Remember the optical illusion known simply as the dress? Sure you do. Black and blue or white and gold? This was the question that divided the internet back in the more innocent time of February 2015. The fault lines ran through marriages and friendships: We simply could not believe that someone so close to us could see things so differently when the truth, as we saw it, seemed so obvious.
Then came the candidacy and presidency of one Donald J. Trump, and we discovered what divided perceptions really looked like online. And now, the Trump effect seems to have settled a bit. At this point, you’ve probably blocked and unfriended everyone whose mind could not be changed, or you’ve become numb to the constant lies and corruption, or maybe we’re just in the calm before the Mueller and midterm storms.
Clearly, we needed a new thing that could tear us apart in a safer, more innocent way. Something that would break through the social media filter bubbles we’ve built around ourselves to avoid hearing aggravating opinions. And into that cultural vacuum stepped Yanny vs. Laurel.
This time it was an audio illusion rather than an optical one. In a one-second clip, some heard the name Yanny, some heard Laurel. The clip spread in just as viral a manner as the dress. In a matter of hours it hopped the barrier from Twitter and Facebook sensation to old-school media curiosity. Local news loved it. The New York Times produced a slider tool that changed the frequency from high to low, helping you hear one sound or the other.
As with the dress, our obsession with this test appeared to be derived from its unpredictability. In 2018, cultural bubbles have become almost boringly impenetrable. Tell me how someone voted at the last presidential election, and I’ve got a pretty good chance at guessing their positions on gun control or immigration — and at assessing whether real debate is even possible.
But with Yanny v. Laurel, there’s no telling what a given ear will hear. Anecdotal evidence suggested offices were about equally divided. The controversy was tailor-made for watercooler chatter. “Team Yanny” and “Team Laurel” quickly emerged (as did the smaller subset of us that could hear both and wondered what all the fuss was about). “Our marriage is a lie!” joked a friend on Facebook of her spouse hearing things differently.
The subtext of all this: how nice it is to find a vast gulf of difference between friends, especially a difference that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
This need seems to be something new in the world. It isn’t quite the same impetus that divides us as sports fans; the teams we choose have more to do with our birthplace and family background than anything else. Debates between fandoms — Star Trek and Star Wars, say — are an endless set of questions with no objective answers. Fans who loved or hated The Last Jedi are almost as immovable as the pro- and anti-Trumpers.
So a big part of what made the divisions over the dress and the audio clip so satisfying is that both controversies had definitive answers that were discovered within 24 hours. Widespread curiosity over such a small thing mandated that we would find the truth sooner rather than later. The dress was black and blue. The audio clip turned out to be from a recording for Vocabulary.com, and the word was “laurel.” Sorry about that, Team Yanny.
In the era of fake news, when our country can’t agree on a single political reality even when presented with evidence, how nice it is to have that level of certainty! Sports fans never have this sense of closure: Win the World Series or the Super Bowl and you’re still open to the charge that the victory was a fluke. You still have to defend it endlessly.
Again, the fact that the stakes are so low is helpful. We’ll remember the controversy, we’ll devour the science on why we hear differently, but there isn’t going to be an online industry of Yanny truthers. Info Wars (probably) isn’t going to bother insisting that the Deep State is trying to make us hear Laurel. The game is definitively over, but thanks for playing!
What does it say about us that we’re so eager for this kind of division? One explanation is the rule of 150, also known as Dunbar’s Number. Turns out our brains have a hard time handling more than this number of friendships, because that’s the rough size of the tribal groups we evolved in. We see the 150 limit cropping up in military units, small businesses, Christmas card lists, and even the number of Facebook friends we actually interact with.
But the modern world, driven by social media, bombards us with more friends than we can handle, some of whom we never see. We may live in cultural bubbles, but the bubbles are generally huge.
How can our brains make sense of this? How can they impose the 150 limit again? By latching onto any potential differences that mark people out as members of our tribe. This explains the enduring popularity of online quizzes and the Harry Potter house-sorting: We’re desperate to know where our fellow Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws are at.
The dress and Yanny vs. Laurel are both low-grade versions of this urge. Few people are going to fall out over hearing an audio clip differently, but it scratches the sorting itch in a mostly harmless way. Now that it’s over, we shuffle back to our bubbles — ready to fight the next culture war, hoping we soon get to fight over a sensual illusion instead.