10 viral hits (from the 19th century)

Researchers analyzed 1.6 billion words from 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers in the period covering 1830 to 1860. This is what they found.

George Washington
(Image credit: (AP Photo))

For as long as there have been means to distribute information widely, there has been the potential for information to go viral. These days, we have easily measurable indexes of virality — pageviews, tweets, shares, and likes, to name a few — but scholars are discovering other ways to quantify virality for the pre-internet era. The Infectious Texts project at Northeastern University aims to foster a clearer understanding of the circulation of ideas in the 19th century by looking at the viral spread of newspaper and magazine texts.

In a recent paper, project leaders David Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon describe a method for searching through digitized archives of old newspapers to find repeated chunks of text that reveal how the same stories got printed and re-printed. The task is not as easy as it might seem. The algorithms have to filter out ads and other uninteresting repetition, and deal with editorial changes to articles and messy character recognition issues.

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