Newspapers as a Proto-Internet: Did Media ‘Go Viral’ 150 Years Before YouTube?
My project focuses on the viral culture that enlivened nineteenth-century periodical production, distribution, and consumption. Thought the term “viral culture” is new, many of the practices it describes—especially the sharing, remixing, and repurposing of cultural materials—emerged long before the twenty-first century. Indeed, before the advent of modern copyright and intellectual property law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, texts were often treated, once published, as community property that could be endlessly remediated.
In American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, Meredith McGill (2003) argues that American literary culture in the nineteenth century was shaped by the widespread, normative practice of reprinting stories and poems, usually without authorial permission or even knowledge, in newspapers, magazines, and books. Texts circulated promiscuously through the print market and were often revised by editors during the process. These “viral” texts—be they news stories, short fiction, or poetry—are much more than historical curiosities. The texts that editors chose to pass on are useful barometers of what was exciting or important to readers during the period, and thus offer significant insight into the priorities and concerns of the culture.
In the Viral Texts project I am collaborating with colleagues in Computer Science, History, and English to uncover examples of reprinted texts in large-scale digital archives of nineteenth century magazines, newspapers, and books, such as the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper collection. We have thus far uncovered more than 40,000 viral texts—most unexamined by previous scholarship—which will soon be published as an open-access database on the project website. Our early findings foreground unique textual genres that thrived in the culture of reprinting, highlighting the relative importance of anonymously-authored works; of short, quasi-truthful, anecdotal texts; and of “reauthored” texts, inextricably linked with a source text but so modified as to be distinct cultural products.
Ultimately, however, our aims are more ambitious than producing a web-based index of viral texts. We hope to build a set of models to describe nineteenth-century virality. We will study what textual features assisted or impeded texts “going viral” within the network of nineteenth-century periodicals. We will also use spatial and network analysis tools to ask what political, cultural, or social factors shaped texts’ receptions within the larger network of antebellum print culture, or within smaller textual communities constituted around specific regions, political affiliations, religious commitments, or social causes. Asking what texts “went viral” and why will open a new window on the values of antebellum editors and readers and illuminate the developing public sphere, which was key to the extension of the franchise, antebellum sectionalism, abolitionism, and the nation’s westward growth.
Our early models point to a number of potentially transformative insights about antebellum print culture. First, they suggest that the exchange of texts relied on important nodes outside of major print centers such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, which have been the focus of most scholarship about the period. While they did not produce as many books, newspapers, and magazines as those East-coast hubs, important nodes such as Nashville, Tennessee were central information brokers, passing content from east to west, north to south, and vice versa. Our geographic and network models suggest a diffuse and decentered print culture that we look forward to investigating further as the project continues.
The popular pieces uncovered in our project speak forcefully to the material realities of newspaper production—they were by necessity short, so they could fit into gaps as the paper was being composed—and the priorities of editors and readers. The news reports, opinion pieces, domestic anecdotes, poems, travel narratives, vignettes, and even jokes and recipes that found wide purchase in newspapers were an often-unacknowledged but essential component in shifting attitudes toward textuality, information, literariness, and communication during the antebellum period. Finally, Viral Texts is surfacing a substrate of antebellum writing, editing, and reading outside of the typical purview of literary scholars. The newspaper produced, reproduced, and propagated genres of everyday writing that both drew from and influenced more “literary” genres such as the novel.
Viral Culture Lecture
Ryan Cordell is Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University and Core Founding Faculty Member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. His scholarship focuses on convergences among literary, periodical, and religious culture in antebellum American mass media. Prof. Cordell is collaborating with colleagues in English, History, and Computer Science on an NEH-funded project using robust data mining tools to discover borrowed texts across large-scale archives of antebellum texts. These “viral texts” help us to trace lines of influence among antebellum writers and editors, and to construct a model of viral textuality in the period. Cordell serves on NITLE’s Digital Humanities Council and as vice president of the Digital Americanists scholarly society. He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of centerNet’s forthcoming new journal, DHCommons, and he also writes about technology in higher education for the group blog ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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