Monday, 2 July 2007


There's a new (or arguably) ancient form of myth emerging thanks to the internet. The quotation that is taken as correct and/or correctly attributed but is actually a mistake, compounded by hundreds of thousands of repetitions. If anyone has a year or two to write an Umberto Eco style book on modern culture viewed through the lens of semiotics (you'd make liberal use of 'langue/parole'), this might be a good subject. Here are a few examples I have tripped over:

- the chinese for crisis consists of the charatcters meaning 'danger' plus 'opportunity'. This was apparently concocted by an american presidential script writer. Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese literature link. attacks this "widespread misconception" of "oriental wisdom" noting that the second symbol really means something like "incipient moment or crucial point," meaning that someone in a "crisis" must be aware of both danger and its special point in time. The second symbol definitely does not mean "opportunity!"

- “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." is attributed to Goethe. It actually comes from a very loose misquote by Scottish mountaineer W Murray. link (what Goethe actually said was "Now at last let me see some deeds!”)

- the text to "the sunscreen song" initially circulated for some time on the web attributed to Kurt Vonnegut and a speech he had given to the matriculating class at MIT. It was actually written for the Chicago Tribune by journalist Mary Smich. When Luhrman was working on the single he first tried to contact Vonnegut to get permission. link

In the time before libraries, academic references and so on it was very common to claim a work came from a famous author. It gave it authority. In the intro to many of the penguin classics are long essays explaining that it is doubtful who actually wrote what. The internet seems to reintroduce the same effect, because quotations are doubled and redoubled.

The moral is:
"If it sounds good on Oprah then it's not exactly likely to be Shakespeare." (please do quote this liberally, but attribute it to any to famous person of your choosing)

Of course it doesnt actually matter who said what. What's interesting is the way we still seem to crave a mixture of textual authority vs the power of the free floating thought virus, which is well designed for transmission (fitting a common point others will want to make with a quotation, worded in an accessible, catchy, sentimental way...)



Luís said...

Hi John,
thanks for the new space. Looking forward to 'The Green Marketing Manifesto'.

P.s Oprah and Shakespeare say: 'We are also looking forward'- end of quote.

Ian M said...

I'm sure Umberto would love to play with the idea. It also feeds the debate raging in education circles about whether kids today are equipped to evaluate the authority of sources.
I wonder if a response to the ubiquity of created and user-distributed knowledge (ie. the chinese symbol of ....) is that the kids of the next generation become trained from a younger age to be more critical thinkers and not take everything given as for granted (as we were with our classes and textbooks).
I wonder what impact a bunch of younger more questioning and critical thinkers will have on education and knowledge distribution?

Faris said...

Al Gore invented the internet.

00afro said...


I'm not sure that the new wave of "attributed wisdoms" has yet reached the heady heights of the "God said" or "An angel said God says" stuff that has proved so powerful over the last 2000 years.

I think we should probably count our blessings (said by the "king Of Scam", the man voted best in his field by other email scammers the world over. Actually no, I made that up)

David MacGregor said...

Quotes are a fascinating tool. On one hand you might be 'standing on the shoulders of giants'. On the other you might simply be parroting material out of context.

Memes are the new quotes (you can quote me on that). How many people are running about quoting Chicken Little...I mean Al Gore. The sky is falling..the sky is falling! I know, because I saw the movie (and it won an Academy Award). Other than the title there are no real quotable quotes.

I recently came across a website with great intentions. B Corporation who claim:

"Higher purpose. Higher standards of accountability, transparency, and performance. Meet the Founding B Corporations who are setting the new corporate standard for social and environmental performance. These leaders have created profitable, competitive businesses while taking care of their employees, community, and environment."

All good. But they kind of bug me my appropriating a quote that - in a curious way - belongs to us all; you'll probably recognise it:

"We must be the change we seek in the world" M Ghandi

B Corporation use the tag:

"The Change We Seek" adding TM in superscript.

As green issues become good business I think it is important not to become cynical. It is an ideal, not a compromise. To me B Corporation compromises themselves by taking the long dead Ghandi as their spokesperson (obviously without his consent).

Looking forward to the new book - I still quote from both The New Marketing Manifesto and After Image. But I claim the nuggets as my own ;-)

El Gaffney said...

So are Snapple's "Real Facts" real or not? I've been telling everyone that shrimp can only swim backwards for over a year now. But don't think it has been repeated at high enough levels to qualify.

Welcome to blogger - got your new link.

Arthur Barbato said...

bravo. "Mis/Quote" is sublime.

Drew said...

On repetition = validity, it seems this habit of the internet existed prior to it in cults and conspiracy theorists.

Here's a quote I can attribute:

"Those whose worldview is built around conspiracy ideas find in the Internet virtual communities of the like-minded. Copyright and other issues of intellectual property appear to count for little among many who engage in Internet posting. Multiple versions of the same document are likely to appear in various places, some identical, some slightly different, some with annotations by the poster.

"The result is not unlike the variant accounts of urban legends that circulate by word of mouth. Unlike oral versions, however, all of the variants may in principle be simultaneously accessible to the Web surfer, who may then be tempted to judge the credibility of a story by the number of times it is told. Here repetition substitutes for direct evidence as a way of determining veracity. The dynamics of rumor provides a helpful analogy, for it is in the nature of rumors to appear precisely in those situations in which normal means of determining reliability are not available, so the potential consumer of rumors may end up determining truth on the basis of how widely a particular one circulates.

"This gives to rumors–and, by extension, to Internet conspiracy accounts–a self-validating quality. The more a story is told, and the more often people hear it, the more likely they are to believe it."

–Michael Barkun
A Culture of Conspiracy