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Viral Texts Project

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant.

The Viral Texts Project 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. Prior to copyright legislation and enforcement, literary texts as well as other non-fiction prose texts circulated promiscuously among newspapers as editors freely reprinted materials borrowed from other venues. 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.

Principal Investigator
Ryan Cordell, Faculty, English

Publications and Presentations:

Online Exhibits:

Explore the interactive exhibit, “A Love Letter to Viral Texts.”

Browse a growing, barebones edition of popular newspaper poetry uncovered in the project: “Fugitive Verses.”

Published Papers:

‘Fugitive Verses’: The Circulation of Poems in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers,” forthcoming from American Periodicals.

Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers” and “Computational Methods for Uncovering Reprinted Texts in Antebellum Newspapers,” published in American Literary History27.3 (August 2015).

Detecting and Modeling Local Text Reuse,” published in the Proceedings of IEEE/ACM Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (IEEE Computer Society Press, 2014).

Detecting and Evaluating Local Text Reuse in Social Networks,” published in the Proceedings of the Joint Workshop on Social Dynamics and Personal Attributes (Association for Computational Linguists, 2014).

Infectious Texts: Modeling Text Reuse in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers,” published in the Proceedings of the Workshop on Big Humanities (IEEE Computer Society Press, 2013).

Press Coverage:

Read about the project in an article by Britt Peterson in Smithsonian Magazine (print and online): “There Were Listicles That Went Viral Long Before There Was an Internet”

Co-PI Ryan Cordell was interviewed by Scott Simon for NPR’s Weekend Edition: “Hot Content Went Viral in the 1800s, Too”

Co-PI Ryan Cordell’s talk from the 2015 Modern Language Association Convention: “’Many Facts in Small Compass’: Information Literature in C19 Newspapers”

Alexis Madrigal wrote about the project for Fusion: “The Appeal of Facts that Blow Your Mind, from the 19th Century to Buzzfeed”

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.”

Read an interview with the NEH about the project on the Office of Digital Humanities’ blog.

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