dress. By the end of the day, seemingly everyone on the planet was arguing about it.

But follow its noisy trajectory backwards, and there remains an oft-missed detail: One of the biggest viral phenomena of the last decade started as a Facebook post with less than 20 likes.

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Sometimes when I’m feeling numbed by the cascading viral trends and hot takes in my feeds, I’ll load up a random number generator and use it to search YouTube for videos without names, ones nobody has ever watched before. The sensation is like flipping through broadcasts of alien surveillance footage of humanity. I click indiscriminately from one shot to the next: A man explains how he traded his bicycle for a used video camera—click. A child dances in front of the TV as EDM plays—click. A girl stands in her kitchen alone and growls: “That’s how you make BROWNIES”—click.

There’s something pleasingly candid about the videos. They hearken back to an older era of the internet, when nobody knew what the hell they were doing. When unsettling weirdness and danger lurked just a few clicks away. Before a combination of centralized services created a predictable, sanitized web. In my day, kids had to walk uphill both ways to get their content.

That old, strange internet never really went away. It’s just hidden in plain sight, on our social media platforms.

Most content on the web is accessed through a handful of platforms. Those companies make money off the information users post, and so they encourage everyone to post as much as possible, free of charge.

Yet this presents a problem: There’s too much stuff. Even the most avid user, eyes glazed over from scrolling past thousands of baby photos and clickbait articles and ads, can’t possibly see everything that gets posted.

This puts these companies in a bind. They can’t tell people to post less frequently ($$$) but they also can’t let their sites be overwhelmed by screeching noise because users will get frustrated and jump ship ($$$). So they filter content, each in their own ways. Facebook’s newsfeed, for example, uses an algorithm that boosts content based on a series of mysterious factors—are people engaging with the post? Saying “congrats”? Did they give us any $$$? Google offers search results tailored to what it deems relevant to the user. Twitter is experimenting with alternatives to chronological order. It all works pretty well. Our feeds are relatively bearable, if not boring.

And yet, beneath the controlled epidural layer, that filtered-out stuff still exists.

This is the Lonely Web. It lives in the murky space between the mainstream and the deep webs. The content is public and indexed by search engines, but broadcast to a tiny audience, algorithmically filtered out, and/or difficult to find using traditional search techniques.

How large is the Lonely Web? Based on one study from 2009 that shows that 53% of videos on YouTube haven’t even passed the 500-view mark, it’s safe to estimate: It is very, very large.

It includes but is not limited to: videos on YouTube that have never been viewed; Twitter accounts with hundreds of tweets and no followers; spam bots; blurry concert videos with blasted-out sound; Change.org petitions for lost causes; apps that nobody will ever download; and anonymous posts on 4chan that suddenly disappear, extinguishing like distant stars made of burning trash.

There are even brands on the Lonely Web. A Kazakstan outpost of fast food chain Hardee’s, for example, has only 160 Twitter followers. For a while the account was just tweeting random, inexplicable codes, like a fast food numbers station.

The content feels more honest than much of the formulaic, prepackaged mainstream web. It seems to be the result of platforms aggressively telling people their voices matter and deserve to be heard, without making apparent the extent to which their broadcast signals are diminished. The Lonely Web is littered with desperate messages in bottles, washed far ashore in a riptide of irrelevant content.

There are tools for exploring the Lonely Web, if one is especially lazy: Sites like 0views and Petit YouTube collect unwatched, “uninteresting” videos; Sad Tweets finds tweets that were ignored; Forgotify digs through Spotify to find songs that have never been listened to; Hapax Phaenomena searches for “historically unique images” on Google Image Search; and /r/deepintoyoutube, which was created by a 15-year-old high school student named Dustin (favorite video: motivational lizard) curates obscure, bizarre videos.

But I prefer manually searching. The serendipity of finding something interesting with the right conceptual idea is exhilarating. It’s like fishing, except without fresh air or physical activity or smushed worms. For example, I’ll search a sad phrase on Twitter.

Or I’ll search YouTube for a crappy song “+ karaoke” and watch the videos with the fewest views:

Or “song parodies”:

Or “real world audition”:

One of my favorite techniques comes from /r/imgxxxx and involves searching the default file formats for digital cameras plus four random numbers. This dredges up videos so unwanted that they were never named. In some cases, not even the person who filmed the videos seems to have watched them.

Can such a massive amount of unrelated content have a unified aesthetic? Kind of, sort of. It’s best described by what it isn’t. Most sites have “best practices”—encouraged or implied—and most of what’s on the Lonely Web violates them. It is weird and of shoddy quality, amateurish, with impossible-to-search titles. Some of it is charming and candid and unpolished. A lot of it is incomprehensible garbage. It varies in length—either too short or too long—and eschews cohesive narratives.

I get the nagging impression that some of it wasn’t meant to be seen. Since they end up being unnervingly candid windows into people’s lives, browsing through too much of it at once can feel invasive and emotionally exhausting.

But for precisely all these reasons, unlike a lot of mainstream content, the Lonely Web feels, well, human.

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Despite its apparent worthlessness, some content on the Lonely Web winds up being incredibly lucrative. A company called Ditto, for example, searches through people’s public photos looking for references to brands, selling that information to corporations as valuable demographic data.

If ripped or embedded from a social platform into a blog post (often without permission of the user) and a catchy headline, it can be fed back into its source platform and go viral, like a human centipede of content. Paradoxically, the amateurish weirdness that relegates content to the Lonely Web can also help it stand out from the usual viral chum. In a few hours, hypothetical YouTube user SmashMouthFan420 becomes “This Guy.” Many blogs support themselves in part by aggressively mining the Lonely Web, hoping to strike gold. (This seems like a good enough place to mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I make a portion of my living working for a blog.)

In one bizarre instance, a video licensed by Jukin Media (a company that finds and monetizes “user generated content”) in which a dog fetches beer for his owner appears to have been recut to make it better suited to go viral. The first video is grainy and filmed vertically, and has only 283 views. The second video was uploaded by the same user almost two weeks later, is filmed horizontally, has a more descriptive title, and the front of the beer bottle is conspicuously turned to face the camera in a new closeup shot, so that the brand is clearly visible. It has over 250,000 views.

When something from the Lonely Web crosses over, the sudden exposure can be a mindfuck to the unsuspecting people who first uploaded it. They also rarely profit from it. Just dig into the history of “on fleek” or “What are Those?!” or The Dress.

The viral noise from The Dress hit McNeill at around 3 a.m. in Scotland, when she woke up to find her phone blowing up. She was returning home from the wedding, sharing a hotel room with her brother for the night. Shocked, she told me she tried to wake him up: “Liam, The Ellen Degeneres Show is on the phone, Good Morning America is looking for me, everything’s going crazy!” Her brother didn’t quite understand. “‘He was like ‘shut up, I’m trying to sleep, oh my God.’”

Overwhelmed, she left the room and headed to the hotel lobby. She laid down on the floor and watched the notifications roll in. There were too many to keep up with. Every time she opened her phone, it would crash from the deluge of notifications.

Most websites have teams of people devoted to handling such intense traffic, and even then they break under the strain. McNeill was alone at a strange hotel at 3 a.m.

The Dress was already going viral on Twitter and Tumblr when BuzzFeed, a company valued at $1.5 billion, found McNeill’s post and pushed it over the edge. Earlier that day, the story was overshadowed by live local news footage of two escaped llamas running around the streets of Sun City, Arizona. Late in the day, Cates Holderness, a “community growth manager” for the company, was alerted to The Dress through a tip on the site’s Tumblr. She took five minutes to embed McNeill’s post into her own article, framing it with four sentences and a poll under the headline, “What Colors Are This Dress?”

Almost immediately, traffic went gangbusters. By the end of the night, it had about 10 million views. It became the most popular post in BuzzFeed’s history, garnering roughly 38 million views to date, with 670,000 simultaneous views at its peak. The site threw money and people at the story, including an extra tech team and two editorial teams, as if a president had been shot. They sent out a press release, taking credit for the phenomenon. The next day, victorious, they celebrated in their office with champagne.

 

It’s hard to determine exactly how much money The Dress made, cumulatively, for BuzzFeed and the other news sites and social media services and brands and stores that sold the dress. McNeill, however, got nothing.

“We certainly sold a few albums on Bandcamp,” she said. “But in the scheme of things, given how many people were looking at my blog, we didn’t really make that much money.”

There were offers to play shows, but they didn’t amount to much. By the end, she had more than 30,000 new Tumblr follows, but that’s about it. “Everyone now thinks I’m totally rich and will live off this ’til the end of my days, but no, not really,” she said.

As the copyright holder of the image, Bleasdale hired solicitors to track down payments for it. So far the money they’ve scrounged up is less than what she’s paid them. The Ellen Degeneres Show invited everyone involved out to L.A. to appear on her show. During the taping, Grace and her fiancé, Keir, were gifted a trip to the Spice Island Beach Resort in Grenada, and their “friends at Shutterfly” presented them with a briefcase filled with $10,000. Bleasdale insisted they keep the prize money for themselves rather than share it with her. The Dress ended up becoming a source of tension for Bleasdale and her daughter, and caused them to have a brief falling out.

Recently, the original Tumblr post disappeared because of a copyright claim. BuzzFeed’s biggest post ever was instantly broken. In it, the embed became an empty grey box reading, “This post is gone now.”

The embed was quickly replaced with an image of the dress, though it remains broken in at least one other piece about it. According to Bleasdale’s partner Paul Jinks, BuzzFeed finally obtained a license for the photo, nearly a year after the post was first published. They did not pay well. “I’m not allowed to reveal the amount,” he said, “but I wouldn’t use the word substantial.” BuzzFeed confirmed in an email that they had licensed the image from Bleasdale, but would not confirm how much she was compensated, and would not comment further on the matter. None of the changes were noted in the updated post. The image remains credited to Swiked.

It wasn’t a complete wash, though. Both Bleasdale and McNeill received a pair of novelty Dress-themed underwear.

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It’s somewhat disconcerting that the most popular post for one of the wealthiest new media companies was merely an embedded post from another company’s platform consisting of an image taken from a post on another company’s platform that was uploaded without the apparent permission or knowledge of the person who took it. That nobody involved was compensated for their labor, and the post was swiftly destroyed by the archaic copyright enforcement of a competing corporation, doesn’t bode well for the future of companies that exploit such content.

This dynamic also lends itself to bleak alternate-universe fantasies, wherein the intimate, disarming videos I find while surfing the Lonely Web are suddenly amplified to iconic viral status.

Though the massive corporate centralization of the web is alarming, it appears to be built on a mercurial foundation. Many of the companies that comprise the contemporary web could very easily crumble, to be replaced by something … better? … more sinister? Considering the layers of exploitation at play here, it’s hard to see how it could possibly get any worse. What an exciting time to be alive! (Except for those who have invested a lot of Monopoly money into the tech bubble.)

Until the inevitable content apocalypse, we can at least temporarily break free of the brain-atrophying automation of our feeds, pop in a few search terms, and escape to the Lonely Web.