On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

peter steiner

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog‘ is an adage which began as the caption of a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by ‘The New Yorker’ in 1993. Steiner, a cartoonist and contributor to ‘The New Yorker’ since 1979, said the cartoon initially did not get a lot of attention, but later took on a life of its own, and that he felt similar to the person who created the ‘smiley face.’ In fact, Steiner was not that interested in the Internet when he drew the cartoon, and although he did have an online account, he recalled attaching no ‘profound’ meaning to the cartoon; it was just something he drew in the manner of a ‘make-up-a-caption’ cartoon.

In response to the comic’s popularity, he stated, ‘I can’t quite fathom that it’s that widely known and recognized.’ The cartoon marks a notable moment in Internet history. Once the exclusive domain of government engineers and academics, the Internet was now a subject of discussion in general interest magazines like ‘The New Yorker.’ Lotus 1-2-3 founder and early Internet activist Mitch Kapor commented in a ‘Time’ magazine article in 1993 that ‘the true sign that popular interest has reached critical mass came this summer when the ‘New Yorker printed a cartoon showing two computer-savvy canines.’

The cartoon symbolizes an understanding of Internet privacy that stresses the ability of users to send and receive messages in general anonymity. Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig suggests ‘no one knows’ because Internet protocols do not force users to identify themselves, although local access points such as a user’s university may; but this information is privately held by the local access point and not part of the Internet transaction itself.

A 2000 study on compulsive or problematic Internet use discusses this phenomenon, suggesting the ability to self-represent from behind the computer screen may be part of the compulsion to go online. The phrase can be taken ‘to mean that cyberspace will be liberatory because gender, race, age, looks, or even ‘dogness’ are potentially absent or alternatively fabricated or exaggerated with unchecked creative license for a multitude of purposes both legal and illegal,’ an understanding that echoed statements made in 1996 by John Gilmore, a key figure in the history of Usenet.

The phrase also suggests the ability to ‘computer crossdress’ and represent oneself as a different gender, age, race, etc. On another level, ‘the freedom which the dog chooses to avail itself of, is the freedom to ‘pass’ as part of a privileged group; i.e. human computer users with access to the Internet.’ In 2007, the cartoon was used to illustrate how the 17-year-old founder of a website could be mistaken for a seasoned Internet professional, and as a metaphor for the program Wikiscanner that is able to link anonymous editors of Wikipedia to the organization owning that IP address.

An Internet social search phenomenon in China, known as ‘human flesh search,’ coined the sentence ‘On the Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog,’ due to the human effort-collaborated exposure and mass distribution of personal information.

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