A 21-year-old singer by the name of Caitlin McNeill says she posted the photo to Tumblr after her friend, who is getting married, began arguing with her fiance over the color of the dress. The couple didn't actually have the dress in front of them, she says, but were looking at a photo of the dress, which was sent to them by the bride's mother, who was planning on wearing it. Once the photo made it to Tumblr, the Internet lit up.
Regardless of what color the dress actually is, this much is clear: When it comes to viral, the person who takes or posts the soon-to-be famous photo often takes a backseat to the person, product or event featured in the photo.
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Outside of a handful of interviews and 15 minutes of fame, it's unlikely the Tumblr poster (McNeill) and, even worse, the photographer (the bride's mom) will see much money from the online sensation. At the end of the day, it will likely be the dressmaker (and BuzzFeed) who will be frolicking down the yellow brick road—a road built by McNeill and her friend's mom—in a quest to cash a check at the Internet's viral bank.
Are photographers and original content creators getting burned in the world of virality?
"If you're putting stuff on the Web with the expectation of a payday, you're gonna have a bad time," said Neetzan Zimmerman, a senior director of audience and strategy at TheHill.com.
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"The 'participatory Web' is a lot like the social contract. When you sign it, you lose some rights to gain others. You lose the right to fully own the content you make public, but in return you get a chance to be in the spotlight and make the most of it."
It's almost as if the photographer doesn't exist. In a Huffington Post article titled "Everything You Need To Know About The Dress," the author fails to mention that the photo was not taken by McNeill, and described the string of events as beginning with McNeill's post to Tumblr. Separately, the author of BuzzFeed's popular article, Cates Holderness, tweeted, "All credit goes to [McNeill] for #TheDress."
Last year, a Target employee by the name of Alex Lee became an Internet wonder after a teenager snapped his photo at the checkout line. #AlexFromTarget quickly became a trending topic across the world, while the photographer and tweeter didn't get much in return. Lee eventually ditched his job at the retailer to pursue a career in music.
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Should #AlexFromTarget or the dressmaker compensate those who helped launch them into stardom?
"Alex never asked to have fame thrust upon him, so he doesn't really owe anyone anything," said Zimmerman. "In this particular case, the same is true for the dressmaker. This was not a marketing campaign or paid media, this was a happy accident."