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.