How Totally Fake Quotes Spread Across the Internet: A Case Study

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May 19 2014 11:37 PM

“Hang in There!” –Arthur Schopenhauer

Quotation websites and the outsourcing of erudition.

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Suspiciously Hallmarkian.

Illustration by Slate

Arthur Schopenhauer—the 19th century German philosopher for whom human existence was a perpetually swinging “pendulum between suffering and boredom,” and the world itself a hell in which “human beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other”—tends to get pigeonholed as a fairly downbeat guy. But the author of such elegantly corrosive essays as “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life” and “The Fullness of Nothingness” is also apparently responsible for the quote that probably appeared on the inside of the card you gave your dad on his 50th birthday: “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.”

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

I discovered this not in the old-fashioned way of reading Schopenhauer’s actual writing—which, as I say, tends to be filled with stuff about how life is a meaningless ordeal of suffering alleviated only by a meaningless death—but by the more modern means of happening across it on the website brainyquote.com. I’d been tracking down the source of a different Schopenhauer quotation, but these days if you’re looking for anything remotely pithy online, you’ll inevitably wind up being pointed in the direction of BrainyQuote, or one of a whole black economy of similar quote stockists. These sites are an inevitable outcome of the process by which we’ve outsourced knowledge to the third party of technology. This superficial democratization of erudition is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean you don’t have to have read Schopenhauer, or really anything much at all, to have access to just the right Schopenhauer quotation for your particular needs—and no grounds to suspect when the quotation you select has nothing to do with its ostensible source.

Now look: As I’ve modestly intimated above, I’ve read a bit of Schopenhauer—in fact, he’s about the only thing that’s remained with me from three years of undergraduate philosophy. And so I suspected straight away that these suspiciously Hallmarkian words were unlikely to have flowed from his poison-tipped quill. Leaving aside the sentiment itself, the phrase just conspicuously lacks the black gleam of his prose. You wouldn’t even call it school of, really.

So I did some more googling, and found that, although it is the most prominent, BrainyQuote is not the only place to have attributed the “over the hill” line to Schopenhauer. Far from it. There it is on quote-wise.com, searchquotes.com, quote.lifehack.org, quotespedia.info, quoteswave.com, izquotes.com, excellentquotations.com—to name just a handful of the bigger hitters in the online quotes racket. And through this wilderness of mirrored sources, a wonderfully weird misattribution has made its way outward into the world. Granted, it hasn’t appeared widely in the mainstream media, nor does it seem to have cast its shadow across the groves of academic scholarship, but it’s certainly caused Schopenhauer to turn up in a lot of places where you wouldn’t expect him to be invoked. Here he is, for instance, offering inspiration to those who would strive to face down the pain and futility of existence through blasting their abs and glutes. And here’s old Arthur giving comfort to those suffering souls who have not yet engaged the services of Arizona’s most philosophically grounded tax-debt adviser. And here he is yet again, offering counsel to the neo-Nazi skinheads of Stormfront.org, who despite the physical and intellectual benefits of their Aryan blood must face the indignity of aging like the rest of us mugs, and may as well do so with a salutary dose of bogus Schopenhauer.

Because of the speed and abandon with which the Internet disseminates error, tracking the source of an online misattribution is usually a difficult business. It’s often the case in these situations that the true source of the quotation is unknown, and so it randomly attaches itself to some name-brand figure whose saying or writing such a thing seems vaguely plausible. This is how Edmund Burke winds up getting credited with the very nifty—though only superficially Burkean—“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (In this Fox Nation think-piece on Obama’s unchallenged ascent to imperial despotism, Judge Andrew Napolitano leads with the quotation, Foxing it up a notch by replacing “good men” with “good folks.”) And it also seems to be how Burke’s virulently quotable compatriot W.B. Yeats has come into posthumous possession of this similarly catchy assertion: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” (Being Irish myself, I know a Yeats line when I see one, and this feels deeply un-Yeatsian to me. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t turn up in any of his actual published work, it would probably be more comfortably housed within the quotational estate of an Oscar Wilde, or an H.L. Mencken. Yeats was a lot of things, but he wasn’t much of a wisecracker.)

I did some rummaging around online to see whether I could isolate a source for the Schopenhauer misattribution, and I came up with an explanation that, while admittedly not airtight, is at least credible. The “over the hill” line is commonly attributed to Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts—probably not because he is its original author, but because it’s used in one of his strips (it’s Franklin’s grandfather’s personal motto, apparently), and provides the title for a little book of Peanuts wisdom. The root of the confusion here is, I think, the alphabetical proximity of Schopenhauer to Schulz. If you’re listing quotations alphabetically, Schopenhauer is going to appear very close to—in fact likely just right above—Schulz. This is certainly the case here, where something that Schopenhauer actually wrote is positioned directly over the Schulz quotation, thereby suggesting a possible origin of this whole snarl-up. This doesn’t get us any closer to the actual author of the “over the hill” line, of course. But on the other hand, who cares—it’s not exactly Shakespeare, after all. (Although now that I think of it, Shakespeare does seem a marginally more plausible source than Schopenhauer.)

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Screengrab from brainyquote.com

In the interest of thoroughness, I ran the “over the hill” line by Julian Young, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University and author of a prominent critical introduction to Schopenhauer. It is, he confirms, “exactly what Schopenhauer wouldn’t have said”; aside from anything else it’s just “too boring” to be him. Chris Janaway, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer and author of three monographs on various aspects of his philosophy, had a similar reaction. He also pointed out that Schopenhauer would never have used the expression “over the hill” anyway, without which pun the saying would go from mere banality to outright senselessness.

But the real villain here, as far as I’m concerned, is this vast quote-aggregation industrial complex that doth bestride the narrow online world like a colossus, to paraphrase … I don’t know, but let’s go with Shia Labeouf. These sites—your quotefreak.coms, your thinkexist.coms—cater to a growing appetite for filleted wisdom, for deboned wit, for the mechanically separated meat of literature. I myself use these quote aggregators more often than is probably wise to admit. As a reader, I’m constantly underlining things in books—sentences, passages, whole paragraphs and pages—as though the decisive act of taking a pencil from behind my ear and drawing an emphatic line beneath a particularly fine phrase will somehow imprint that phrase in my memory. It doesn’t, of course. Within a week, I’ll have only the faintest recollection of the phrase. And so I’ll find myself googling “schopenhauer pendulum boredom” or whatever, and I’ll wind up on BrainyQuote trying to separate the pessimism from the Peanuts.

This site in particular seems to have essentially cornered the online quotation market. Its Twitter account, which blurts out an uplifting sentence every few hours, has somewhere around 328,000 followers. The website is apparently the 952nd most popular in the world, which is quite good going for a site with zero original content whatsoever. Its About Us page provides no actual information on who the “us” in question might be, but we do get an apposite quotation about quotations, attributed to one “Jorge Luis”: “Life itself is a quotation.” (I’m fairly confident this line should be credited to Jorge Luis Borges, a writer both skeptical and pessimistic enough to have conceded that life is, specifically, a botched quotation misattributed to a nonexistent author.) BrainyQuote appears to be one of a number of sites controlled by the novelistically named entrepreneur Jeff Rich. In an intriguingly Borgesian gesture, Rich’s own page on BrainyQuote carries a line of curiously off-brand aphorisms like “To do or not to do … that is the question,” “If you’re not winning, you’re losing,” and the impressively meta “Attribution is power.” 

I can’t claim to have any idea what “Attribution is power” might mean in itself, but insofar as it’s an obvious bastardization of the axiom “Knowledge is power”—commonly, though not definitively, attributed to Francis Bacon—it manages to be weirdly revealing. There’s a figurative and literal removal of knowledge going on here that somehow reflects the basic enterprise of BrainyQuote, along with its countless clones and rivals. (Rivals which, according to the above-mentioned About Us page, are to be rigorously avoided, unless you want to literally turn yourself stupid: “Recent studies show time spent on copycat quotation sites leads to a loss of IQ points.”) The whole thing, in other words, seems like a subversive parody of the way in which the Internet has disrupted the erudition vertical from Wikipedia to Brain Pickings to the ascent of explainer-based journalism. But that, as Schopenhauer himself famously put it, is just the way the cookie crumbles.