Thursday, August 9, 2012

Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It

One of the things that gets on my nerves most about Facebook is the flood of memes, usually of quotations by famous people who never said them.  I've gotten over the novelty of checking their authenticity, or lack of it, as soon as I see them.

For example, yesterday one of my Facebook friends from my high school posted a quotation, supposedly from Friedrich Nietzsche, something like "It's not that you lied to me that bothers me, it's that I'll never be able to trust you again."  I can't quote it exactly, because the post has been deleted.  I was immediately suspicious: it didn't sound like Nietzsche, and though an online search turned up lots of people quoting it, I couldn't find an actual source.  Wikiquote is handy for this; I've found several genuine sayings there, as well as failed attempts to track the history of others.

While checking these quotations I've begun to notice a pattern: most of the bogus ones seem to come from motivational speakers and inspirational books published in the 1990s or later.  It's almost as if there were people who spent that period ascribing platitudes to various famous people who never said them.

I commented on my friend's status that the saying was probably inauthentic, and added that what bothered me wasn't that it was inauthentic so much as that I could never tell when to believe what my friends posted on Facebook.  (I added a smiley to try to lessen the sting.)  Someone else complained to me that I was being too critical, and that I'd missed the point of the original quotation.  I told her that she'd missed my point, and the exchange ended there.

Misattributing pretty sayings to famous people is a tradition of long standing, and it's mostly harmless enough.  Much of the netlore that turns up on Facebook isn't so benign, though: the same people who spam everybody's walls with this stuff also like political memes attacking pols of whatever party they aren't voting for, or whatever religion they don't like, or accusing Obama of mounting a war on Christmas.  The trouble isn't that I don't know when to trust what my friends (and their friends) post or say; it's that I can't trust anything they post.  And they're not a lunatic fringe of Americans, they're all too normal.