Quote delirium: Why sharing quotes makes us all dumber

Why do so many share quotes with such eagerness, and what does quote-culture do to us?

Quotes of all sorts seem to inhabit our social media streams with surprising resilience. Some are witty, some are supposedly ancient wisdom, however, most of them are just common sense.

There is an incredible amount of dubious content shared every second, in every corner on the internet, by common folk and famous people alike (in particular some presidents). The type of platform does not seem to be a paramount factor, even here on LinkedIn, despite its professionalism-centric modus, we find the odd quote shared in the thousands.

Most shared quotes are actually aphorisms, concise statements that offer subjective truths or unique observations, delivered with a dose of wit and memorability. The aphoristic genre, also called ‘wisdom literature’, has a long historical background, and provide distinct perspectives and principles that resonate with human culture and social life.

For instance, the famous aphorism by politician and writer John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), commonly referred to as ‘Lord Acton’, is infamous: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” You might have seen this quote, perhaps accompanied by some visual aid (usually a tacky picture), but the second part was probably left out; the full context reserved for the initiated few. There is an innate wisdom and important argument in Lord Acton’s acute maxim, but aphorisms also skew and warp. They highlight certain ideas while hiding others, and it is easy to abuse the format and in effect reshape a particular wisdom or knowledge into something entirely different, or even horribly banal. Let me take you through some examples.

“Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world.”

Attributed to Greek philosopher and mathematician Archimedes, this particular aphorism has found its way into many twisted and weird interpretations, such as making the right career choices. However, it is (of course) no secret that it concerns physics and not setting (trivial) goals in life.

Some quotes are presented as important wisdom uttered by famous people, yet on closer inspection revealed to be popular lore or fiction, often rooted in some form of memory-bias, like the well known “Mandela-effect”, where people are convinced they remember a false event taking place, suggesting either translocation to a parallel universe, or that time-travellers are to blame (both are apparently quite plausible for some select individuals). You might know the infamous Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Sadly, no documentation exists that can affirm the industrious Mr. Ford ever saying that; it might sound plausible, but that does not make it real.

There is also hogwash-aphorisms, horrible clichés repackaged: “Why do we close our eyes when we pray, cry, kiss, dream? Because the most beautiful things in life are not seen but felt only by the heart.” Commonly, this quote has no author attributed, but sometimes has actor Denzel Washington as the source. It is pure flim-flam, homespun philosophy.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion”. This particular quote is attributed to Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker who has published books on inspirational talk and management. I have seen this quote shared several times on LinkedIn. Although I admit to not having read Sinek’s work, this quote seems to promote a very problematic view. Working hard for something we do not care about is a natural part of life, and only someone too privileged to know otherwise would suggest this kind of reasoning.

This crazy sharing of empty shells, this ‘quote delirium’, is a suspiciously interesting phenomenon.

Various kinds of culprits can likely be identified, but we can at least firmly establish that aphorisms are not conservatories of wisdom alone; they are part of larger texts, and their interpretation require thorough consideration, much the same way figurative language does. Metaphors, for instance, are always much more than they imply. This deeper dimension is largely lost in the sharing economy of the internet. Many aphoristic quotes do not have much to offer beyond the obvious self-branding, part of a frenzy that promote pocket-philosophy as a way to enlightenment.

Cheerful conspiracy theorists would suggest that it is all connected to a grand design intended to pacify the masses by de-educating their ability to reflect and instead consume pre-digested material. Obviously, I make no such fantastic claim. It is more likely, although slightly less dramatic, an attention-game; people hunting for likes, shares, and comments. How else to be noticed and cultivate social distinction under the internet’s persistent affinity for crowd-interrogating anything and everything?

I would argue, that most shared quotes ubiquitously pollute the already overheated stream of information in an (over)crowded digital life. Sharing wisdom literature is a possible gateway for cultivating meaning, or perhaps its illusion – it is culture at play, and should perhaps for that very reason not be underestimated.

I find that sharing an aphorism on the pretense that it speaks for itself is not only problematic, it is also a waste of our collective time. Quote delirium make us “dumber” because it promotes the illusion that it is possible to appropriate a complex understanding by reading two sentences; a miniaturization of literature that similarly labels 6-page “brochures” or “essays” as books (often graciously given away for “free” in a less than obvious marketing practice designed to collect email permissions).

There is no shortcut to wisdom. Sharing quotes does not make anyone wiser; they just pretend to do so. They are not quotes, but actually memes in borrowed feathers.


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