If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all of my World Wide Web exploration since my Neopets glory days many years ago, it’s that the Internet is a weird place. It does weird things to communication by making communication so easy and introducing a multitude of forms for it to take. Specific and revolutionary, I know, but I promise I’m going somewhere with that basis in mind.
Let me begin here: I love Jane Eyre. A lot. I also happen to frequent Tumblr, which is a social media platform where users can post text, video, and pictures, and then “reblog” this content from people they follow. I saw a quote attributed to Jane Eyre that I didn’t recognize floating around on this website. “Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.” I initially shrugged it off as a mistake, but as it began to pop up every now and again I became feverishly insecure that I was wrong, something my fragile ego just could not take. I bravely took action and Googled the quote. A few results came up attributing it to Jane Eyre, but I found nothing conclusive. Luckily, we live in a world where I can legally access HTML files containing entire novels that have been released into the public domain for free. So I did. Jane appeared before me in her entirety on one page with a hopelessly tiny scroll bar. Amazing. Hit “command” + “f” keys. Copied and pasted the quote into the search bar to find its location in the text.
Nothing. The sentences were nowhere to be found in the novel. Confidence in literary abilities restored. Upon further digging, I still can’t find the real author. It might be the person who originally credited it to Charlotte Brontë for all I know. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Thousands of people saw that quote, accepted it as part of Jane Eyre, and spread it around even more. And why wouldn’t they have? Why would anyone ever have reason to suspect that it would be deliberately fabricated? And how many people are obsessive enough to sift through the public domain and fact check every quote that appeals to them?
Social media websites like Tumblr and Twitter have made snippets of literature more accessible and provided people with platforms on which to share enthusiasm for it; however, this inevitably leads to problems. I see cases of misattribution, like the Jane Eyre situation that I outlined above, and something else on a similar vein having to do with misinterpretation.
John Green, a writer with a strong Internet presence and a fervent fanbase, has taken some tough hits in this department. Misquotation is not his biggest problem. Instead, quotes from his books are plucked out of context and mass circulated by teens around the Internet, their meanings eventually warped. One victim is from his book An Abundance of Katherines: “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?” John himself has expressed confusion at its standalone popularity on social media because it is a statement by the main character that John spends the novel trying to disprove. Does this make its popularity invalid? This is not really a question of authorial intent (the novel standing alone sends the message of negation clearly, and yet people are embracing it as a mantra) as much as it is of context.
I think it’s fascinating that, thanks to social media, quotes have garnered an increased ability to have lives of their own outside of their works. This is certainly nothing new, though. The misattribution and misinterpretation of words is a natural consequence of communication, and the Internet has only simplified the process.
When it comes to literature, I think it’s petty to say that this activity is a crisis for the craft. Sometimes quotes are nice out of context, and attributing a quote to the wrong person is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It does have broader implications, though. If I’m going to get moral here at all (I’m going to), I’ll say that this shows the importance of questioning sources. An incorrect Jane Eyre quote doesn’t hurt anybody, except maybe me a little bit. The next step, though, could be a fabricated news story that puts people in danger or quickly spreads powerful false information. We can abuse the powers of the Internet pretty easily in this way, but at least it also gives us the tools to combat the false information by checking sources. I think it’s important we don’t waste that.