Texts That Went Viral…in the 19th Century

ryandcordell

Photo caption: Ryan Cordell recently gave a talk at Bowdoin on “Viral Texts and the Technologies of Authorship”

What do LOLcats (cat pictures with funny captions) and 19th-century literature have in common? They both have been impacted by so-called “virality.”

Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University, can tell you that the phenomenon of a text going viral predates the Internet by at least a century. In a recent lecture sponsored by Bowdoin’s Digital and Computational Studies Initiative, Cordell explained that newspapers in the 19th century frequently plucked content from one another and reprinted other publications’ new stories, short stories, serial novels, poetry, travel narratives, jokes, trivia columns and more.

Popular articles could be reproduced many times. One such piece, “Health Hints Follies,” which slyly debunked common health habits, was one of the most widely circulated pieces, appearing in 20 percent of 19th-century newspapers. So, it pretty much “went viral” 150 years before social media came around.

Cordell is the creator of the Viral Texts project, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities and Northeastern University. At Bowdoin, Cordell spoke about how, with Viral Texts, he is developing computational linguistics tools, such as text mining, mapping and network analysis, to help scholars better understand the qualities that pushed some texts to “go viral” in 19th-century newspapers and magazines.

“During this period, texts published in newspapers and magazines were not typically protected as intellectual property,” Cordell writes on his website, “and so literary texts as well as other nonfiction prose texts circulated promiscuously among newspapers as editors freely reprinted materials borrowed from other venues.”

The digitized database used for the Viral Texts project contains newspapers from around the country, not just from the printing hubs of New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. So far, Cordell and colleagues have mapped networks of influence among newspapers with nodes and lines. Many papers had a clear geographic component in terms of which papers they frequently copied, but other connections seemed more random. Further sleuthing in one case revealed that shared material between a Vermont newspaper and a Missouri newspaper most likely could be attributed to the brothers-in-law who ran the respective publications.

If viral texts have been around since the 19th century, has anything changed? Cordell said that it’s easier to quantify online virality now, since the Internet allows for tracking retweets, comments and likes.

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