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How This Guy’s Bad Math About Powerball and Poverty Became an Inescapable Viral Meme

When Steve Bastien started working on his latest image macro, he had no idea it would be an enormous viral success. Then again, he also didn’t know it would be embarrassingly wrong. “I wasn’t even aware if the math was correct at the time,” Bastien, a Coney Island guy who works in HR and in his spare time does graphic design and music production, told me over email. “The thought seemed very profound, and it was a great topic of conversation.” 

If you’ve logged on to Facebook at all this week, you’ve probably seen the “thought.” It’s explained in an image of a chalkboard on which a simple equation is written: If the Powerball winner split the $1.3 billion jackpot across the entire United States, every person would get $4.33 million — ending poverty.

WOW!!!!!!! #ShareThis!

Posted by Livesosa on Sunday, January 10, 2016

As has since been pointed out, it’s not quite that easy. If the equation were solved correctly, it would leave everyone with $4.33 each, not $4.33 million.

The idea for the equation initially came from a Facebook discussion that also involved Bastien’s close friend Philipe Andolini, credited at the bottom of the viral image (Bastien may have been the author of the year’s wrongest meme, but he isn’t credited in the most widely shared version of the image — more on that in a minute).

​Bastien initially re-posted it on Facebook as a quote from his friend, because he didn’t want to steal Andolini’s idea. “When he made the statement the Powerball was at $800–900 million but was growing. So I took it upon myself to make the quote relevant to the actual value, but kept the theory behind the equation.”

From there, Bastien posted the image on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, in the hopes it would pick up some momentum. It did, but not the way he’d expected. “I realized that post was wrong when my friend Jameson commented that it was wrong, then others started commenting. I took the meme down to save face, but people online are crafty and fast.”

People,” in this case, being a Facebook account called @livesosa, which picked up the image, pasted its handle over Bastien’s, and shared it. This was the version that really went viral, to the tune of 1.3 million shares. Bastien, perhaps happy to let someone share credit for his math error, remains copacetic. “I started seeing more and more people re-post the version with ‘@livesosa’ in the middle instead of mine. It didn’t bother me,” he said. “I am flattered that someone found something I did good enough to take it and make it their own. Good content is meant to be shared.”

The two didn’t know each other at first, but Bastien says they’re now friends on Instagram. He also commended @livesosa for leaving the image up, regardless of mathematical error, because the sentiment that it conveys — helping the less fortunate — is the most important part. (Both Bastien and @livesosa have since re-posted the meme overlaid with Steve Harvey’s face, a reference to Harvey’s enormous error at the Miss Universe pageant last month.)

The image was in some sense a perfect meme: a simple, charming, universal sentiment that could take advantage of the fungibility of truth on social media (it’s not so much that people didn’t realize the equation was wrong — it’s that they didn’t care), but also one that could be singled out and fact-checked by social media’s many superior nitpickers. 

Bastien echoed the former sentiment when asked about the upcoming drawing — he copped to chipping in to his office pool. “The Powerball would have been nice to win,” he admitted, “but I’m truly blessed and fortunate enough to give back. I don’t NEED or HAVE TO BE a millionaire. … We all should make an effort every day to reach out to the least fortunate.”

The Man Who Made That Viral Lotto Equation