In 1993, the New Yorker published a cartoon featuring two dogs sitting at a computer. With a paw resting on the keyboard, one says to the other: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Today, the iconic image still resonates, holding the record as the most reprinted New Yorker cartoon in the magazine’s history. Earlier this month, it hit a new milestone: The original drawing sold at auction for $175,000, the highest amount ever paid for a single-panel cartoon.
According to Heritage Auctions, the anonymous bidder who snagged it had been attempting to purchase it ever since its publication 30 years ago.
“Most people had never even used the internet in 1993. I certainly didn’t have a connection,” says Bob Mankoff, former New Yorker cartoon editor, to Gizmodo’s Thomas Germain. “But I think part of its success comes from the fact that we’re all living in the world that that cartoon foreshadowed. There’s a way that a cartoonist’s antenna can sort of tap into the zeitgeist, and [a] good cartoon compresses the message as simply as possible.”
Peter Steiner, the cartoonist, is still dumbfounded by the panel’s success. He initially sent it to the magazine as part of a larger batch of cartoons, and he didn’t expect it to sell, as he recalls in a video interview with Heritage Auctions’ Robert Wilonsky. When the magazine selected it, “I was delighted, but a little bit baffled.”
Steiner’s comic didn’t gain much traction at first, but its popularity grew with time. Even as the technology evolved, many thought it captured the spirit of the internet age. The image has been reprinted on countless T-shirts, mugs and other pieces of merchandise. It even inspired a 1995 play about chat rooms. As the New York Times’ Glenn Fleishman wrote in 2000, Bill Gates once paid a mere $200 to use the comic in his 1995 book, The Road Ahead.
Despite the comic’s universal appeal, the panel has a more personal meaning for Steiner.
“I had a revelation about this cartoon this morning,” says Steiner in the Heritage Auctions video. “I realized the cartoon is autobiographical and that it’s about being an imposter or feeling like an imposter. It wasn’t about the internet at all. It was about my sense that I’m getting away with something.”
He adds: “I’ve had several checkered careers, and in every one, I felt like a bit of a fraud. I think many people have that syndrome, the sense that [you’ve] got everybody fooled.”
Although the cartoonist’s relationship with his work may continue to evolve, he admits that he’s impressed with the comic’s staying power.
“If [it] still [makes] you laugh after 30 years,” he says, “that’s a good sign.”