Peter Steiner's cartoon, as published in The New Yorker
"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" is an adage and meme about Internet anonymity which began as a cartoon caption written by Peter Steiner and published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993. The cartoon features two dogs: one sitting on a chair in front of a computer, speaking the caption to a second dog sitting on the floor. As of 2013, the panel was the most reproduced cartoon from The New Yorker, and Steiner had earned between $200,000 and $250,000 US from its reprinting.
Peter Steiner, a cartoonist and contributor to The New Yorker since 1979, said the cartoon initially did not get a lot of attention, but that it later took on a life of its own, and he felt similar to the person who created the "smiley face". In fact, Steiner was not that interested in the Internet when he drew the cartoon, and although he did have an online account, he recalled attaching no "profound" meaning to the cartoon; it was just something he drew in the manner of a "make-up-a-caption" cartoon.
In response to the comic's popularity, he stated, "I can't quite fathom that it's that widely known and recognized."
The cartoon marks a notable moment in the history of the Internet. Once the exclusive domain of government engineers and academics, the Internet had by then become a subject of discussion in general interest magazines like The New Yorker. Lotus Software founder and early Internet activist Mitch Kapor commented in a Time magazine article in 1993 that "the true sign that popular interest has reached critical mass came this summer when the New Yorker printed a cartoon showing two computer-savvy canines".
The cartoon symbolizes an understanding of Internet privacy that stresses the ability of users to send and receive messages in general anonymity. Lawrence Lessig suggests "no one knows" because Internet protocols do not force users to identify themselves; although local access points such as a user's university may, this information is privately held by the local access point and is not an intrinsic part of the Internet transaction.
It also shows how Internet communication is liberated from familiar constraints. Sociologist Sherry Turkle elaborates: "You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want. You don't have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much. They don't look at your body and make assumptions. They don't hear your accent and make assumptions. All they see are your words."
A study by Morahan-Martin and Schumacher (2000) on compulsive or problematic Internet use discusses this phenomenon, suggesting the ability to self-represent from behind the computer screen may be part of the compulsion to go online. The phrase can be taken "to mean that cyberspace will be liberatory because gender, race, age, looks, or even 'dogness' are potentially absent or alternatively fabricated or exaggerated with unchecked creative license for a multitude of purposes both legal and illegal", an understanding that echoed statements made in 1996 by John Gilmore, a key figure in the history of Usenet. The phrase also suggests the ability to "computer cross-dress" and represent oneself as a different gender, age, race, etc. On another level, "the freedom which the dog chooses to avail itself of, is the freedom to 'pass' as part of a privileged group; i.e., human computer users with access to the Internet".
According to Bob Mankoff, then The New Yorker's cartoon editor, "The cartoon resonated with our wariness about the facile façade that could be thrown up by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of html."
In popular culture
The cartoon has inspired the play Nobody Knows I'm a Dog by Alan David Perkins. The play revolves around six different individuals unable to communicate effectively with people in their lives who find the courage to socialize on the Internet, protected by their anonymity.
The book Authentication: From Passwords to Public Keys by Richard E. Smith displays Steiner's cartoon on the front cover, with the cartoon's dog replicated on the back cover.
A cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez published in The New Yorker on February 23, 2015, features a similar pair of dogs watching their owner sitting at a computer, with one asking the other, "Remember when, on the Internet, nobody knew who you were?"