The Infectious Texts project at Northeastern University is making thousands of pre-Civil War newspapers searchable. Bob talks with Ryan Cordell, a leader on the project, about the mechanism behind text virality in the 1800’s and some of what’s been discovered so far.
Black Keys - Psychotic Girl
DAVID: Why is this happening to me?
FATHER: It’s okay, Bud. It’s just from the medicine. Okay?
DAVID: Is this gonna be forever?
FATHER: No. [LAUGHS] No, it won’t be forever.
BOB GARFIELD: A dad films his drugged-up son after a trip to the dentist and within days, the whole world knows about it. It was the epitome of going viral, and clearly, virality is a condition of the Internet age, Or is it? Using a new database of 40,000 copies of Antebellum newspapers, researchers at Northeastern University have found a similar, albeit slower, analog to virality in the 19th century. Ryan Cordell teaches at Northeastern. Ryan, welcome to On the Media.
RYAN CORDELL: Thanks, it's good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So there was a kind of proto-buzz feed in the form of daily newspapers? How do you figure?
RYAN CORDELL: Newspapers were an all-purpose medium. They printed poetry, travel narratives, how-to articles. For a lot of readers, they were their one portal to all kinds of information. And before copyright law, things got reprinted widely from newspaper to newspaper and, and changed along the way.
BOB GARFIELD: Before the Civil War, there wasn’t even a telegraph, much less wire services, so what was the mechanism for a paper in Kentucky to run a story that had previously appeared in, let's say, New York?
RYAN CORDELL: It was free or very cheap for one newspaper to get other newspapers through the mail. Some larger newspapers actually hired someone called an exchanges editor whose entire job was to comb through other newspapers and find content to reprint. They would clip these articles out and they would organize them into drawers often, by column length. And then when they were composing the newspaper and they needed something to fill four inches, they would open a four-inch drawer and then they would set it and put it in their paper. They would add or take away a little bit of content in order to make them fit.
BOB GARFIELD: You use as an epigraph in your study a quote from Tocqueville, “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” Give me an example of the same thought. What kind of stories went proto-viral in the 19th century?
RYAN CORDELL: There was plenty of political content. When James Buchanan gives his State of the Union address, it gets widely reprinted and quite quickly. And I should say “very quickly” in the 19th century means over the course of several months. There are other stories that spread over many years. Some of them are how-to articles. There's a popular article that just describes all of the different weights of different materials for a bushel.
And it was pretty mostly in rural newspapers for people who were exchanging commodities and, and needed to know that they were getting a fair deal. In good Internet fashion, there are lots of lists that go very viral. And then there's a lot of poetry. It was very common in 19th century newspapers and, in some ways, I think it's like posting a song on YouTube. And there are lots of those.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the more fascinating stories that bubbled up was about the French sewer system?
RYAN CORDELL: Indeed, yeah. A lot of these stories really inhabit this place between truth and fiction which, again, reminds me quite a bit of things that you'll see reposted on Facebook today. It's an account, supposedly written by a Swedish correspondent, of his journey through the sewer system of Paris on a flat-bottomed boat. And he’s sort of waxing eloquent about the incredible feat that is the sewer system. This is a time when a lot of cities are beginning these massive public works projects to improve sanitation. So perhaps it's not surprising that people were fascinated by this experimental new public works project, spearheaded by Napoleon.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you found these nuggets in 41,829 issues of 132 pre-Civil War papers and coded them according to content. What's the fundamental goal of the project?
RYAN CORDELL: I’m working with a colleague of mine, David Smith, who’s a computer scientist looking for patterns, to see the way that things spread across the country, the way that different kinds of stories moved and to see which newspapers were printing the things that the most other newspapers were reprinting.
BOB GARFIELD: So when a story that's a recipe for making starch with gum Arabic or of the reprinting of Washington's farewell address, when you see those things emerge in paper after paper after paper, are there any conclusions you can draw that might otherwise not be accessible to you?
RYAN CORDELL: I’m a scholar of literature, and we, we tend to focus on, these big novels, things like Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or Uncle Tom's Cabin, and you can learn a lot about readers by looking at those artifacts. But these everyday things that people not only read but felt a desire to share - people clipped these out of their newspapers and they compiled them in scrapbooks, which is a, a common practice during the time. It gives us this window into the priorities, the concerns, the desires of everyday readers that I think is hard to get at sometimes through these more canonical texts.
BOB GARFIELD: Ryan, thank you so much.
RYAN CORDELL: Yeah, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Ryan Cordell is an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University.