The Rise of 'In One Chart' In One Chart

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When The Washington Post's Brad Plumer posted "This is actually the scariest chart about Europe" on Thursday morning, there was a spontaneous reaction of mockery on Twitter that could, in the style of many social movements, mark the beginning of a full-scale rebellion against the maniacal competition to create the One Chart That Will Rule Them All. Plumer and his Wonkblog henchmen have been the key pushers of the "[Political, Economic or Cultural Phenomenon] ... In One Chart" trend (of which The Atlantic Wire has also been an enthusiastic participant). And, as you can see from the chart above, In One Chart has been taking over the Internet at a rapidly accelerating pace.  Ezra Klein, MSNBC commentator and Wonkblog kingpin, says he imposed this In One Chart convention on the rest of us, maybe. "I believe I invented it, but with these things you can never be quite sure," Klein tells The Atlantic Wire. "The idea was that when dealing with tough subjects, explicitly limiting the time commitment requires from the reader can be helpful - it signals that while this might be about, say, health care costs, it won't be that heavy a lift."

Derek Thompson, one of the biggest proponents of In One Chart at our sister site confirms Klein's account. Thompson told us, [recapitalized and punctuated from Gchat] "In fact, I recall a conversation with him at a bar, where he told me he really liked this new phrase, 'in one chart' … And I said something like, 'That's cool.'" That was in mid-2010, and Thompson had been working on a formulation along the lines of, "This Is What X Looks Like." The rest is blog history.

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Or is it? Sifting through the Google archives, the earliest example we found was a Health Affairs article with the very modern headline "The Sad History of Health Care Cost Containment as Told in One Chart," (then aggregated by the Kaiser Family Foundation) in January 2002. That's a full year before Klein, then a college student, started his first blog. However, it makes sense to give Klein credit for spreading In One Chart. Today the breadth of in-one-chartism is breathtaking.

By surveying Google results in six month increments, we can see how "In One Chart" posts have proliferated. While searching by custom date ranges is not perfectly accurate -- sometimes pages show up with the wrong date -- if anything, our chart underestimates the degree to which the In One Chart species is reproducing. Early search results -- like this one from 2006 -- are often seeking technical advice on how to display multiple sets of data in a single chart. They're nothing like what you currently see across the Internet -- stories like, "The end of emergency unemployment benefits, in one chart," and "Europe's Collapse Of Confidence In One Chart," and "In One Chart, Everything You Wanted To Know About Ryan Vs. Obama," and "Everything Americans Dislike About the Internet, In One Chart." No news-ish story with a scrap of numerical data is left untouched: "Jordyn Wieber Rage In One Chart" is about the teen gymnastics star who did not qualify for all-around finals at the 2012 Olympics. Note how the number of in-one-charts for the first three months of this year nearly matches the number for the whole last six months of 2012. 

We can't blame Klein alone. There appears to be a correlation between the rise of searches for "In One Chart" and the rise of searches for "wonkish." The New York Times' Paul Krugman appears to be a prime driver of the latter term's rise. Nearly all of the high points in the chart below (we, like many, just broke the In One Chart rule by giving you more than one chart) are to Krugman posts like "Are Other Commodities Like Gold? (Quick and Wonkish)."


But there are signs of a rebellion against "In One Chart" madness. On Friday, in response to Plumer's Euro fear chart (which makes three charts in this In One Chart post), the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney tweeted, "It took 5 hours but I made my first wonk chart," attaching the chart at left. Slate's Dave Weigel tweeted a link to an "In One Chart" Google search. (2.8 million results.) Nerds who wished to remain anonymous defended their in-one-chartism vociferously, explaining that since they couldn't write about birthers and other clicky things, they need cheap tricks, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.