How Stuff Went Viral Before the Internet

The term “viral” seems like one you can’t separate from the Internet. But the principle behind it — namely, sharing — is as old as the oldest stories.

That’s at the heart of the Infectious Texts project, recently covered by Wired. The goal: Find out how and why texts were shared in the 1800s.

The project will launch later this month and will use algorithmically comb through the most widely reprinted texts to appear in newspapers in the 19th century. From Wired:

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, (project leader Ryan) 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.

Cordell and his team will be looking for interesting patterns in the research. Among them: how the development of the transcontinental railroad affected the way people shared stories, and from which cities the most-shared articles originated.

Cordell’s existing research has shown some similarities to some of today’s viral hits.

Some of the texts that went viral in the 1800s aren’t all that different from the things people post on Facebook today, Cordell says. Political rants were popular, for example, as were recipes and travel stories.

Poems were also popular. Here’s a visual showing of how one poem — Charles MacKay‘s “The Inquisitor” — spread in lockstep with the railroad.

We’re still talking years rather than nanoseconds, of course, those suckers. Now, go tweet this article.

Read more at Wired.

photo credit: NASA on flickr

  • Ann Shea

    Interesting coincidence – I happened to be visiting Sturbridge Village yesterday, and the printer talked about this exact topic. He said there were so few news reporters that if a printer got his hands on a newspaper, he’d scan it for interesting articles and then copy any that he wanted for his own use. The printer said that they never worried about copyright infringement back then. (I’m not even sure that copyright laws existed.) He said that 19th century printers would change a few words in a book like Dracula and print it without any qualms.

    • Adam Vaccaro

      Disney played a major role in establishing modern copyright laws so people wouldn’t remake their movies last century. A lot of people think that showed some gusto because so many of their early movies were remakes of books, some of which were pretty young at the time they were made (Peter Pan, for instance).