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.)