Hot Content Went Viral In The 1800s, Too Page through a 19th-century newspaper and you'll be surprised at how 21st-century it looks. Northeastern University's Ryan Cordell tells NPR's Scott Simon about the listicles of the 1800s.

Hot Content Went Viral In The 1800s, Too

Hot Content Went Viral In The 1800s, Too

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Page through a 19th-century newspaper and you'll be surprised at how 21st-century it looks. Northeastern University's Ryan Cordell tells NPR's Scott Simon about the listicles of the 1800s.


Before there was "Gangnam Style," the dress or the ice bucket challenge, there were other stories that raced around the country. In the 19th century, newspapers throughout the U.S. were kind of early aggregators. They just helped themselves to each other's stories, so if something juicy turned up in Boston, it would soon find its way into print in Chicago or Kansas City. That's the finding of researchers at Northeastern University. They used computers to search through those old publications for stories that went - sorry, can't avoid saying it - viral. Ryan Cordell is one of those researchers. He joins from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Thanks for being with us.

RYAN CORDELL: I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: What is the 19th century equivalent of a cat perching on the toilet?

CORDELL: Well, we found quite a few of them; a lot of household hints and stories. One of my favorites is a story that purports to be a young man in church who is wooing a young lady by circling passages in the Bible and handing them to her and that they're married a year later as the story says at the end.

SIMON: Well, how would this story get from, let's say, Pittsburgh to San Francisco?

CORDELL: Most newspapers were run by a very small staff of just a few people - an editor and maybe one or two others. And they mailed their papers to each other and then would go through the papers that came in the mail and they would find things that they thought their readers would enjoy. And they would cut them out and they would set them in their own papers. And this was really the way that newspapers operated during the period was by aggregating content from all over the country.

SIMON: And I understand there was a 19th century equivalent of clickbait, right? You know, lists of things.

CORDELL: Oh, yeah, some of my favorites. There's a list of supposed follies that people believe about their health to think that a more a man eats the fatter and stronger he will become. That's number one on the list. There's a list of tips for good parenting to ensure that you raise moral and intelligent children.

SIMON: Do you have that in front of you?

CORDELL: Oh, yes, here we are. So (reading) the following rules are worthy of being printed in letters of gold and placed in a conspicuous position in every man's household. From your children's earliest infancy, inculcate the necessity of instant obedience.

SIMON: That works. Go ahead, yes.

CORDELL: (Reading) Unite firmness with gentleness. Let your children always understand that you mean exactly what you say.

SIMON: That's good, yeah.

CORDELL: (Reading) Never let them perceive that they can vex you or make you lose your self-command.

SIMON: Too late.


SIMON: Do you draw lesson from any of this, Mr. Cordell?

CORDELL: Yeah, I mean, one of the most interesting things to me here is the way that there are these common threads. We find a lot of sentimental stories that were widely circulated, things that are supposed to evoke emotions - usually some sadness, even. And this reminds me of many of the videos that we see of soldiers coming home from war or, you know, children who have been granted, you know, a wish - sick children in particular. And to see these threads back into the 19th century, for me this removes the idea of virality just from the platform of the Internet. You know, we often talk about the Internet enabling virality, but it seems clear to me that there's something much deeper about the kinds of things that we share and why we share them that extends prior to the technology we're working with today.

SIMON: Ryan Cordell, who's with the Viral Text Project at Northeastern University, thanks so much for being with us.

CORDELL: Thank you for having me.

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