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Cartoon Captures Spirit of the Internet
Published: Thursday, April 16, 2009
BY now, it's almost an old saying: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." You can count on seeing it at the start of plenty of articles on Internet privacy and anonymity.
The sentence, which originated as a caption to a New Yorker cartoon, has slipped into the public consciousness, leaving its source behind. So it's just as accurate to say that on the Internet, nobody knows that you coined a phrase.
That particular sentence was originated by Peter Steiner, a regular contributor to the magazine since 1980. He wrote it as the caption for his July 1993 single-panel cartoon showing a dog sitting at a computer talking to another dog.
"I feel a little like the person (whoever it is) who invented the smiley face," Mr. Steiner wrote via e-mail. The cartoon didn't receive much attention at the time, but interest has grown over the last seven years, and the saying has become practically an industry of its own.
The panel is the most reproduced cartoon from The New Yorker, according to Robert Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor and the president of the Cartoon Bank, an affiliated division that handles reprints, licensing and merchandising of New Yorker art. Mr. Mankoff said the cartoon had been reprinted hundreds of times. It is also available as a framed print and as a T-shirt via the Cartoon Bank's Web site.
The cartoon appears in many books about technology and regularly shows up in magazines and newspapers. In mid-November, it was reprinted in eCompany Now, a magazine, and in The Seattle Times. But bad scans of the original also appear on hundreds of Web sites that have not paid to reproduce it or asked permission to post it. The Cartoon Bank charges range from less than $100 for using the cartoon in a business presentation to several hundred dollars or more for Web and print use, depending on the site traffic, print run and type of publication.
The caption appears in its original and modified forms ("nobody" is often rendered as "no one") on thousands of Web and print pages. The Google.com search engine produces more than 103,000 potential matches. The saying is often cited as "that old phrase" or "the adage."
The sentence has made its way into programming code: in the first three editions of "Just Java 1.1 & Beyond," Peter van der Linden used the example of a server trying to detect whether a user was a dog (www.wol.pace.edu/~bergin /InternetProgramming.html). Essays borrow the caption for their titles. Search the news archives of any publication, and there will probably be at least one reference.
It even inspired the play "Nobody Knows I'm a Dog," by Alan David Perkins, which is about chat room participants and has had a dozen North American productions. When told in a telephone interview that the phrase had turned up in a play, Mr. Steiner said, "It's shocking to me to hear that, but still I can't quite fathom that it's that widely known and recognized."
Mr. Steiner said no publication had ever interviewed him before about the panel. "People treat cartoons as though they come from somewhere out in space," he said. "Whenever you see articles or books, they name the author. When you see a cartoon, you see the place it appeared in." Readers may see the signature in the cartoon but remember and cite only the publication.
Although Mr. Steiner knew about the Internet and had an account at an online service when he created the cartoon, he wasn't particularly focused on the Net. "I did the drawing of these dogs at the computer like one of those make-up-a-caption contests," he said. "There wasn't any profound tapping into the zeitgeist. I guess, though, when you tap into the zeitgeist you don't necessarily know you're doing it."
In a 1995 interview with PBS for the program "Understanding the Internet," Rick Adams, one of the developers of Arpanet, the Web's precursor, said, "The fact that the New Yorker could use the word Internet as the punch line in a cartoon was to me the defining popularization of the Internet." In a 1996 interview in OnTheInternet (a Web publication that has ceased publishing), Jon Postel, an Arpanet pioneer, said the cartoon signaled to him that the print media didn't have to define the Internet every time it was used. (Mr. Postel died in 1998.)
Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president for technology and programs at the Freedom Forum, quoted the cartoon when he was talking about the potential for online voting during a talk at Poptech 2000: Being Human in the Digital Age, a conference in late October in Camden, Me. In an e-mail interview, Mr. Powell said, "The cartoon was the perfect one-line summary printed at just the right moment." Mr. Powell said it precisely described the Net's ambiguity. "Assuming literacy in written English," he said, "anyone in the world can get a Hotmail account and write to the president of M.I.T. — or the president of the U.S. — and who is to know he is really an 11- year-old in Mali?"
Mr. Steiner's own obscurity hasn't cost him, however. He and the magazine have split more than $100,000 in fees paid for reprinting and otherwise licensing the cartoon, with more than half going to Mr. Steiner, according to Mr. Mankoff, the cartoon editor.
"It's become an icon," Mr. Mankoff said. "It provokes a response. It's chunked in memory." The original of the cartoon was sold before it became popular for a sum so small that he doesn't remember it, Mr. Steiner said.
William H. Gates's publisher came calling to use the panel in Mr. Gates's 1995 book, "The Road Ahead." At the time, Mr. Steiner said, The New Yorker "was not great at negotiating these fees." A magazine staff member and Mr. Gates's representative agreed on a fee of $200, Mr. Steiner said. He told the staff member that the $200 would be paid by "the richest man in the world, who's going to publish a book that's going to sell a million copies," he said, but she answered, "That's what we charge for a first book."
When Mr. Steiner was asked if people would still be citing his cartoon in 50 years, he replied, "Isn't that horrifying — to think that's the thing I'll be remembered for?"
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