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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
Leave it to the Aussies to replace my baseball background scene with a cricket match (and, thoughtfully, to also get some girls involved):
And some people disagreed with having to look over a fence in the first place:
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.
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.
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.
United Way TC (@UnitedWayTC) : February 18, 2016
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.
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.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities used still another variation in a slideshow:
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.
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:
An Oregon literacy program cleverly employed two kids reaching for books in an adapted version of the graphic.
Earlier this year, the Interaction Institute for Social Change hired an artist to redraw my original image, with the stunning results below:
And, of course, the Internet only needs a millisecond or two to come up with an even newer take:
Indeed. Or this one:
urbandata (@urbandata) : February 4, 2016
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.
IISC (@IISCBlog) : May 4, 2016
Bernard Tyson, the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, one of the nations largest healthcare organizations, posted this minimalist variant on LinkedIn:
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
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.
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.