"Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment..."
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
This site will soon include data, visualizations, and interpretive prose drawn from the Viral Texts project, which seeks to develop theoretical models that will help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. During this period, texts published in newspapers and magazines were not typically protected as intellectual property, and so literary texts as well as other non-fiction prose texts circulated promiscuously among newspapers as editors freely reprinted materials borrowed from other venues. In the Viral Texts project, we're asking: What texts were reprinted and why? How did ideas—literary, political, scientific, economic, religious—circulate in the public sphere and achieve critical force among audiences? By employing and developing computational linguistics tools to analyze the large textual databases of nineteenth-century newspapers newly available to scholars, this project will generate new knowledge of the nineteenth-century print public sphere.
Viral Texts is sponsored by Northeastern University's NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks and generously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities' Office of Digital Humanities. The project team includes Professors Ryan Cordell, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and David Smith, as well as Ph.D. students Abby Mullen, Peter Roby, Kevin Smith, and Matthew Williamson. This placeholder website was designed by Ryan Cordell, who you can contact at @ryancordell on Twitter.
To learn more about the project, you can:
- Read our paper, "Infectious Texts: Modeling Text Reuse in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers," which will be published by IEEE Computer Society Press for the Proceedings of the Workshop on Big Humanities.
- Read an interview with the NEH about the project on the Office of Digital Humanities' blog.
- Our successful Start-Up Grant proposal to the NEH's Office of Digital Humanities.
- Listen to an interview with project PI Ryan Cordell for WYNC's On the Media.
- Listen to an interview with project PI Ryan Cordell for ABC (Australia) Radio's Future Tense.
- Read a nice writeup of the project on Wired Magazine's MapLab Blog, "Here’s How Memes Went Viral — In the 1800s"
- Rebecca Onion also wrote about one of our more interesting "Viral Texts" for Slate Magazine's The Vault History Blog: "Life Advice for Young Men that Went Viral in the 1850s."
Generously funded by:
A project of: