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The Canine in Conversation
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an illustration of a dog typing on a computer
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on the internet nobody knows you're a dog. A comment on the notion that the facelessness of participation on the internet hides the true identity of those who post on forums or chat in chatrooms.

The line was coined by Peter Steiner, as the caption for his now-classic cartoon about identity on the internet.reference 1

This is a joke, of course. Like any good joke, it has multiple and paradoxical meanings. On one hand, it can be read as a confirmation of the myth that “access to the Internet [is] a social leveler that permits even dogs to freely express themselves in discourse to their masters, who are deceived into thinking that dogs are peers rather than their property,” as Lisa Nakamura puts it. Nakamura goes on to generate a convincing argument that race and gender, two of the social locations for which the word “dog” can be seen as a stand-in in the cartoon, are rendered invisible but hardly meaningless on the net. While the possibilities of “passing” as white or male may be invited by the anonymity of the net, the default identity of white and male remain the ideal against which the other is scaled.reference 2

On the other hand, it can be read as mocking the notion that the internet is inherently egalitarian and democratic. Surely you would know if you were chatting with a dog, wouldn't you? Maybe and maybe not, depending on what you mean by dog. Michele White turned the phrase on its head in an essay entitled “On the Internet, Everybody Worries that You're a Dog: The Gender Expectations and Beauty Ideals of Online Personals and Text-Based Chat.”reference 3

And then, it might be that you are chatting with a “furry,” that is, someone who is dressed and/or made-up as an anthropomorphized animal character, or perhaps someone inhabiting an anthropomorphized avatar in a massive multi-player online game such as Second Life.

1. Steiner, Peter. “On the Internet Nobody Knows You're a Dog. New Yorker, July 5, 61.

2. Nakamura, Lisa. 2002. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge.

3. White, Michele. 2004. On the Internet, Everybody Worries That You're a Dog: The Gender Expectations and Beauty Ideals of Online Personals and Text-Based Chat. In Readings in Gender Communication, edited by M. R. Williams and P. Backlund. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.

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About the illustration: A dog perusing this very document, planning how he can deceive humans into believing that he is really one of us. Perhaps if he can use just the right turns of phrase he will succeed. Collaged by the author. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation. Last updated: July 28, 2008
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