This article originally appeared in July 2013 in The Magazine, a subscriber-supported, ad-free electronic periodical that publishes every other week on the Web and via an iOS app with five original medium-length feature articles and essays. We'll be running articles from its archives and new issues.—The Editors.
Remember 1993? The World Wide Web had already been invented and nobody knew about it. The NCSA Mosaic browser had just appeared in a limited alpha release, but the text-based Gopher service was the closest thing most people had to an interactive user interface to dive into information on the Internet. The commercial use of the Net was still extremely limited in America, as the National Science Foundation's NSFNet backbone ostensibly prohibited anything but academic use. In other countries, the Internet existed barely, if at all.
Into that void, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner dropped what is now the most popular and well-known panel ever produced for the magazine: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
In 1993, the Internet was still a great mystery to most people, if they'd even heard of it. America Online (AOL) was the way most people got "online," and email was the primary use of the Internet — and for people who weren't connected to an academic institution or using one of the early Internet service providers (ISPs), this happened via gateways from AOL and other walled gardens.
Steiner's single panel manages to convey the Internet's newness and the personal purpose to which most people then put it, as well as its fundamental anonymity. The tools to track someone down or even demand a "real" name were nonexistent. One could be a dog (cats came later), and no one would be able to tell the difference. It was a time that now seems remarkably innocent.
Just another cartoon
Steiner recalls the cartoon as just another in many thousands he drew for consideration for the New Yorker and others over three decades, and one of the 421 that were accepted and ran in that publication.
In the glory days of New York magazines, Steiner says, cartoonists would produce portfolios full of executed gags and panels, and then walk from Collier's to the Saturday Evening Post to the New Yorker on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to review the artwork with each editor, who might buy one or two. Between appointments, cartoonists would eat and drink.
The New Yorker is the last to preserve the tradition, still requiring cartoonists to produce work "on spec" (speculatively, without a guarantee of publication), although only some visit cartoon editor Bob Mankoff in his Manhattan office. More commonly, cartoonists email panels for review.
Some submit for years before a single cartoon is bought; others, like Steiner, contribute continuously, year after year, until editors or fashions change and no more make the grade. He was published from about 1980 to 2000. "It wasn't a living; it couldn't have been a living," Steiner says, since he created several hundred a year and sold only 20 to 25 of them. It requires continuous exertion, and Steiner, who shifted mostly to writing novels over a decade ago, says, "Once the fire has left you, it no longer makes any sense."
His "dog" cartoon appeared July 5, 1993, in the middle of a typically long story — split into multiple issues, even — about a New York Police Department whistleblower. It was an immediate hit. Back in 2000, I asked Adam Clayton Powell III about the cartoon after hearing him use its punch line in a speech. He wrote via email:
It seemed everyone on the Net had seen it, and everyone got it right away. Until shortly before that cartoon was published, the online community consisted mainly of scientists, engineers, other researchers and students. But by the time the New Yorker went to press with that cartoon, it was clear others were coming on line, as the Web in particular broadened the Net into a mass medium.
My roommate at the time cut it out of the magazine and put it on the refrigerator, where it yellowed away for many years, the sole item there save for magnetic letters.
The loss of anonymity
When the "dog" cartoon first appeared, pseudonymity on the Internet was a given, and anonymity wasn't difficult. With the onset of commercial uses of the network and the appearance of widely available graphical Web browsers later in 1993, general anonymity became even easier because one could pay an ISP for access, but the ISP didn't give two figs what you did online — nor, in those days, could it possibly have had the routers or storage to track behavior if it had wanted to.
One could post comments all over with little or no connection to one's identity or location. The Web is inherently stateless — there's no idea of a continuous session built in — which made it hard in its early days to allow for the association of a browser with an identity. The later addition of Web cookies allowed servers to push a unique code and other information to browsers, which browsers would send back with each request. This strings connections like pearls on a necklace and allows continuity, which allows an account and a login.
Such tracking doesn't necessarily destroy anonymity, but it does reduce it. When a Web site or outside authority has only an IP address and other browser information by which to identify a user uniquely, the task becomes harder, as many networks share a single numeric address on the public-facing Internet and use private addresses internally. And the public addresses can change over time.
Marketers, of course, want to erase anonymity and even pseudonymity, because the less knowable an individual is, the less value that person has to advertisers. The more accurately they track you, the more lucrative it is to sell ads that cater to you or shop your data to other parties that combine online details with real-world purchasing behavior and credit records.
Over the years, Adobe Flash-based cookies and other breadcrumbs that allow tracking over many sites (or that bypass users' ability to defeat such tracking) have been baked into plug-ins and browsers, often as unintentional byproducts. The "evercookie" proof-of-concept revealed that it was nearly impossible to kill all the stateful tracking elements for a site that wanted to keep you in its sights.
Editorial Web sites have demonstrated an increasing intolerance for anonymous commenters and have begun requiring email addresses or even other methods of confirming identity. Some have switched to using Facebook's authentication, as Facebook prohibits anonymity and pseudonymity, and sites rely on the social-networking giant to handle that aspect of filtering for them. (Of course, people manage to register fake handles on Facebook, but Facebook also scrubs them when it receives reports or uses automated tools to find them.)
Being able to comment, shop, browse, or otherwise participate on the Internet without concern as to one's identity being discoverable disappeared long ago. Users of the Tor network and commercial tools like Anonymizer can bypass many — but not all — of the methods used by sites to keep a user's identity associated with his or her habits.
And then we discover that, as rumored, the National Security Agency has tracked information about nearly every kind of communication and posting everyone has carried out on the Internet in the United States, and potentially beyond. That dog is pretty well known now.
Twenty years and counting
I first interviewed Steiner about his cartoon in 2000 for a New York Times article. I had been hearing and seeing the phrase constantly. In the space of a week, I heard it in a speech at Pop!Tech and read it in two different lead paragraphs in the New York Times, after running into it dozens of times earlier that year. A search on AltaVista (good times, good times) found an enormous number of references, including a play based on the title.
It wasn't my imagination. The New Yorker's Mankoff confirmed that the cartoon was their most popular and said that it had racked up substantial licensing fees — $100,000 in the first seven years (split 50-50). Steiner told me at the time:
The way this cartoon came about, I work in different ways, I sit down and usually with a yellow pad and try to dream up ideas. Sometimes when that's not working, I just start drawing, and I'll do a drawing, and I'll try to invent a caption for it.
If I'm not mistaken, that's how this came about. I did the drawing of these dogs at the computer — like one of those make-up-a-caption contests. There wasn't anything…there wasn't any profound tapping into the Zeitgeist.
Steiner says he's lost track of the income it's generated, but the life of a cartoonist (or a novelist) isn't typically a rich one, and, "It's a nice pile of money over 20 years." Mankoff told me recently that Steiner's share has worked out to between $200,000 and $250,000 so far, similar to the fees earned by Mankoff's popular "No, Thursday's out. How about never — is never good for you?" cartoon.
Every book on communications seems to request to reprint it, he says. He doesn't understand why, but suspects that it's become so iconic that, "If you don't have that cartoon in your book and you're talking about the Internet, you think you've missed something."
Steiner, in his early 70s, is mostly retired now, living the reasonably good life in Connecticut. A hay delivery briefly interrupted our call. The New Yorker stopped taking his cartoons years ago, and an odd niche he had at the Moonie-controlled Washington Times, where he produced editorial cartoons free of meddling, only petered out a few years ago after a long association.
He's written several novels, including a linked set of mysteries that starts with A French Country Murder. It is wistful, quiet, and beautiful. He created such a lovely character in that first one that I didn't get more than a third of the way into the second, as — no spoilers — it was clear something was going to happen to her. I couldn't bear it. (I should pick it up again.)
Steiner is well aware of the tinge that his cartoon has taken on in recent years. "Everyone knows you're a dog; everyone is a dog," he says. Rather than a guffaw at the absurdity, the strip now elicits from people a sharp, barking laugh. Nobody knows you're a dog? Yeah. Right.
Last November, the New Yorker published in the Cartoons of the Year 2012 collection a long, fictional account by Steiner of what had happened in the intervening years to the two dogs in the strip. He gave them names: Ricky was at the keyboard; Sadie, the brains of the two, was the spotted dog on the floor. She came up with the punch line, Sadie writes in the collection, and also the staging. Their account is a bit sad, as they never again found the success they had with that panel, and went their separate ways. Steiner was clearly writing about how lightning doesn't strike twice, whether for his creations or himself. (Now we know the names of the dogs, though.)
But the annual is oddly hard to find. It wasn't sent to print subscribers; it's unavailable from Amazon and elsewhere and may never have been put into physical form. It seems that only app subscribers received it, as a bonus. As a result, vanishingly few readers ever got the update to Ricky's and Sadie's lives. Nobody knows what happened to these dogs.
Dogged by knowledge
Edward Snowden revealed to a great extent how complicit private enterprise is in providing the government with our data. The corporations track us; the government keeps tabs (at arm's length, the administration says) on everything we do.
Did we ever believe that we were anonymous on the Internet? Were we ever so naive to think that we could keep our private selves secret even as we participated in its economy and community? The paranoid never trusted how their information was handled, and now they turn out not to have been paranoid at all — about that at least.
On the Internet, everybody knows we're on a short leash.
Joy of Tech cartoon by Nitrozac and Snaggy and used with their permission.
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