Thicker lines indicate more content-sharing between 19th century newspapers.
Ryan Cordell/Infectious texts project
digital history / culture

Here's How Memes Went Viral - In the 1800s

The Infectious Texts project is the compilation of 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers from the Library of Congress.
The story had everything — exotic locale, breathtaking engineering, Napoleon Bonaparte. No wonder the account of a lamplit flat-bottom boat journey through the Paris sewer went viral after it was published — on May 23, 1860.

At least 15 American newspapers reprinted it, exposing tens of thousands of readers to the dank wonders of the French city’s “splendid system of sewerage.”

Twitter is faster and HuffPo more sophisticated, but the parasitic dynamics of networked media were fully functional in the 19th century. For proof, look no further than the Infectious Texts project, a collaboration of humanities scholars and computer scientists.

The project expects to launch by the end of the month. When it does, researchers and the public will be able to comb through widely reprinted texts identified by mining 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers from the Library of Congress. While this first stage focuses on texts from before the Civil War, the project eventually will include the later 19th century and expand to include magazines and other publications, says Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a leader of the project.

Some of the stories were printed in 50 or more newspapers, each with thousands to tens of thousands of subscribers. The most popular of them most likely were read by hundreds of thousands of people, Cordell says. Most have been completely forgotten. “Almost none of those are texts that scholars have studied, or even knew existed,” he said.

The tech may have been less sophisticated, but some barriers to virality were low in the 1800s. Before modern copyright laws there were no legal or even cultural barriers to borrowing content, Cordell says. Newspapers borrowed freely. Large papers often had an “exchange editor” whose job it was to read through other papers and clip out interesting pieces. “They were sort of like BuzzFeed employees,” Cordell said.
 
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