General Ambrose Burnside reading
woodpulp Reddit newspaper, via Wikimedia Commons
The meme of virality is so tightly tied to the present moment, there are whole listicles online that wax nostalgic for those ancient memes that spread without YouTube. But we all know that ideas spread before the internet; the internet is simply the medium—heir to how ideas used to be spread, via Revolutionary-era pamphleteering, writing on bathroom walls, and more official institutions like newspapers.
Researchers at Northeastern University explored this old-school viral spread, by studying 41,829 old newspapers to examine how the old gray ladies facilitated the transfer of articles and ideas across America before the Civil War.
Just as with memes, the internet usually gets too much credit for killing newspapers. The newspaper that was left to be felled by Craigslist already had its lunch eaten by the last several disruptive innovations. Before television (which made the pictures obsolete), radio (which made newspaper speed look slow) and even paperback books, newspapers were “people’s one portal to the world,” English professor Ryan Cordell said in his appearance "On the Media." In addition to news and classifieds, 19th century newspapers carried travel journals, political speeches, recipes, and poetry.
In a world that was pre-phone, pre-wire service and mostly pre-telegraph, newspapers were distributed cheaply through the mail. It was also a world before copyright laws, which that meant that newspapers not only could fill out their pages with articles from elsewhere; it behooved them to do so. It was the fastest way to expand their scope of coverage.
Cordell explained that larger newspapers had someone called the “exchanges editor” who combed through bundles of other newspapers as they arrived in the mail, and clipped interesting and relevant pieces as he found them. The clips were then organized by size, so if the newspaper had a little gap, the editor could go to the “four-inch” drawer and pop the other story right in.
Though a literary scholar, Cordell worked with David Smith, a Northeastern computer scientist, “to look for patterns” and examine what kind of stories were going viral, at a time when doing so could take months or even years. It’s kind of comforting to hear that as much as the world changes, it’s pretty familiar.
“In good internet fashion, there are a lot of lists that go viral,” Cordell said. “And there’s a lot of poetry. It was very common in 19th century newspapers. In some ways, I think, it’s like posting a song on YouTube, and there are lots of those.”
Granted, there were also items like James Buchanan’s State of the Union address that made their way across America over several months, along with conversion tables that explained the weight of bushels for a paper's rural readership.
It’s interesting to look at specific, even canonical examples of this in action, because the contrast highlights our present-era media’s strengths and weaknesses.
Take, for instance, Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. Delivered to at Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 29, 1851, accounts of the speech were first published in the New York Tribune a week later, and The Liberator, five days after that. A month later, Marius Robinson, a newspaper editor working as the convention secretary, published a full account of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. The question “Ain’t I a Woman” doesn’t appear in any of these accounts.
Twelve years later, however, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Frances Dana Barker Gage published her own recollection of the event, including a speech that hits several of the same points as the previous iterations. Gage’s account, though, contains the repeated question “Ain’t I a Woman,” and is the version that went viral.
In addition to how long it took for the speech to spread, there’s also a fair amount of transformation that takes place through the old media. The speech is now known under a name that likely comes from Gage, not Truth, and Gage’s version has a poetic rhythm to it. Without the long lag and Gage’s ear as a writer, perhaps Truth’s speech doesn’t make it to the present.
On the other hand, Gage’s version also puts a Southern dialect and imperfect English in the New York-born Truth’s mouth. Truth prided herself on speaking English well, even though she was raised for nine years speaking Dutch. The Southern accent just doesn't fit.
Arguably the speed and lossless transfer of the internet maintains the veracity, and ensures that Truth as an individual isn’t reduced to Truth as abolitionist icon, such as she was. Would just Robinson’s account, with better claims to accuracy and more religious references, have the same impact, even though an article in Duke University's journal Pedagogy notes that it “reads less dynamically?”
We’ll grant the internet speed and total accuracy, and leave it to academics to weigh those against poetics and the ethics of “printing the legend.” These are questions that the Northeastern project could help answer, as there's more at stake in understanding how things are spread than just making listicles ever-more irresistible. The "Viral Texts" project eventually will have a very promising sounding website right here, where their results will be demonstrated.
As an upside to the antebellum newspapers, though, at least Sojourner Truth's speech was never circulated under the headline, “A Former Slave Gets Up to Speak at a Women’s Convention and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!”
And that’s gotta count for something.