The Birth, Weird Life, and Afterlife of an Internet Meme

Jobs from Indeed

Recently a friend sent me a message via Google+:

AFacebook post from a friend showed me justhow muchmy original graphic had been adapted.

My jaw hit the keyboard that was my image, but it also wasnt my image. It was the concept behind my image, but completely redrawn (and by someone with actual artistic talent!). I was stunned… and delighted.

WIRED OPINION

About


How did this happen? Back in 2012, shortly after the US elections, I crafted a graphic to illustrate my point in an argument I was having with a conservative activist. I was trying to clarify why, to me (and, I generalized, to liberals), “equal opportunity” alone wasn’t a satisfactory goal and that we should somehow take into consideration equality of outcomes (i.e., fairness or equity). I thought the easiest example of this concept would bekids of different heights trying to see over a fence. So I grabbed a public photo of Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, a stock image of a crate, clip art of a fence, and then spent a half-hour in PowerPoint concocting an image that I then posted on Google+.

My original post (below) racked up around 3,000 +1s and over 1,000 shares, which was amazing to me, especially given that at the time Google+ was barely 18 months old.

My original image:December 19, 2012Craig Froehle

I felt pretty satisfied, but I didn’t consider what was happening to all those G+ reshares and beyond. A few weeks after I posted the image, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at NYUs Stern School of Business, asked permission to use it in his presentations and articles. Here’s Dr. Haidt discussing the original image in a talk he gave at Duke University in 2013.

But, unbeknownst to me, as the Internet is so wonderfully amazing at doing, my original graphic was being modified and repurposed in a variety of ways, and then shared and redistributed all over the place. I decided to use the magic of Google to track how the image has evolved over time.

ADAPTATIONS
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of iterations, some with wording changes, some that convey a slightly different idea. This early revision replaced my original words to differentiate equality from justice.

Posted to Sensible Politics: April 17, 2013Original source unknown

This equality/justice version became fairly widespread and was published in the Huffington Post in 2014.

Meanwhile, the late blogger Joe Bowergot straight to the point differentiating equality from fairness in this mid-2013 adaptation.

Posted to blogger Joe Bower’s website, For The Love of Learning: June 28, 2013Original source unknown

Phrasing that contrasted equality andequity seems like the most popular version of my graphic, as this early example shows. Note that someone added some kind of watermark or logo of their own in the middle of my original image.

Posted to blog KMbeing: March 15, 2013Original source unknown

Later in 2013, Shafin Verani, a Pakistani man living in Kenya, integrated my images into a SlideShare presentation entitled “Matters Related to Gender in the Quran.”


A slide in Shafin Verani’s presentation, “Matters Related to Gender in the Quran“: November 28, 2013
Shafin Verani

A 2015 DailyKos story attributed my image as follows: Equity image credit: Please note, this image was adapted from an image adapted by the City of Portland, Oregon, Office of Equity and Human Rights from the original graphic: http://indianfunnypicture.com. Well, no, not exactly…

Then emerged versions that spelled out what people thought the lesson should be, such as this one, from a site for kidsin the Seattle area, that was fairly widely shared:

Posted to PugetSoundOff: May 15, 2015Original Source Unknown

A teacher in Singapore even printed out that version for her classroom. Someone incorporated the image into a video poem.

Leave it to the Aussies to replace my baseball background scene with a cricket match (and, thoughtfully, to also get some girls involved):

Posted to the University of Sydney’s School of Physics web page: 2016Original source unknown

And some people disagreed with having to look over a fence in the first place:

Posted to MemeCenter: 2015Original source unknown

REINTERPRETATIONS
Not satisfied with manipulating my images and words, many have gone on to create their own versions out of whole cloth. In June 2014, blogger Mary Quant adapted the concept into a multi-part lesson, which was then reblogged last year.

Posted to blog Off She Goes: June 22, 2014Mary Quandt

My only complaint about this otherwise charming rendition is that the equity side has more boxes than the equality side, making it inherently more resource-intensive. That seems like an unfair criticism of equity, which is why I made sure to simply reallocate the boxes in my original rather than introducing more.

This version with apple trees first appeared, as far as I can tell, in a 2014 Saskatoon report in an effort to illustrate how equity/fairness can be useful in ensuring health and wellness for everyone. And yes, again, there are now more boxes on the equity side, sigh.


From a report distributed by the Saskatoon Health Region: June 2014
Saskatoon Health Region

That same image was then reused on several other sites, such as this article on equality and equity using fantasy football (!?) as a metaphor.

And here is United Way Twin Cities’ reuse of this graphic.

In 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published its “Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide,” which included a variation on the original graphic. The Annie E. Casey Foundation describes itself as “a private philanthropy that creates brighter futures for the nations children by developing solutions to strengthen families, building paths to economic opportunity and transforming struggling communities into safer and healthier places to live, work and grow.” If I was able to help them advance that mission even a tiny amount, Im overjoyed.

Published in The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide: January 8, 2015The Annie E. Casey Foundation

In yet another reimagining, an Australian feminist magazine used the equality/equity difference as a way of differentiating egalitarianism from feminism. It’s amazing how many ways there are to reinterpret this core concept, and apparently there are nearly as many labels for it.

Posted to blog Young Vagabond: September 28, 2015Jacob Komesaroff

The Association of American Colleges and Universities used still another variation in a slideshow:

From Step Up and Lead for Equity, a slideshow created for The Association of American Colleges and Universities.The Association of American Colleges and Universities

UNICEF in Australia came up with yet another adaptation, this time with two kids hoping to see a sunrise (or maybe a sunset). Once again, though, additional boxes magically appear.

Posted to UNICEF Australia’s blog: November 2015Original source unknown

The La Crosse Tribune (in Wisconsin) posted this version on December 31, 2015, drawn by Mike Tighe, the paper’s in-house artist. I find the description a bit shocking: “This graphic and variations of it commonly are used by health educators.” Commonly?!? Holy cow, this image was only about three years old at this point. In this version, the stepstools magically reproduce:

Published in the La Crosse Tribune: December 31, 2015Original source unknown

An Oregon literacy program cleverly employed two kids reaching for books in an adapted version of the graphic.

Posted to Oregon literacy program SMART’s websiteOriginal source unknown

Earlier this year, the Interaction Institute for Social Change hired an artist to redraw my original image, with the stunning results below:

Posted to Interaction Institute for Social Change’s website: January 13, 2016Angus Maguire

And, of course, the Internet only needs a millisecond or two to come up with an even newer take:

Equality, Equity, Reality

Indeed. Or this one:

Hmm.

Artist Angus Maguire collaborated with the Center for Story-Based Strategy to add a fourth box to the graphic as part of a learning exercise.

Bernard Tyson, the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, one of the nations largest healthcare organizations, posted this minimalist variant on LinkedIn:

Posted to LinkedIn by Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson: November 18, 2015Kaiser Permanente

CRITIQUES
But, as with anything, the graphic was not universally appreciated. There were more than a few critiques of my original image and its variations. For example

Posted to Reddit: November 28, 2014Original source unknown

Curiously, there was no shortage of complaints that the kids were just freeloaders and should buy a ticket to be inside the stadium if they want to watch the game. Which, I think, entirely misses the point. This funny comic strip by Kent Bulmer offers commentary on the original meme.

Posted to Hudge and Gudge: May 27, 2015Kent Bulmer

CONCLUSIONS
I am giddy that my little graphic has helped so many people think about the issue of equity and has spawned so many conversations in just the past few years. I’m not upset by the many way its been reimagined.In fact, I’m delighted, because the modifications just make it that much more useful to people. The Internet’s ability to take a meme and quickly run it through a massively parallel evolutionary process is both fascinating and awe-inspiring. We all benefit from the free and open exchange of ideas, and I’m just glad this image has been part of that exchange. As this meme continues to evolve, I’ll document those changes here.

A version of this essay originally appeared on Medium.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2016/09/birth-weird-life-afterlife-internet-meme/