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Technology Trends: The Problem of Misattributed Quotes on The Internet
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Technology Trends: The Problem of Misattributed Quotes on The Internet - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: The Problem of Misattributed Quotes on The Internet

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: The Problem of Misattributed Quotes on The Internet

In an era where brevity is the soul of everything, when wisdom is pared down to as many words as will fit in an Instagram photo or within Twitter’s 280-character limit, the power of the pithy quote can be everything. This is not exactly a new development: for generations, great speakers have opened their monologues with wisdom from those who walked before, while writers have put epigraphs in the fronts of their novels.

But the internet’s power to put the greatest words of our forebears at our fingertips is a double-edged sword. It may be easy to find ten Mark Twain quotes about the stereotypical southern gentleman, but it’s just as easy to find ten Mark Twain misquotes on the same topic. Search engines don’t yet know how to judge the veracity of a search hit, so they are most likely to return results that are popular but not necessarily true.

“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there’s a photo next to it,” says the popular meme. Of course, the quote is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, which proves a wonderful point about how we’ve become conditioned to accept quotes as cited by anyone, even when anyone who knows anything about many of the people cited can quickly identify a bad quote.

What’s infuriating about this trend is that people seem to care less and less about getting these quotes right. Point out to someone that George Bernard Shaw didn’t actually say the thought-provoking thing someone just shared on Facebook, and you become That Guy, the person who’s taken it upon himself to worry more about the truth of a quote’s citation than about the truth contained in the quote, whoever may actually have uttered the words.

You can see how pervasive the problem is with a quick browse through the quotations section of GoodReads. The book review website now owned by Amazon has almost from the beginning featured a section where book-lovers could share their favorite quotes from the books they’ve read. It’s a great feature, and it serves the website’s social functions as well, since others can see the quotes you’ve marked as favorites, hopefully generating goodwill and kinship of spirit.

But the quotations on GoodReads are just as likely to be misattributed as on any other quotations website, with the possible exception of Wikiquote, whose crowd-sourcing contributors try to stick to verified citations. It’s a frustrating reality, since the book-lovers on GoodReads are supposedly sharing their favorite quotes from the books they’ve actually read!

There are so many bad quotes on these quotation websites that it’s growing more and more difficult to verify whether quotes are good or made up. “I Googled that quote and the first twenty hits all attributed this quote to Dr. Seuss!” is a common defensive response to the unpopular quotation police. Paraphrased, this response is pretty close to “It says it on the internet so it must be true!”

By now, most of us have heard a keynote speaker at some conference begin with a misquote, or we’ve seen respected colleagues share bad quotes on social media. Does it matter? Do we care? Perhaps only if we care about correct ownership of anything, a concept that seems also to be deteriorating. Or maybe we’re actually reaching an age where the truth contained in a quote matters far more than the truth in its attribution.

Yet it’s difficult not to wonder, especially in today’s information climate where we’re faced with conflicting versions of truth at every turn, if this is a path we might possibly resist traveling along. The algorithms aren’t judges; they’re merely following the formulas. Can it be possible to combat bad info with good, incorrect attributions with correct attributions? If so, it’s got to begin with changing people’s attitudes, helping each other to expect accuracy in information and sources. The internet is a tool we created, and since we know how it works, all we have to do to keep it under control is collectively to wield it properly. Is it too late?

 

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Technology Trends: The Problem of Misattributed Quotes on The Internet - Executive Leadership Articles

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