The Internet, Sourcing Quotations, and Shouting Crazy Things on Street Corners

I love the internet. It will tell you anything.

It will tell you that Albert Einstein said this (or some version of it): “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

If you’re looking for some powerful, beautifully deep-voiced words about equal rights, the internet will give you this from Morgan Freeman: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”

It will point you to this encouraging gem from Marilyn Monroe: “To all the girls that think you’re fat because you’re not a size 0, you’re the beautiful one, it’s society who’s ugly.”

Or this lovely poem from Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Or this terrifying xenophobic diatribe by “comedian” Robin Williams.

Or this even more terrifying ornery-old-conservative-man screed called “I’m 83 and I’m Tired” by comedian Bill Cosby.

Or this well-ahead-of-its time thought (among many, many others) from Abraham Lincoln: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

It’s important to note here that I do love the internet, honestly, sincerely and deeply. It really will tell you just about anything, and much of it useful, if you know where to look. But the one thing the internet won’t tell you is the actual origin of any of those quotes above — not just who said it, but the book, speech, letter or so on in which it was said or written.

And that’s because none of those people actually said any of those things.

The “definition of insanity” quote made its first known appearance in a Narcotics Anonymous text in 1981, popularized two years later by author Rita Mae Brown. The little bit of common sense attributed to Morgan Freeman came from a parody Twitter account. The Marilyn quote has no known source, but she certainly didn’t say it; there was no size zero until after her death, and Marilyn (herself quite thin, actually) wasn’t really one for bucking trends, or for self-empowerment more generally. The Nin quote sure sounds like her and is kind of an amalgam of a lot of things Nin may have written or thought, but it was actually written for a 1979 college schedule. The Williams quote is from a much more likely-seeming source — a USENET posting that in a later reposting had a single real Williams “joke” appended to it. Of course Cosby didn’t write that nonsense whining about having to pay taxes (can you even imagine?) — that was a quite possibly insane retired Massachusetts state senator (Cosby is also nowhere near 83 years old). No one knows where the animal rights thing came from, but it’s not from Lincoln; I can find writings about the rights of animals dating back near Lincoln’s time, but the term “animal rights” as it’s used today doesn’t seem to really have been a thing before about 1975.

This is the kind of thing that will one day, inevitably, be the end of me. I see a quote that resonates with me (or angers me) and I immediately want to know the context. The identity of the speaker and the context within which it was said often mean as much as the quote itself. Did a surgeon say that, or one of our most accomplished female writers, or a madman in his anti-everything manifesto? Was he speaking to an eighth-grade religion class at an all-girls Catholic school, or at a USO stop in Afghanistan? Did she write it in the speech or thoughts of her novel’s clearly, fatally misapprehending protagonist, or in her own private journal? These things make a big difference. They can make the words mean drastically different things.

The internet (the faceless being that is made up of what must be all these hundreds of people who are apparently deciding to spend real time intentionally misattributing quotes) understands that who said what and when matter, too, but to the internet, that matters only because it gets more attention if it’s sexy. If it’s supposed to sound smart, it sounds better coming from Einstein. If it’d sound really cool in Morgan Freeman’s voice (and what wouldn’t?), then sure, go with that. If it’s about beauty or self-image, you want it to come from The One Classic Image of Beauty herself (or from this weird fictionalized, saintly version of Marilyn that the modern world has developed), and to be paired with one of her photos. If it’s deeply horrifying political nonsense, who better to hear it from than the smiling face of a normally frivolous funnyman? And so on.

It’s not just your friends on Facebook, either. You sometimes have to do real work to uncover the truth about these things. You can find these false quotes — even some of the most clearly false, silly-on-their-face ones — at what appear to be professional, legitimate places. Places like BrainyQuote (which, apparently, is neither) and Goodreads (a good site, for other things). It’s tempting to say “just take two seconds and Google this stuff, dammit,” and doing so would straighten you out very quickly on utter rot like the Williams and Cosby nutsorants, but even that can be awfully misleading on the more innocuous stuff. It’s just the entire internet that has or propagates this problem, or a big portion of the internet that’s often very hard to distinguish from the useful portion. It’s great, this internet thing is, but it’s badly broken too.

It’s like this: try to remember or imagine what life was like, in terms of the media to which one was exposed, in 1985. You had three television networks — not that they were producing consistently great stuff, but it was heavily filtered, lots of people taking lots of time deciding exactly what you should watch and how much of it. You had one newspaper, with a team of fact-checkers, or any of several similarly professionally checked and edited magazines. You could go to the movies or the theater. On the way to the movies or the theater or the newsstand, you might pass a street corner from which a certifiably insane gentleman might yell at you about Jesus through a megaphone or hand you a pamphlet about how the world is ending on Tuesday.

Now, though? Your whole world is that guy on the street corner. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, those guys won. It’s all just shouting stuff now.

You can read whatever you want written by anyone; there’s no filter to check facts or reasonableness or, hell, just to make sure that what you’re about to see isn’t just something that should never be seen under any circumstances by anyone. It’d be incredibly easy and helpful, whenever you’re passing along an interesting quote, to find room for an extra three or five words below the attribution that give you a hint of the actual spatial and temporal source of that quote; on the internet, there’s no one there to make sure you do that, and absolutely no motivation to do it. If something sounds funnier coming from Betty White than the no-name comic who actually said it, then Betty White means more pageviews or shares or retweets, and so suddenly it’s Betty White’s quote. If something is so completely batshit crazy that people will only pay attention to it if you can dupe some poor gullible souls into believing somehow that Bill Cosby said it, than by God, that’s who said it.

The internet is a wonderful place, and for largely those reasons — the lack of filter and accountability and all-around final-frontier nature of it are what makes it all worthwhile and so endlessly fascinating. The world is better, lots better, than it was in 1985.

But, come on. Can’t we get some quotes with proper attribution, every now and then? Or a site (like Snopes but less focused on things that kind of, you know, matter) devoted entirely to sourcing or debunking widely-shared quotes? Do I have to be the one to do this? Because I will do it. And I will spend all my time on it, and yet the internet will slog on unabated, happily pretending that MLK disapproves of our celebrating getting Osama Bin Laden. And it will be the end of me.

22 thoughts on “The Internet, Sourcing Quotations, and Shouting Crazy Things on Street Corners

  1. Really enjoyable read. I especially enjoyed this line:

    “Now, though? Your whole world is that guy on the street corner. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, those guys won. It’s all just shouting stuff now.”

    What’s interesting is that you are one of ‘those guys’ yourself, as a blogger, but a bit more restrained than crazy shouters. It made me picture a guy on the street corner shouting ‘Hey! Does anybody want to talk about baseball? I like the Twins and I would like to talk about baseball!’, which is a deeply amusing thought.

  2. I am SO on board with creating a “Snopes for Quotes”. It drives me insane when I see quotes attributed to people falsely in order to give them weight. That Cosby “quote”? I’ve put a smackdown on that one more than once on Facebook. 🙂

    There is so much awesome with the internet – the availability of information, the ease with which we can connect to others; but with that awesome comes a healthy helping of stupid. Last week’s events showed the power of online media for both good and bad.

    I just want to grab some people and yell, “You’re why we can’t have nice things!!”

  3. Very good points all around. It can be difficult to sort out who said what, and locate the sources, particularly when quotes are well promoted and appear on seemingly legit sites. Considering the source is pretty key, IMO, and applies to all aspects of non-fiction, whether we share quotes or other information. It makes me sad when people quote beautiful, attributable quotes, without any attribution at all.

    Interestingly, I have that Anais Nin quote on stationary, and the back reads, “From an early version of Anais Nin’s novel, “Children of the Albatross.” Though even in print, things can be inaccurate… Heck, encyclopedias are known to have errors (yep, the paper ones ;)). I met a former Britannica editor, and was amazed at how loose the fact-checking process can (or at least used to) be.

    I’d love to see a super qualifiable, writer/student-friendly version of Snopes arise. Pretty sure they’d hire you. 😉

    • Thanks! Yep, agreed with all that.

      You mentioned the stationery yesterday but not that it gave a source — would’ve left it out if you’d said that. 😉 That’s really interesting. The thing is that at the end of the day you’re still left trusting *somebody* with some degree of blindness…the site linked above (which also has an earlier post on the same quote linking it, very tenuously, with Children of the Albatross: is “the official Anais Nin blog,” connected to a publishing company devoted primarily to her work (I can’t figure out what makes it “official”). It seems like the most trustworthy source we’re going to have, and the story in the link above seems…well, *fairly* believable, though 30+ years on it could well be that that author found the quote somewhere else and simply forgot to attribute it.

      So I made the difficult decision to trust the “official blog” ahead of my friend and her stationery, but with this new information I’m having second thoughts. 🙂 I might actually message the author of the blog and ask whether they’d have access to any “early versions” and the like.

      I’m finding that WikiQuote is a pretty decent Snopes-like source for quotes (they have a long list of misattributed quotes at the end), Snopes itself does some (and has a message board dedicated to questionable quotes), and this is an interesting site: But one that was more or less just like Snopes with a more literary bent would be pretty great. Hmm. 🙂

  4. Wonderful, thoughtful, and articulate article, Bill. The internet has exacerbated the problem of incorrectly credited quotations. As you perceptively suggest, the misattribution of some sayings does seem to be motivated by a desire to garner “more pageviews or shares or retweets”.

    Thanks for mentioning the Quote Investigator website. Tracing quotations has been revolutionized by recently constructed large-scale databases built by scanning millions of books, newspapers, journals, and magazines. Unfortunately, access to some of these databases is sharply restricted by onerous fees and/or mandatory affiliation with a major University. In addition, it is still necessary to examine many books and periodicals on paper to see the full context. So, it is desirable to be near a top university library system and/or have a network of friends and correspondents willing to help.

    The “Resources” webpage on the Quote Investigator website presents some suggestions for checking quotations. As you have discovered, some of the big databases online, e.g., brainyquote, thinkexist, are packed with misinformation, and engender the dissemination of false ascriptions.

    Your persuasive article will sensitize more people to the problem of fallacious quotes. Here is a powerful saying on this topic together with its common attribution:

    “The thing about quotes from the Internet is that it’s hard to verify their authenticity.”
    -Abraham Lincoln

    • Thanks for dropping by and offering your insight, Garson. I’ll be sure to check the resources page and keep an eye on your site. Let me know if you ever get a chance to deal with the Anais Nin issue just above. 🙂 I love the Lincoln “quote.”

  5. Ah, a blog about one of my greatest social media-related pet peeves (behind only misuse of your/you’re and they’re/there/their). I usually respond to such nonsense by posting “”Sometimes, people on the internet misattribute quotes to get attention” – Abraham Lincoln.” Tends to get my point across.

  6. Great point! I love the new commercial on TV where the young woman says, “Of course it’s true. It was on the internet.” So much misinformation is out there and often the damage can’t be repaired.
    Thanks for bringing this to the party!

    • Thanks, Susie! Ha, yes…like, I think Wikipedia gets a bad rap for being untrustworthy (most of it is basically true info, just need to get backup support and use a bit of judgment), but maybe that’s because I’ve seen what the REST of the internet has to offer. 🙂
      Thanks for hosting the party! I’ve combed through some already, and look forward to checking out the rest over the weekend.

    • Ha. Aw! We’re not FB friends, and you probably don’t have anybody as picky as me. Anyway, a quick google-search of the quote (or checking with some of the other resources mentioned in this thread) could clear it up pretty quickly for you.

      Thanks for dropping by, Kitt! I think I’ve seen you around on Facebook…anyway. Looking forward to checking out yours and the rest of the party participants’ over the weekend.

      • Thank you. I know you’re right about the quotes, too. I have Google searched a couple of quotes here and there. I’m sure we’ll see each other around. 🙂

  7. Hello Bill,
    Susy sent me and I am glad I followed her directions. I often wonder why people don’t do a bit of research before they post wrong information (including misattributed quotes, FB “Cinderella” warnings along the lines of “if you don’t pay five bucks before midnight your account will be gone tomorrow”, etc.). The funny thing is, people find it easier to hit “retweet” or “share” than to to do a Google search and thus ridiculous things keep going viral.
    Loved your style and I’ll start following you right away. Also added your blog to our Pinterest board 🙂

  8. Great point…it’s been a while since I’ve seen one of those transparently obvious scams come up, but yes, those happen all the time too, for the same reasons.

    Awesome. Thanks so much for coming byZ!

  9. Promisses No. 6: This Stretches the Gimmick to Its Limits « The Cranky Lefty

  10. Yes! I found your blog entry while trying to find any credible sourcing for “Beethoven said that it’s better to hit the wrong note confidently, than hit the right note unconfidently.” This can be found in precisely this form everywhere, but I can’t find even a bogus attempt to identify the provenance.

  11. This “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

    Is also from the basic text of Narcotic Anonymous.

    I will try to get you the exact page number but I am not sure which addition I have.

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