When you hear the word “viral,” your thoughts probably go to the Internet or some contagious disease. But Claudio Saunt has some surprising news for you: Viral memes — little artifacts of culture that propagate and saturate rapidly — actually have a long and storied pre-digital history.
“We know now that the structure of networks impacts information movement,” said Saunt, who is a U.S. history professor at the University of Georgia and one of the creators of a new project that maps pre-Internet virality.
But that was also true in the 1700s and 1800s, he said; in fact, “things like nodes and networks were easier to model and understand in the 19th century.”
Illuminating the long history of #viral #content wasn’t necessarily Saunt’s first priority when he launched the U.S. News Map project, of course. The interactive website, a collaboration between researchers at UGA and Georgia Tech, was born out of the Library of Congress’s vast trove of searchable, digitized newspapers, which spans 1836 to 1924 and currently tops out at 10 million pages. Historians and other academics have long been interested in that database for research, Saunt said, but there was no spatial or chronological element involved. By porting the pages over to a map, users could see not only why, but when and where, historical stories evolved.
If you spend enough time with the map, in fact, you’ll see that old newspaper exchanges worked much like modern social platforms do. Exchanges were, before the invention of the telegraph, the way local community newspapers got their news: Editors at different papers would mail copies to each other, forming networks of different-sized papers with similar political views. Frequently, editors would even copy, verbatim, the stories that appeared in the papers of their fellow partisans. (Think of that as a retweet … circa 1847.)
In other words, each of those newspapers formed a node in an informational network; the postal route between them was the Twitter follow or Facebook friendship; and aside from the obvious facts that these networks moved slowly and connected institutions (as opposed to people), they basically operated a lot like social networks on the Internet.
If you type a term into the News Map, for instance, you can see that the most influential nodes tend to be the most central — not necessarily the largest or most popular papers, but the ones that are geographically closest to lots of others.
And you can see that, even when a lot of nodes exist in a cluster, they won’t necessarily light up at the same time: Even when they’re exposed to new information, nodes only pass it on under certain circumstances. Saunt points out that Democratic and Republican exchanges tended to share things only among themselves, for instance, regardless of where the individual papers were located.
Best of all, the News Map captures at least one viral hoax, as if to reassure us that humanity has always been this gullible. In 1864, an anonymous writer distributed pamphlets in New York, advocating for more interracial relationships and coining the term “miscegenation” to describe them. The word pops up in a local Democratic paper. Soon it’s in other Democratic papers, spreading westward. Then counterpoints start cropping up in Republican papers.
Only when “miscegenation” had been printed in dozens of papers across the country did anyone realize the original pamphlet had been written by “satirists” to troll their political competitors. One-hundred-and-fifty years have since passed … but the scenario sounds oddly familiar.
To quote the Economist’s 2011 observations on Martin Luther’s 16th-century (!!) virality: “Modern society tends to regard itself as somehow better than previous ones, and technological advance reinforces that sense of superiority. But history teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun.” Try busting that out the next time someone bemoans the state of social media.