Wait, wealth inequality is the new Harlem Shake?

How to make a really boring subject go viral

By Rob Walker

A headline that begins “Viral video shows…” usually ends with something like “goat who sounds human + skateboards” or “totally baked hipster dude beat down at Hardee’s” or “[something unprintable about a glimpse of a famous woman’s anatomy].”

It does not usually end with “wealth inequality.”

How, then to explain that the viral video of the moment is a six-and-a-half-minute-long examination of precisely this dry—and, frankly, well-known—subject? The answer certainly isn’t a sexy title: The video is called “Wealth Inequality In America.”

And it’s not whiz-bang production strategies: It’s a series of (nicely done, but not exactly Pixar-splashy) graphics, explained by a very straightforward voiceover. The message that American wealth distribution is very uneven is something most mildly informed people are aware of; it is also kind of a bummer. That’s not a recipe for viral success.

Uploaded a few months ago, the video has taken off in the last few days, racking up 2.3 million views as I write this, and attracting several comments a minute on YouTube. (Comments that are exactly as enlightening as you’d expect in a YouTube thread.) Mashable’s post about the video, which may have been key to its breakthrough, adds more data about the thousands of tweets, Facebook shares and so on.

The video was posted anonymously by someone using the YouTube handle politizane. I dropped a message to politizane, who said he prefers anonymity for professional reasons, but professed to be as surprised as anyone else about the recent traction. Describing himself in an email as a freelance director/designer/visual effects artist based “in a red state,” he’d simply been struck by research from academics Mike Norton and Dan Ariely and wanted to work out a good way of visualizing it. He figured the clip needed to be cut to three minutes to have a hope of catching on, but he couldn’t figure out what to trim—and so just posted it and hoped for the best.

Until recently, the best wasn’t much.  “I actually don't know who eventually stumbled upon it and posted it to the right place at the right time (either Reddit or Charlie White at Mashable),” politzane added.

What’s clever about the video is that it uses our familiarity with the subject as a rhetorical weapon. Through a series of graphics we learn what Americans think wealth distribution looks like, based on survey data: really unequal. And then we learn what people say they wish it looked like: still unequal and far from socialism, but less alarming.

After we’ve absorbed that pretty thoroughly, we get blunt visualizations of the actual facts (including an arresting graphic underscoring of the “off the charts” nature of the top 1 percent’s wealth share)—which are so much more extreme than the already-extreme conventional wisdom, it’s jarring. Jarring enough that for some viewers it simply has to be shared. As a strategy, this is sort of a Bizarro World version of contrarianism. Instead of, “You think X is bad—but viewed from this other angle it’s good,” we get, “You think X is bad—but viewed from this other angle it’s infinitely worse!

Not everyone agrees with the conclusions and assertions, as you’ll see if you choose to examine the comments on YouTube or anywhere else the video gets posted. But wild disagreement tends not to hurt to virality. That bit of conventional wisdom remains true.