Caught Like Insects in a Web

I’d estimate that the New Yorker has published more than 50,000 cartoons since its first issue in 1925 (I couldn’t find a precise number in a cursory Google search). So it’s surprising to learn that the single most reprinted cartoon of that nearly 90 year history is the one by Peter Steiner from 1993 that says, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In an interview in 2000, Steiner said the line didn’t feel that profound to him when he wrote it. “I guess, though, when you tap into the zeitgeist you don’t necessarily know you’re doing it.” But the idea quickly caught on as shorthand for the internet’s spirit of anonymity, especially in chatrooms and message boards—a spirit that lives on in sites like Reddit, where “doxing” someone is one of the worst crimes you can commit.

In those early days, the internet felt like an ocean made for skinny-dipping; instead of doffing your clothes, you doffed your identity. You could read about, look at, discuss, and eventually purchase just about anything that interested you, without fear of anyone looking at you funny. This lack of identity could be used for nefarious purposes, of course, and it could lead people down any number of self-destructive paths. But for many, it was liberating to find that, on the web, you could explore your true nature and find fellow travelers without shame.

But as paranoia grows about the NSA reading our emails and Google tapping into our home thermostats, it’s increasingly clear that — rather than providing an identity-free playground — the web can just as easily capture and preserve aspects of our identities we would have preferred to keep hidden. What started as a metaphor to describe the complexly interconnected network has come to suggest a spider’s sticky trap.

I thought of this listening to a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron. Comedian Artie Lang was telling the story of how he came into his own as a stand-up comedian by exploring, with brutal honesty, the darkness of his personal life. Then he stopped himself for a second to explain that he would never have been able to achieve that level of honesty onstage if he’d worried about his sets appearing on the internet.

Lang: It was before every jerk off had a cellphone taping you. Remember when it was midnight at a club in Cincinnati. It was just you and those people! That was it….Now it’s you and everyone in the fucking world.

Maron: And on Twitter…you can’t do anonymous sets anymore.

Lang: Exactly. An anonymous set is what makes you…The comics are going to get worse man, ’cause they’re gonna check themselves…They’re not gonna wanna see themselves bombing on Instagram or wherever the fuck it is and they’re never gonna take risks.

Where the internet used to encourage risk, now it seems to inhibit it, because it turns out the web can capture anything. What you say in front of friends, or even in front of an audience, can blow away with the wind. On the web, your words can stick around, can be passed around. Celebrities may have been the early victims, but now anyone is fair game. Millions of people are potentially watching you, ready to descend in a feeding frenzy of judgment. In the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, Mark O’Connell writes about the phenomenon of Twitter users deleting their tweets, something he has seen happen in real time.

It’s a rare and fleeting sight, this emergency recall of language, and I find it touching, as though the person had reached out to pluck his words from the air before they could set about doing their disastrous work in the world, making their author seem boring or unfunny or ignorant or glib or stupid.

Maybe we should treat the web like a public place, with certain standards of behavior. Maybe those who engage in disorderly conduct, posting creepshots and racist tweets, should be exposed and held to account. Perhaps our expectation of anonymity on the internet never made sense. The problem is that the digital trails we leave on web can blur the line between speech and thought, between imagination and intent.

It’s that blurred line Robert Kolker explores in his piece for New York magazine about the so-called “Cannibal Cop,” Gilberto Valle, who never kidnapped, raped, murdered, or cannibalized anyone, but who chatted about it obsessively online. And even though there was little evidence that he took any steps to make his fantasies a reality, his online discussions served to convict him of conspiracy to do so. Kolker writes:

The line between criminal thoughts and action is something the courts have pondered for decades…What’s changed in recent years are the tools used to detect intent—namely, a person’s online activity. “We’ve always said you can’t punish for thoughts alone, but now we really know what the thoughts are,” says Audrey Rogers, a law professor at Pace University. [emphasis mine]

I’m reminded of a recent Radiolab episode about Ötzi, the 5000 year old Iceman discovered in the Alps in 1991. For more than two decades, Archaeologists have poured over the details of his clothing, his possessions, his tattoos, and the arrowhead lodged in his back, evidence he was murdered. From the contents of his stomach, they’ve even determined what he ate for his final meal. I wonder if there will someday be archaeologists who sift through our hard drives, tracing out the many digital trails we’ve left in the web, trying to determine not what we were eating, but what we were thinking. Will their findings be accurate?

To paraphrase John Keats, most lives used to be writ in water. Now they’re writ in code. As much as our digital lives are only partial documents, they often seem more real to strangers simply because they are what has been documented. Maybe the internet doesn’t know you’re a dog, but it doesn’t care. In the eyes of strangers, you are that which the web reveals you to be, because the web is where the evidence is.