The Evolution of an Accidental Meme
How one little graphic became shared and adapted by millions
ASIDE: If you’d like to support my creative efforts, my family and I currently have a game up on Kickstarter we think you’ll like. It’s called ROBOT RISE! Please check it out and consider becoming a backer. Thanks. Now, to the story…
Last week, an online friend of mine sent me a private message via Google+:
My jaw hit the keyboard…that was my image, but it also wasn’t 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 had crafted up 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 is kids of different heights trying to see over a fence. So, I grabbed a public photo of Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, a stock photo of a crate, clip art of a fence, and then spent a half-hour or so 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 just amazing to me, especially given that Google+ was barely 18 months old and still fairly small as social sites go.
I felt pretty satisfied, but I didn’t consider what was happening to all those G+ reshares. Nor did I think about what might have been happening beyond G+.
The only hint I had early on that this might have a fairly broad audience was that Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, contacted me a couple weeks after I posted the image to ask my permission to use it in his presentations and articles. Of course, as a fellow academic, I agreed. Here’s an example of Dr. Haidt discussing the original image in a talk he gave at Duke University in March, 2013.
But, unbeknownst to me, as the Internet is so wonderfully amazing at doing, my original graphic was being adapted, modified, and repurposed in a mind-blowing variety of ways, and then shared and redistributed all over the place.
So, today, I decided to go back and use the magic of Google to see if I could track down some of its many variations and post them here quasi-chronologically. Note that this article documents just a tiny fraction of the thousands of instances where this image and its variations can be found across the Internet, and I can’t be sure that any of the links below are the original places these images were first posted. If I missed any instances worth mentioning, please let me know.
There are literally hundreds (perhaps thousands) of different adaptations, most with wording changes, but some that actually manipulated the original image as well to convey a slightly different idea.
This early revision, posted within four months of mine, replaced my original words to differentiate equality from justice.
This equality/justice version became fairly widespread and was apparently used in at least one presentation:
More equality versus justice, this time on the Huffington Post in mid-2014…
In contrast, Joe Bower got straight to the point differentiating equality from fairness in this mid-2013 adaptation that also stripped off all my original wording.
Another version (crazily enough, this appears to be a photo of a poster??) also saw this issue as one of equality versus fairness.
Verbiage contrasting equality versus equity seems like the most popular version of my graphic, as this early example shows. Note that someone added some kind of white watermark or logo of their own in the middle of my original image. :-[
Later in 2013, Shafin Verani integrated my images into a Slideshare presentation entitled “Matters Related to Gender in the Quran.”
In late 2014, it was adapted again and posted on https://outfront.org/strategicplan in this form, with the footnote as shown:
That footnote suggests that the first wording changes happened in January 2013, pretty soon after I posted the original.
In a 2015 DailyKos story, it 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. ;-p
A version (and then versions) with extensive wording clearly spelling out what people thought the lesson should be began appearing, often with minor tweaks to phrasing to reflect the adapter’s particular take on the matter, such as this one that was fairly widely shared:
One teacher even felt compelled to print out that version for her classroom:
My original image was even dissected (maybe using MS-Paint?) and integrated into a video poem about equality and equity.
In another example of tweaking the original image, leave it to the Aussies to replace my baseball background scene with a cricket match (and 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. Here are some examples.
In June of 2014, blogger (and artist!) Mary at “Off She Goes” adapted the concept into a multi-part lesson on the differences between equality and equity using girls standing at a fence (not looking at anything in particular). The below image (adapted from Mary’s original post) was reblogged at http://www.jtolds.com/writing/2015/11/equity-vs-equality/ in late 2015.
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 doesn’t seem like a fair 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 (as far as I can tell) appeared in a 2014 Saskatoon Health Region report 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’s just a blatant example of re-use without attribution. Good going, United Way! /s
Sometime 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 nation’s 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 their mission even a tiny amount, I’m overjoyed.
Actually, I was led to that Annie E. Casey Foundation publication by way of this late-2015 post that reused their adaptation of my image. I was touched by this comment they included: “This little graphic has helped us to think about equity vs equality.”
This next one appears to be the product of someone in the Portland, Oregon Office of Equity and Human Rights, because Google only knows of one instance of it on the Web. Nicely done, whoever you are.
In yet another reimagining, one blog 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.
And on that same theme of feminism is this (perhaps not-so-serious) extension. Sucks to be that poor red-haired kid now. :-(
The Association of American Colleges and Universities used still another variation in a slideshow titled “Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Our Deepening Equity Divides”:
The Metropolitan Council for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region used the following variation (apples again!) in its late-2015 website update about the role of equity in long-term urban planning.
Even UNICEF (the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) 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 (La Cross, Wisconsin) posted this version on December 31, 2015, apparently 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 3 years old at this point. In this version, the stepstools magically reproduce:
An Oregon literacy program recently used an adapted version of my graphic, but cleverly employed two kids reaching for books as the context.
Earlier this year, the Interaction Institute for Social Change hired an artist to redraw my original image as a comic, with the stunning results below:
Thanks to Tonya Love (@tdlove5) for pointing me towards the source of that fantastic reimagining.
And, of course, the Internet only needs a millisecond or two to come up with an even newer take:
Indeed. Or this one:
I’m not exactly sure this next one is consistent with any of the previous messages, given that all kids really should be getting great teaching and individual support. Hmm…
And the most recent new interpretation I found was this really nicely drawn version. I just hope those kids don’t get in trouble for stealing extra books to stand on.
But, as with anything, it was not universally appreciated. There were more than a few critiques and condemnations of my original image as well as of some of the variations that appeared. 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.
I am giddy at the thought that this little graphic I cooked up has helped so many people think about this issue and spawned so many conversations in just the past few years. Personally, I’m not at all upset that it’s been modified and extended and redone in so many ways (well, except for putting your own watermark on someone else’s work…that’s just kind of douchey) — in fact, I’m delighted because that just makes 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.
Updates since this article was first published:
May 13, 2016: Some friends notified me of the following extension posted on Twitter (and on Google+) by different people, and it uses the original two frames to motivate a third option and conclusion. Clever! Original source unknown.
May 23, 2016: Continuing along that same thread is this graphic, which I found posted on Twitter last month. I’m not sure if the Center for Story-Based Strategy created this extended version of Angus Maguire’s original art or merely co-opted it from somewhere else.
May 26, 2016: Well, this story just keeps evolving (amazing!). Angus Maguire, the artist mentioned above, reached out via Twitter to update me on his collaboration with this meme and the IISC. He said this:
@CRA1G Thanks of much for your work here, on the original and on this history! I wanted to add a few notes to your comprehensive review… The @smartMeme (Center for Story-based Strategy) version you added in the update was a collab with me and @IISCBlog… and because of all the in-the-wild remixes we were finding, we also created two other evolutions, at http://www.the4thbox.com [which] has two versions: digital kit with layers for remixing, and a paper-based cut out activity for workshops… you might add #the4thbox to your history, if you have a chance! Thanks again. It’s great to connect with you!
Since this meme seems to show no signs of fading away in the near future, I’ll post more updates here as I hear about them.
June 1, 2016: I just stumbled across this variant, apparently posted sometime in 2014 on a Slovakian website. Nice artwork, although the lack of hands and pointy stump-arms have me weirded out a teensy bit. Also, did the blue box on the left suddenly become pink, or did they get rid of the blue one and fetched a second pink one so the kid with the backpack doesn’t have to stand on mismatched boxes?
Also, I found this rather funny comic strip by Kent Bulmer offering commentary on the concept of my original meme. He also has some discussion about it, including wondering about the meme’s origin; check it out on the comic’s webpage.
Finally (today), I found this minimalist variant. It was posted on LinkedIn by Bernard Tyson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, one of the US’s largest healthcare organizations. In discussing the need for better healthcare options for all Americans, he explains the graphic this way:
Let me explain. Imagine you’re standing behind a tall fence outside a ballpark. You’re with some friends of varied height and you all want to watch the game. You see some milk crates nearby, all the same size, and the group decides to stand on the crates. But the shortest person still can’t see over the fence to watch the game. So all three friends received equal lift, but the outcome was that only two people got to see the game. This example explains the importance of focusing on equity as part of equality.
June 25, 2016: Someone sent me a link to a blog post showing probably the most minimalist take on my graphic yet (the post also includes some discussion worth reading if this general topic interests you):
And then there’s this extension, about which I’m not quite sure what to think:
And this original image, which (oddly) doesn’t include contrasting ideas:
And another original (minimalist) reinterpretation…
And here’s another new version, which appeared on an architecture blog. I never thought about how architecture might relate to equality and equity, but it totally makes sense that it would…and should.
Voices for Utah Children, a youth advocacy non-profit, used this rendition on its website. You could also interpret this to mean that we shouldn’t put up fences blocking the view of amazing natural vistas in the first place.
An education advocacy group used this version, which somewhat misses the point of the original. Why does the little girl on the right need to be higher? She can already reach the chalkboard in the top panel. Does being on two stools instead of just one magically make her able to do addition??
And here’s a critique of not just my original image, but of all variants. I’ll quote the choice part:
The problem with the picture is in its implicit bias that many do not see. If we believe, fundamentally, that all people regardless of race, class or creed are comparably able, there should be little difference between the individuals in this picture. What should be drawn as dissimilar are not the individuals but rather the bottom boxes they are standing on in the first frame.
While I fully appreciate the intended purpose of the image, its point regrettably rests upon a deeply ingrained belief of the inherent inequality of people. And, despite the sincere explicit intention for increasing understanding, empathy, and justice for redressing social inequities, the picture’s sentiment implicitly reinforces the idea that minorities (or those otherwise unprivileged) have inferior abilities.
I can see her point, but I disagree with it for two reasons. First, and most obviously, people do actually differ on their abilities. Short people and people who have chronic lung disease will have a much, much harder time playing professional basketball than tall, healthy people. People with below-average intelligence or just a high-school education, while still able to pursue a great many careers, may never be able to get a job as a physics professor. People who are less creative may just not be able to compete for a job in one of the many careers that rely extensively on creativity. We all have strengths and weaknesses — that’s part of what makes each of us unique. To pretend that we’re all equally capable of doing everything equally successfully is not only untrue, it’s unhelpful.
Second, the kids’ height differences were not intended to represent differences only in their innate characteristics. They were meant to symbolize any kind of advantage/disadvantage/difference, whether temporary (e.g., being between jobs or injured) or long-term (e.g., age, height, education level) or permanent (race, gender identity, etc.). But, frankly, most of those differences are much more challenging to represent pictorially than kids of different heights. Just realize that this one difference is meant to represent any kind of difference, be it personal or situational. I hope that clarifies my intent.
And finally (for today), the Connecticut Fair Housing Center used an original variation on my theme for its fair housing poster contest (click the link below the image for more info; sadly, the deadline has already passed).
July 6, 2016: The meme has crossed the oceans! A friend (thanks, Bryan!) notified me of this variation in German. If anyone can translate the essence of this into English, I’d be grateful.
Update on the German version! Vaughn wrote in with this translation:
Often, what one believes to be right is not what is really right.
Left: equality (could also be translated equal rights)