The Sentiment of Circulation

Below is the paper I will deliver at the 2017 Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia, as part of the panel “#AllTheFeels: Sentimentalism Then and Now.” I have not included the slides but have included links, embedded video, and images that should give blog readers a clear sense of what I’m talking about in each section of the talk.

Let’s begin with a short video, an advertisement for the Polish online auction website Allegro—think eBay—that circulated around the international web about one month ago. As of this past Saturday, it had been viewed more than 13.2 million times on YouTube.

I came across this video in the Facebook feed of a friend who regularly posts a “Weepy of the Day.” As she wrote in a message (in which she also gave her permission for me to show her feed in this presentation), “some are happy weepies and some are sad,” but all are expected to elicit tears. This video elicits tears of surprise, as we suddenly understand the man’s tenacious commitment to language learning, as well as recognition of the deep love of parents and grandparents that subordinates the self to the beloved child. I suspect viewers’ precise emotions differ based on their ages and life experiences, but overall the video provokes strong reactions and, if the comments on YouTube and in my friends’ feeds are to be believed, almost universally tears.

The same ad as a "Weepy of the Day" on the Facebook feed of my friend, Jennifer Seidel.
The same ad as a “Weepy of the Day” on the Facebook feed of my friend, Jennifer Seidel.

Discussions of internet culture often center on the detached sarcasm of internet memes or the viciousness of online commenting, but browsing the front page of Buzzfeed (or most Facebook feeds, tbh) reveals another powerful force driving the circulation of content online: sentiment. Hashtags such as the one that gives our panel its title, #AllTheFeels, simultaneously claim ownership of online sincerity while explicitly labeling—and thereby containing—such expressions. The hashtag asserts an ironic distance between the sharing subject and their feelings through the performance of metadata. Doubly ironically, as metadata a hashtag connects any individual expression of feeling to a larger network of feeling. The sentimental hashtag acknowledges the embarrassment of emotions in order to perform—at least—a moment of raw emotional response in community.

In an online context, we often think of “viral media” as driven by technological platforms: content “goes viral,” as if of its own accord. In reality, of course, it is people sharing that drives virality, and the desire to share is often tied to affective response and attachment. While modern readers might look back in bemusement at nineteenth-century readers weeping over the trials of Ellen Montgomery or the death of Little Eva, they like, retweet, and yes, even weep over videos of deployed soldiers returning home to surprise their families, ill children meeting their heroes, elaborately staged wedding proposals, or even advertisements that dramatize moments of family intimacy or human generosity. This talk draws from both nineteenth-century newspapers and twenty-first-century internet memes to explore the link between affect and circulation.

The modern individual who wishes to “see to it that they feel right,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe urged her readers in 1852, does so by confessing to the world precisely what conjured “all the feels” and inviting others to participate in their emotional response to a shared cultural artifact. As my friend noted, those artifacts sometimes invoke “happy weepies,” as when they invite us to nostalgia, affection, or romance.

Consider, for instance, the marriage proposal flash mob. The “elaborate staged proposal” video is common enough to be singled out as an online genre, but I present here one of the genre’s prototypical examples. Why are people drawn to watch and share other people’s proposals? Reading the comments—I know, I know—we can spot some themes. First, readers own their tears, sometimes directly—”I cry every time. I luv it”—and sometimes indirectly—”who the hell is cutting onions this time of night?” There’s a disturbing share of sexist commentary on the appearance of the women in the video: because the internet. Digging a little deeper, though, we find statements of aspiration or longing: “why can’t boys be like this… Creative and Kind?” or “Any time I DREAM my boyfriend…will propose to me, I watch this video.” Occasionally, we read readers’ nostalgia about their own proposals. A video such as this serves as wish fulfillment, a projection.

As a text, videos like this one are difficult for literary scholars because, to overgeneralize, we distrust happy tears. We can certainly read manifestations of patriarchy and traditional sexual roles here. However, we can identify quite a different source of distrust in a sub-strain of the video’s comments, as viewers dismiss the piece as cheesy; suggest the couple is no longer together; speculate on secret, commercial motives; or make even darker predictions (again: the internet). Such an event seems, in short, too good to be true; it smacks of inauthenticity. These skeptical takes constitute a minority of responses for this and similar videos, however, and in this talk I want to attempt to understand the motivations of both those who distrust and those who watch, weep over, and share this and similar videos. Indeed, these poles of response are essential for understanding virality, which is often driven as much by negative response as positive: debate drives conversation and maintains attention on particular cultural artifacts over others.

Certainly YouTube viewers are not the first to share or weep over a swain’s clever wooing. Clever, “too good to be true” vignettes were prevalent in the nineteenth-century newspaper exchanges system. In the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University we are using computational methods to surface “viral” texts of all kinds from the newspapers of the period.

Text of "Religious Courtship" from the <em>Piney Woods Planter</em> of 20 April 1839.
in the Piney Woods Planter (20 April 1839).

Textual morsels like “A Religious Courtship,” (you can read one of at least 319 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of this story in the Piney Woods Planter of 20 April 1839) in which a young man woos in church by highlighting passages in his Bible that make his feelings plain, are common among the most widely reprinted vignettes we have thus far identified. We can certainly imagine nineteenth century readers projecting both idealized hopes and wary skepticism on a “meet cute” story such as this one, which circled the globe in newspapers, magazines, scrapbooks, and related media.

The sentiment of such pieces is perhaps muted, appearing “not so much a genre as an operation or a set of actions within discursive models of affect and identification.” By echoing in taut, abbreviated strokes the tropes of other sentimental genres, such a piece evokes “the aesthetics of sentiment” familiar from “advice books, statues, photographs, pamphlets, lyric poems, fashion advertisements, and novels” and “situates the the reader or viewer” as a “sentimental subject.”1 It is this more diffuse “aesthetics of sentiment” that can help us understand the pervasiveness of sentimental identification in driving virality, whether in nineteenth-century media or online. The sentimental mode insists that human beings can share the emotions prompted by scenes of affection, devotion, or even loss. Sentimentalism, in other words, requires fellow feeling, requires community, requires circulation.

Perhaps the most iconic scene of nineteenth-century sentimentalism is the death of little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which a the angelic child “dies well”: which is to say peacefully and piously, while instructing those around her through her example. Eva accepts her fate joyfully, and thus becomes a typological Christian to her family, her family’s enslaved servants, and the novel’s readers. In allowing “a little child to lead them,” Stowe both enacts a powerful trope of nineteenth century evangelical faith and of sentimental discourse. While less individually famous, the trope of the angelic child (or wife) instructing through death pervades the period’s literature. In temperance tracts, plays, and novels, for instance, it is typically the death of a long suffering wife or daughter that finally pushes the tale’s drunkard to confront his failures and turn toward reform.2 Just as the #AllTheFeels hashtag immediately connects an individual expression of emotion to a larger stream of sentimental discourse, the trope of the dying child immediately connects any single example of nineteenth-century sentimental writing to the network of sentimentalism.

"Tired Mothers" in the Vermont Phœnix of 6 September 1872
“Tired Mothers” in the Vermont Phœnix (6 September 1872)

The reprinted texts of the nineteenth century newspaper—poetry, especially—are preoccupied with mortality, and in particular the mortality of children. In the poem “Tired Mothers,” for instance, a bereaved mother urges others to recognize the “blessedness” of even “dull” and “thankless” moments with their children, which she longs for now that “My singing birdling from its nest has flown / The little boy I used to kiss is dead!” (you can read one of at least 275 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of “Tired Mothers” in the Vermont Phœnix of 6 September 1872).

"Our Little Boy Blue" in the St. Paul Daily Globe (22 April 1888)
“Our Little Boy Blue” in the St. Paul Daily Globe (22 April 1888)

The poem “Little Boy Blue” takes as its central metaphor a departed child’s abandoned toys, who “wonder, as waiting these long years through… / What has become of our Little Boy Blue” (you can read one of at least 143 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of “Our Little Boy Blue” in the St. Paul Daily Globe of 22 April 1888).3 In these two examples the sentimental appeal seeks again to remind readers of the ways everyday life is taken for granted, even wished away, by those without the perspective of loss.

It is often difficult for my students to wrap their minds around the frequent depiction of child death in nineteenth-century literature. In my classes, we spend awhile discussing mortality rates, the omnipresence of death in most of the period’s households. As models of “affect and identification,” sentimental pieces about the death of children provided a vector for commiseration. Their deaths are made instructive for those left behind: reminders of mortality, spurs to better action during life, and assurances of religious truths.

Without (I hope) being callous, I want to argue that similar portrayals of death as emotionally instructive pervade contemporary viral media as well.

Quite recently, for instance, the story of Tijn Kolsteren went viral far outside of his native Netherlands. The 6-year-old with terminal brain cancer challenged people to paint their nails and contribute to charity, a campaign that ultimately raised more than €2.5 million and involved a host of celebrities and politicians, including the Dutch Prime Minister. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of this event, but only to cite it as emblematic of more recent online versions of the “good death”: the terminal patient who resists despair and instead contributes to the world he or she is leaving. These events are not always grounded in a religious sensibility—though this does depend greatly on your own social media bubble—but do evoke tears of gratitude or inspiration. Rather than attempting to work through a common, shared experience, these media employ sentiment to connect people with an atypical and rhetorically heightened human experience. The sentimental figure—and I use figure to refer not to the real person, but to the representation of that person in viral media—becomes a kind of cipher, able to focus the attention of others on otherwise overlooked beauties or opportunities in the world. By foregrounding the selfless work of those facing death, such pieces challenge viewers or readers with the privileges of health to reconsider their own actions in the world.

The contemporary sentimental child is, as it was in the nineteenth century, a figure of projection. Consider Batkid—or Miles Scott—who you might remember from your social media feeds in late 2015 and whose story is now being made into a documentary. Through the MakeAWish foundation, tens of thousands of people came together online and in reality to turn San Francisco into Gotham City and allow Miles to live out his dream of being Batman for a day. Through enacting Miles’ fantasy—at, frankly, an epic scale—participants report feeling moved, emotional, inspired. As Hans Zimmer says during his interview for the movie, “he gave everyone license to be a little absurd, and live their little dreams for a little bit.” Chris Taylor echoes this idea, claiming, “in helping him to live his dream, we were saving ourselves.” Miles’ accentuated mortality reminds viewers of their own; in his fulfilled dreams they find hope that their own farfetched aspirations might be realized.

Batkid serves as an emotional surrogate for the viewers who support his wish, but in that concept of surrogacy we can spot the darker elements of sentimentalism, particularly when it coheres around an actual human being. In Miles’ case this potential darkness is obviated by his survival; as of this moment he seems to have beaten his disease, so his story has both a metaphorical and literal happy ending. In other cases, however, the sympathetic tears of viewers stop at the moment of inspiration. Viral events centered on people facing mortality rarely persist to the pain of death itself, leaving those around the central figure to deal with the stark realities obviated in the uplifting message. But: I do not want to entirely negate the power of these stories, to look at them only through a hermeneutics of suspicion. To say that these contemporary sentimental figures are ciphers or projections risks deflating people’s emotional experiences and replicating the same modes of dismissal that prevented scholars taking nineteenth-century sentimentalism seriously for far too long.

To bring a personal inflection to this presentation, I remember crying as the Batkid story unfolded, and I (attention blog readers: please imagine the deeply self deprecating tone with which I will read this line) am a doctor of English language and literature, presenting my important research at the Modern Language Association Convention. What was Batkid to me? Risking cheesiness, I recall being deeply moved that, in a world so often defined by pain, conflict, and violence, a large group of people would come together in service of another person, and a deeply vulnerable person at that. In the moment—future major motion picture aside—the event seemed to unfold outside of commerce and outside of partisanship. It seemed pure, and that apparent purity constituted no small part of my emotional response to it. No doubt some of the people involved were drawn to the media spectacle more than to Miles’ story, but at some essential level it didn’t matter: the outcome conquered any mixed motives of those who contributed.

In closing, I want to focus on one of a more marked attempt to leverage the circulation of viral sentimentality toward identification across racial, class, or generational lines. Again, we can mark important precursors in the nineteenth-century. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe drew on her own experience losing a child to depict the forced rupture of families through slavery. When the fugitive Eliza asks Mrs. Bird and her husband if they have lost a child, her question prompts a painful memory for many of Stowe’s readers as well as the most pervasive trope of sentimental fiction and poetry. By comparing Eliza’s losses to those of the Birds and, by extension, Stowe’s readers, Stowe asks those readers to identify with the slave mother.

That identification, in turn, is expected to lead to action on behalf of the slave. It is here that critics most forcefully reject the political efficacy of sentimentalism. I do not have time to review that literature in this talk, but in short, critics understand sentimental literature as a kind of “slacktism,” to borrow another internet term: a generalized feeling of moral rectitude that comes from feeling strongly and sharing media, but not taking more substantive political action. Slactivism begins and ends with clicking a button on Twitter or Facebook, just as the activism of many readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin likely began and ended with their tears over Eliza’s plight.

Nevertheless for Stowe and many of her readers, “feeling right” is a necessary step to acting right, and indeed can override the moral compromises of the commercial and political spheres. In talking with her husband, who as a senator has just voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law, Mrs. Bird insists he “can talk all night, but you wouldn’t do it. I put it to you, John,” she asks “would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you, now?” When the senator attempts to reason with her, Mrs. Bird presses the issue, “I hate reasoning, John,—especially reasoning on such subjects. There’s a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing; and you don’t believe in it yourselves, when it comes to practice. I know you well enough, John. You don’t believe it’s right any more than I do; and you wouldn’t do it any sooner than I.” Here right feeling is the basis of right action, and the ultimate marker of morality. In seeking to bring her readers to identify with the slave, Stowe attempts to leverage the unique power of sentiment to push people toward right action.

We can identify a similar sentimental impulse in a project like Humans of New York, which rose to international prominence largely through viral engagement. I’m not sure how anyone here could have completely missed HONY—it has been pervasive—but in brief, the project pairs intimate photographs of people with brief stories that give insight into their histories and lived experiences. Initially these stories all came from New Yorkers—hence the project’s name—but more recently the author, Brandon Stanton, has expanded his purview. In general, HONY doesn’t advocate for any specific political cause, but does prompts readers to empathize with people from diverse racial, national, ethnic, and class backgrounds through personal stories of loss, of suffering, or endurance that resonate emotionally. This story of a sold violin, for instance, is a typical example from the site insofar as it attempts to inculcate general human sympathy. The paired picture and story encourage readers to imagine that the guy bagging their groceries just might be a talented musician, frustrated by economic exigencies. In other words, HONY helps readers imagine the interiority of other people, to feel in common with them and thus become more sympathetic individuals. The viral success of HONY—the wide and rapid circulation of nearly every post on the site—speaks to the hunger of readers for such moments of identification, and their conviction that others within their social circle would benefit from experiencing these media.

Most readers of HONY are (relatively) young, and so posts like this one about a man losing his wife to dementia seek to bridge generational divides through sentiment. To return to Samuels’ definition of sentimentalism, this text clearly becomes a “discursive model…of affect and identification that effect[s] connections” across ages rather than other markers of difference. Here we might identify another meditation on loss, in which the sentimental inspiration comes not from the person dying, but instead from the long suffering husband left behind. Here again is an aspirational example, of fidelity and love, that sets readers’ own relationships in relief.

"A Dying Wife to Her Husband" in the Abbeville Banner (26 April 1851)
“A Dying Wife to Her Husband” in the Abbeville Banner (26 April 1851)

Here again we might invoke nineteenth century precedents, such as “A Dying Wife to Her Husband,” a widely-reprinted “most touching fragment of a Letter from a dying Wife to her Husband…found by him, some months after her death” and which “was literally dim with tear-marks” (you can read one of at least 181 identified nineteenth-century reprintings of “A Dying Wife to Her Husband” in the Abbeville Banner of 26 April 1851). Leaving aside this early example of the internet “literally,” we read about the husband that “Yours is the privilege of watching, through long and dreary nights, for the spirit’s final flight, and of transferring my sinking head from your breast to the Saviour’s bosom!” She assures him that “you shall share my last thought; the last faint pressure of hand, and the last feeble kiss.” Though separated by nearly 175 years, it is difficult not to see echoes of the HONY subject’s claim of caring for his dying wife, “I don’t see this as a curse. It’s an honor. This is what the Lord has given me to do. She has served this family her entire life. And now it’s my turn to serve her.” Such pieces circulated in nineteenth century newspapers and online because they speak to reader’s highest ideals around the marital bond, offering an example of how we hope we would conduct ourselves—but fear we would not—in similar circumstances.

I want to end with one final example from HONY, from a more overtly activist series created in 2015, as tensions rose in Europe and the US around the refugee crisis. Stanton traveled to refugee camps across Europe, following the same picture-and-brief-narrative format of his other posts. Here, however, the posts have an edge that cannot but recall Stowe’s depictions of enslaved mothers. This picture of a father and daughter emphasizes their normalcy and humanity through their smiles, and the girl’s affectionate petting of the cat. The horror of their story jars with their obvious humanity, and imagining the girl witnessing her mother’s death forces readers to consider the absolute inhumanity of their experiences. These pictures and stories force Western readers to identify with the refugees, with the hopes that such identification will stymie demonization. These media seek to help readers and viewers “feel right” and thus act on behalf of refugees. Whether such sentimental appeals are effective is a matter of fervent debate, even now, but certainly while I was living in Germany last year I saw the impact of such media in shaping public debate around refugees, even as many echoed Senator Bird in urging reason over feeling.

What seems undeniable is that internet culture is deeply affective, and that grappling with the aesthetics of sentimentality will be necessary for understanding the ways that viral media circulate among—or even constitute—communities online. I have not in this talk addressed the sentimentality of the 2016 election, if only because I have not had time to fully process the overlap of feeling and our new political discourse. “Fake news” too thrives on emotion: stories can be for readers emotionally true even when factually bankrupt. Here again is a bleaker valence of sentimentality that scholars must take seriously in the coming years. Current debates about filter bubbles and confirmation bias are in many ways attempts to understand the emotional underpinnings of how we separate truth from fiction. This notion of emotional truth is not new to the world, as I hope my examples from the nineteenth century help clarify. While it’s likely mostly mythology that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the book that started the Civil War, it seems equally likely that the book helped mobilize support for abolition that did not exist before its publication. The online medium—and its real world effects—bring a pointed urgency to the question of how we might both “feel right” and act right in the digital public sphere. “Weepies of the Day” are not going anywhere: tears constitute communities and drive circulation. Our task is to better understand how sentiment operates and how it might serve education rather than misinformation.

  1. Shirley Samuels, “Introduction,” The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 6 
  2. For more on this trope in temperance, abolitionist, and anti-abolitionist literature, see my article, Ryan Cordell, “‘Enslaving You, Body and Soul‘: The Uses of Temperance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and ‘Anti-Tom’ Fiction,” Studies in American Fiction 36.1 (Spring 2008). 
  3. As a brief aside: in this particular image, I cannot help but remember my own parental bawling response to the movie Toy Story 3, which employs the same central forgotten-toys metaphor, but to mediate of the loss of children grown, gone in another sense. 

Two (of Three) Ways of Looking at C19 Newspaper Exchange Networks

I wrote the following as part of my preparation for next week’s second meeting of the NHC Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies next week. The post assumes a modest working understanding of network graphs and their terminology. For a primer on humanities network analysis, see the links for my network analysis workshop or, more specifically, see Scott Weingart’s ongoing series Demystifying Networks, beginning, appropriately enough with his introduction, his second post about degree, and possibly his post on communities.


In previous work in American Literary History, I argued that reprinted nineteenth-century newspaper selections should be considered as authored by the network of periodicals exchanges. Such texts were assemblages, defined by circulation and mutability, that cannot cohere around a single, stable author. As part of this argument, I demonstrated how social network analysis (SNA) methods might employ large-scale data about reprinting to illuminate lines of influence among newspapers during the period. In that early network modeling, I represented individual newspapers from our reprinting data—at the time drawn primarily from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection—as nodes, connected by edges that represented texts printed in common between papers. Those edges were weighted by frequency of shared reprints. The working assumptions behind those models were these: 1.) the fact that two newspapers reprint this or that text in common says very little about their relationship, or lack thereof, during the period and 2.) that when two newspaper printed hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of texts in common, this fact is a strong signal of a potential relationship between them.

A selection from a single cluster in the Viral Data. Each line represents a specific reprint from the larger cluster, which is identified by the ID in the first column. You can browse the cluster data I used for these experiments. These are themselves experimental clusters using a new version of the reprint-detection algorithm, and are not yet suitable for formal publication.

Our data about reprinting in the Viral Texts Project is organized around “clusters”: these are, essentially, enumerative bibliographies of particular texts that circulated in nineteenth-century newspapers, derived computationally through a reprint detection algorithm that we describe more fully in previous publications.1 From these chronologically-ordered lists of witnesses, we derive network structures by tallying how often publications appear in the same clusters. When two publications appear together in a particular cluster, they are considered linked, with an edge of weight 1. Each subsequent time those same publications appear together in other clusters, the weight of their edge increases by 1; ten shared reprints results in a weight of 10, one hundred shared reprints in a weight of 100. Thus the final network data shows strong links between publications that often print the same texts and weaker links between publications that occasionally print the same texts. Continue reading

Scale as Deformance

When I was ten years old my parents bought me a microscope set for Christmas. I spent the next weeks eagerly testing everything I could under its lens, beginning with the many samples provided in the box. I could not bring myself to apply the kit’s scalpel to the fully-preserved butterfly—which is intact still in the microscope box in my parents’ attic—but soon I had exhausted all of the pre-made slides: sections of leaves, insect wings, crystalline minerals, scales from fish or lizard skin. The kit also included the supplies to create new slides. I wanted to see blood—my blood. And so with my mom’s help I pricked the tip of my finger with a very thin needle, so I could squeeze a single drop of blood onto the thin glass slide. I remember how it smeared as I applied the plastic coverslip to the top of the slide, and I remember the sense of wonder as I first saw my own blood through the microscope’s lens. Gone was the uniform red liquid, replaced by a bustling ecosystem of red and white cells, walls and enormous spaces where none had been when I was looking with my unaided eye.

Looking at my blood through a microscope, I learned something new and true about it, but that micro view was not more true than familiar macro images. My blood is red and white cells jostling in clear plasma; my blood is also a red liquid that will run in bright-red rivulets from a pin-prick, or clot in dun-red patches over a wound. At micro-scales beyond the power of my children’s microscope, we could focus on the proteins that comprise the membrane of a red blood cell; at even more macro-scales we might consider a blood bank, organizing bags of blood by type for use in emergency rooms.

Continue reading

Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers

This is a pre-print version of this article. The final, edited version appears in American Literary History 27.3 (August 2015). An accompanying methods paper co-written by me, David Smith, and Abby Mullen can be found on the Viral Texts Project site.

I. Introduction[1]

When Louis F. Anderson took over the editorship of the Houma Ceres in 1856, he admitted that he was “not…very distinguished as a ‘knight of the gray goose quill,'” but assured his new readers that “our pen will not lead us into difficulty” because “our ‘principal assistant,’ the scissors, will be called into frequent requisition—believing as we do, that a good selection is always preferable to a bad editorial” (June 28, 1856).[2] Thus, Anderson sums up a set of attitudes toward the production, authorship, and circulation of newspaper content within a system founded on textual borrowing. In the antebellum US context, circulation often substituted for authorship; the authority of the newspaper rested on networks of information exchange that underlay its production. “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment,” Alexis de Tocqueville writes, describing circulation as a technology—like the rail and telegraph—compressing space and time, linking individuals around the nation by “talk[ing] to you briefly every day of the common weal” (111). In both examples, the newspaper’s primary value stems from whom and how it connects. Continue reading

Going Viral in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers

The following is an excerpt from my article “Viral Textuality in Nineteenth-Century US Newspaper Exchanges,” which is forthcoming in Vernoica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer (eds.), Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies, May 2015, Palgrave MacMillan. Reproduced with the permission of Palgrave MacMillan. The article draws on the findings of the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University.


In the Rossetti Archive, Jerome McGann seeks to represent the “social text” by including all editions of a given work in an online archive, rather than simply the “Reading Text” and “Variorum Text” of the standard critical edition. However, even the social text model remains focused on discrete works—books, most often, though also stories or poems—that can be collated and compared as distinct entities. Virality is messier, aligning fragmentary texts and textual echoes not only through books but also through ephemeral and hybrid media; the latter of these is exemplified by the nineteenth-century newspaper. The “viral text” of a particular poem would include official and unofficial reprintings, but also parodies, quotations, reviews, paraphrases, allusions, and more—what Julia Flanders has named “reception items.” A theory of viral textuality must wrestle with unusually capacious ideas of “the text,” including in its purview the continually shifting penumbrae of readers’ responses that testify to that text’s life within culture(s).

For this reason, virality proves especially useful for thinking about how texts circulated in the increasingly complex mass media ecology of the United States during the nineteenth century. During this time, newspapers and magazines proliferated, and this rapid expansion of the print sphere was accelerated by a system of content sharing among publications. The periodical press in the United States depended on “exchanges,” through which editors subscribed to each other’s publications (paying little to no postage for the privilege), and borrowed content promiscuously from each other’s subscriptions. Texts of all kinds were reprinted—typically without authors’ or publishers’ permission—across books, newspapers, and magazines. Content shared through the exchange system was not protected under intellectual property law. Instead, periodical texts were considered common property for reprinting, with or without modification—much as articles, music videos, and other content are shared online today among blogs and social media sites. And as is the case today, antebellum content creators reacted in disparate ways to these sharing practices. Some writers and editors compared reprinting to theft, decrying a system that popularized writers’ work without supporting them financially. Others exploited the reprinting system in order to build a reputation that could be leveraged toward paid literary employment.

The spread of “viral” content in nineteenth-century newspapers depended on a range of factors, from the choices of editors to the preferences of readers to the material requirements of composing a given day’s issue. The frequently reprinted listicle “Editing a Paper,” for instance, lays out the dilemma that faced nineteenth-century editors considering whether and how much to reprint:

If we publish telegraph reports, people will say they are nothing but lies.
If we omit them, they will say we have no enterprise, or suppress them for political effect . . .
If we publish original matter, they find fault with us for not giving selections.
If we publish selections, folks say we are lazy for not writing more and giving them what they have not read before in some other paper.
(11 July 1863)

The first reprinting of “Editing a Paper” identified by the Viral Texts project appears in the Big Blue Union of Marysville, Kansas, but even here an editorial preface claims that the list has been “going the rounds of the papers. If we knew in what paper it first appeared,” the editor continues, “it would afford us pleasure to give the writer due credit.” This piece and its preface illustrate much about editors’ and, presumably, readers’ attitudes toward reprinting, and how those attitudes might line up with modern ideas of viral media.

Considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets as “viral media” allows us to frame their spread in terms of “rhetorical velocity,” a term first developed by Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss to describe online composition practices in which writers take reuse and remixing as a given and compose with an eye toward facilitating such reinterpretive acts. Such writers take as their primary assumption that a piece will be recomposed by others—reprinted or otherwise remediated. Ridolfo and DeVoss propose that “when academics uphold distinctions between author and producer, we are left in an uncomplicated, often acontextual space that does not provide the tools we need to best negotiate the ways in which production and authorship become more slippery in digital spaces and within remix projects.” They argue, “The term rhetorical velocity means a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party.” In other words, “rhetorical velocity” posits “the text” through multiple dimensions, charting its uses and movements—both social and geographic—alongside its evolving content. What’s more, a piece need not be consciously crafted for a wide audience to have rhetorical velocity; if it is compelling, concise, and easily modified, then it can go viral with or without its creator’s knowledge.

While Ridolfo and DeVoss refer specifically to composing practices online, the frame of rhetorical velocity offers insight into widely reprinted newspaper content during the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century editors relied on the exchange system to provide engaging content, and they in turn composed (or solicited) original pieces with an eye toward their readers and those of the papers with which they exchanged. In the first post–Civil War issue of the Pulaski Citizen, for instance, editor Luther W. McCord apologizes for the sorry state of “The News” in the paper because “we have no exchanges yet, from which to make up our news items. Our readers can readily appreciate,” the squib continues, “the impossibility of making an interesting paper without something to make it of.” McCord then assures readers that they “hope to have a full list of exchanges by next week and, per consequence, a more readable number of the Citizen” (January 5, 1866). This apology echoes a common notion among editors in the period: newspapers that aggregated content from exchanges were of higher and more consistent quality than newspapers written entirely by locals. In other words, McCord assumes that his primary job will be selecting and propagating writing from elsewhere—contributing to the rhetorical velocity of content written for a distributed network, not for individual newspapers.

We must therefore assume that newspaper editors and writers were concerned with the rhetorical velocity of what they published; a newspaper whose content was regularly reprinted in other newspapers would soon be added to more exchanges, as editors further down the line sought the source of the pieces they encountered in intermediary papers. This would, in turn, increase the popular newspaper’s circulation and subscription fees. Indeed, when considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets, we might speak of “composing for recomposition” in a more technical way, using “composition” not only in its modern sense, as a near synonym for “writing,” but also as a printers’ term of art. As scholars such as Ellen Gruber Garvey have shown, texts were reprinted in newspapers to help editors compose entire daily or weekly newspapers with small staffs. “By yoking together scattered producers who shared labor and resources by sending their products to one another for free use,” the network of newspapers sustained the proliferation of its medium. In other words, reprinting existed in large part to meet the material needs of publication. Many of the changes introduced into texts as they circulated through the newspaper network—a line removed here, two lines added there—were motivated by these practical considerations, as a given newspaper’s compositors shaped exchange content to fill empty spaces on a nearly composed page. It seems reasonable to presume that as a newspaper’s compositors prepared their pages each day or week, they expected—perhaps even hoped—that other compositors in their exchange networks would later recompose their texts, extending the texts’ rhetorical velocity to reach distant audiences.


To read the rest (along with fantastic work by other C19 scholars), preorder Virtual Victorians.

“Many Facts in Small Compass”: Information Literature in C19 Newspapers (MLA15 Talk)

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Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University

MLA 2015 | Vancouver, BC

Download talk slides.

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My remarks today will be drawn from my work on the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University. In brief, I’m working with a colleague in computer science to automatically identify the most frequently-reprinted texts in digitized archives of nineteenth-century newspapers. We have thus far drawn from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection, but are currently expanding the corpora from which we are drawing to include magazines, as well as a broader selection of American and transatlantic newspapers. We have identified nearly half a million reprinted texts from the LoC’s nineteenth-century holdings. The majority of these were reprinted only a few times, but a significant minority were reprinted in 50, 100, or even 200 newspapers from this one archive.

We went into this project in search of the literature, such as newspaper poetry, that flourished in a print culture founded on textual sharing and through a deeply hybrid and intertextual medium. In the broadest sense, I hoped to expand our ideas of which writers resonated with nineteenth-century readers and create new bibliographies of popular but critically-overlooked literature.

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On this front the project has been promising. For every reprinted Longfellow poem we find many more by authors such as Elizabeth Akers Allen, Isabella Banks, Charles Monroe Dickinson, Colonel Theodore O’Hara, Emily Rebecca Page, Nancy Priest Wakefield, or John Whitaker Watson—or, perhaps even more likely, by an anonymous author. Such poems circulated within a system of exchanges and selection—newspaper editors cut, pasted, and recomposed content from their exchange partners and sent their papers to be similarly aggregated elsewhere.

But recognizably literary genres have been only a small part of the project. One of the most dramatic outcomes of this work thus far has been to highlight the importance of understudied genres of everyday reading and writing within the ecology of nineteenth-century print culture. These species of writing include political news, travel accounts, squibs, scientific reports, inspirational or religious exhortations, temperance narratives, vignettes, self-help guides, trivia, recipes, and even, to borrow a modern Internet term, listicles, all of which juxtaposed with poems, stories, and news on the page of the nineteenth-century paper. As a general (and perhaps unsurprising rule), the most frequently-reprinted pieces are concise, quotable, and widely relatable texts that would have been easy to recontextualize for different newspapers and new audiences—and that could easily fit gaps in the physical newspaper pages, as editors and compositors needed.

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My remarks today focus on those genres we might categorize as “information literature”: lists, tables, recipes, scientific reports, trivia columns, and so forth. I want to separate these from news itself, which is certainly a kind of information genre, but which I would mark as stylistically and operationally distinct from the other genres I’ve listed. Here’s one example of information literature, a list of supposed “facts,” primarily about human lives and demographics, which was published under many names in at least 120 different newspapers between 1853 and 1899 (which is approximately one quarter of the nineteenth-century newspapers in Chronicling America). Continue reading

Mr. Penumbra, Distant Reading, and Cheating at Scholarship

My Technologies of Text course is capping this semester reading Robin Sloan’s novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which Matt Kirschenbaum deemed “the first novel of the digital humanities” last year. Mr. Penumbra is a fine capstone because it thinks through so many of our course themes: the (a)materiality of reading, the book (and database) as physical objects, the relationship between computers and previous generations of information technology, &c. &c. &c. I will try not too spoil much of the book here, but I will of necessity give away some details from the end of the first chapter. So if you’ve not yet read it: go thou and do so.

Rereading the book for class, I was struck by one exchange between the titular Mr. Penumbra—bookstore owner and leader of a group of very close readers—and the narrator, Clay Jannon—a new bookstore employee curious about the odd books the store’s odd club members check out. In an attempt to understand what the club members are up to, Clay scans one of the store’s logbooks, which records the comings and goings of club members, the titles of the books they checked out, and when they borrowed each one. When he visualizes these exchanges over time within a 3d model of the bookstore itself, visual patterns of borrowing emerge, which seem, when compiled, to reveal an image of a man’s face. When Clay shows this visualization to Mr. Penumbra, they have an interesting exchange that ultimately hinges on methodology: Continue reading

7 Reasons 19th-Century Newspapers Were Actually the Original Buzzfeed

In March 2013 I had the opportunity to talk about the Viral Texts project for the “Breakfasts at Buzzfeed” speaker series. I gave my talk a gimmicky title worthy of the venue, which I was assured they appreciated rather than resented. It was a lively crowd of employees from around the company, and they asked some insightful questions during the Q&A. Here’s the video. I only wander off frame a few times!

Representing the “Known Unknowns” in Humanities Visualizations

Note: If this topic interests, you should read Lauren Klein‘s recent article in American Literature, “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” which does far more justice to the topic than I do in my scant paragraphs here.

Pretty much every time I present the Viral Texts Project, the following exchange plays out. During my talk I will have said something like, “Using these methods we have uncovered more than 40,000 reprinted texts from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection, many hundreds of which were widely reprinted—and most of which have not been discussed by scholars.” During the Q&A following the talk, a scholar will inevitably ask, “you realize you’re missing lots of newspapers (and/or lots of the texts that were reprinted), right?”

To which my first instinct is exasperation. Of course we’re missing lots of newspapers. The majority of C19 newspapers aren’t preserved anywhere, and the majority of archived newspapers aren’t digitized. But the ability to identify patterns across large sets of newspapers is, frankly, transformative. The newspapers that have been digitized under the Chronicling America banner are actually the product of many state-level digitization efforts, which means we’re able to study patterns across collections that were housed in many separate physical archives, providing a level of textual address not impossible, but very difficult in the physical archive. So my flip answer—which I never quite give—is “yes, we’re missing a lot. But 40,000 new texts is pretty great.”

But those questions do nag at me. In particular I’ve been thinking about how we might represent the “known unknowns” of our work,1 particularly in visualizations. I really started picking at this problem after discussing the Viral Texts work with a group of librarians. I was showing them this map,

which transposes a network graph of our data onto a map which merges census data from 1840 with the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. One of the librarians was from New Hampshire, and she told me she was initially dismayed that there were no influential newspapers from New Hampshire, until she realized that our data doesn’t include any newspapers from New Hampshire, because that state has not yet contributed to Chronicling America. She suggested our maps would be vastly improved if we somehow indicated such gaps visually, rather than simply talking about them.

In the weeks since then, I’ve been experimenting with how to visualize those absences without overwhelming a map with symbology. The simplest solution, as almost always, appears to be the best.

In this map I’ve visualized the 50 reprintings we have identified of one text, a religious reflection by Nashville editor George D. Prentice, often titled “Eloquent Extract,” between the years 1836-1860. The county boundaries are historical, drawn from the Newberry Atlas, but I’ve overlain modern state boundaries with shading to indicate whether we have significant, scant, or no open-access historical newspaper data from those states. This is still a blunt instrument. Entire states are shaded, even when our coverage is geographically concentrated. For New York, for instance, we have data from a few NYC newspapers and magazines, but nothing yet from the north or west of the state.

Nevertheless, I’m happy with these maps as helping me begin to think through how I can represent the absences of the digital archives from which our project draws. And indeed, I’ve begun thinking about how such maps might help us agitate—in admittedly small ways—for increased digitization and data-level access for humanities projects.

This map, for instance, visualizes the 130 reprints of that same “Eloquent Extract” which we were able to identify searching across Chronicling America and a range of commercial periodicals archives (and huge thanks to project RA Peter Roby for keyword searching many archives in search of such examples). For me this map is both exciting and dispiriting, pointing to what could be possible for large-scale text mining projects while simultaneously emphasizing just how much we are missing when forced to work only with openly-available data. If we had access to a larger digitized cultural record we could do so much more. A part of me hopes that if scholars, librarians, and others see such maps they will advocate for increased access to historical materials in open collections. As I said in my talk at the recent C19 conference:

While the dream of archival completeness will always and forever elude us—and please do not mistake the digital for “the complete,” which it never has been and never will be—this map is to my mind nonetheless sad. Whether you consider yourself a “digital humanist” or not, and whether you ever plan to leverage the computational potential of historical databases, I would argue that the contours and content of our online archive should be important to you. Scholars self-consciously working in “digital humanities” and also those working in literature, history, and related fields should make themselves heard in conversations about what will become our digital, scholarly commons. The worst possible thing today would be for us to believe this problem is solved or beyond our influence.

In the meantime, though, we’re starting conversations with commercial archive providers to see if they would be willing to let us use their raw text data. I hope maps like this can help us demonstrate the value of such access, but we shall see how those conversations unfold.

I will continue thinking about how to better represent absence as the geospatial aspects of our project develop in the coming months. Indeed, the same questions arise in our network visualizations. Working with historical data means that we have far more missing nodes than many network scientists working, for instance, with modern social media data. Finding a way to represent missingness—the “known unknowns” of our work—seems like an essential humanities contribution to geospatial and network methodologies.

1. Yes, I’m borrowing a term from Donald Rumsfeld here, which seems like a useful term for thinking about archival gaps, while perhaps not such a useful term for thinking about starting a war. We can blame this on me watching an interview with Errol Morris about The Unknown Known on The Daily Show last night.