“Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment…”

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

This site presents data, visualizations, interactive exhibits, and both computational and literary publications drawn from the Viral Texts project, which seeks to develop theoretical models that will help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. During this period, texts published in newspapers and magazines were not typically protected as intellectual property, and so literary texts as well as other non-fiction prose texts circulated promiscuously among newspapers as editors freely reprinted materials borrowed from other venues. In the Viral Texts project, we ask: What texts were reprinted and why? How did ideas—literary, political, scientific, economic, religious—circulate in the public sphere and achieve critical force among audiences? By employing and developing computational linguistics tools to analyze the large textual databases of nineteenth-century newspapers newly available to scholars, this project will generate new knowledge of the nineteenth-century print public sphere.

Viral Texts in Two Minutes

Project History

In its first phase (2012-2014), Viral Texts focused on developing its text reuse discovery algorithms and investigating reprinting in the nineteenth-century United States. Links to publications from this phase can be found on our publications page. In 2015-2016, the Viral Texts team focused on improving the project’s algorithms and investigating international reprinting among English-language newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, which led to use joining a larger group of newspaper scholars in the Oceanic Exchanges project between 2017-2020.

Viral Texts is sponsored by Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks and generously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies’ Digital Innovation Fellowship Program. The project team includes Professors Ryan Cordell (Associate Professor of Information Sciences and English, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and David Smith (Associate Professor of Computer Science, Northeastern University), alongside colleagues past and present.

Suggested Project Citation

Ryan Cordell and David Smith, Viral Texts: Mapping Networks of Reprinting in 19th-Century Newspapers and Magazines (2022), http://viraltexts.org.

This website is maintained by Co-PI Ryan Cordell, who you can also contact at @ryancordell on Twitter.

Our website cover image is “The Country Editor–Paying the Yearly Subscription” by F.S. Church, from Harper’s Weekly (17 January 1874). In it a rural man seeks to pay for his local newspaper subscription with a pair of chickens. The editor weighs this proposal amidst the fruit of similar negotiations all around. Most pertinent to this project, however, are the scissors and newspaper clippings on the editor’s desk, and the pasted-up clipping from which the compositor (the man through the door on the left) is setting type. These clues point to the importance of the exchange system, and the reprinting we are tracking in Viral Texts, in creating the nineteenth-century American newspaper.