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Professor mines for historical memes

What makes a meme? This question has sparked human curiosity for centuries, but only recently have computer scientists developed the tools to begin answering it. By scanning enormous data sets of digitized information, researchers can now identify repetition in the global conversation, uncovering the features of media ranging from viral videos to outrageously popular blog posts.

But the tools at researchers’ disposal aren’t limited to investigations of our present media consumption. In the 19th century, before modern copyright laws were in place, article reprinting was widespread and socially acceptable. “It was kind of the wild west of publishing,” said Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English who is a member of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. He is collaborating with computer and information sciences assistant professor David Smith to study the texts of that era. “One reason I’m interested in that period is that in many ways it’s analogous to the present day.”

With local, state, and federal initiatives to digitize historical texts—including classic novels and small town newspapers alike—the work of detecting the most popular cultural elements of an era can be extended well into the past.

Cordell was recently named one of 20 members of the inaugural class of Andrew W. Mellow Fellowship Scholars in Critical Bibliography, a program housed at the University of Virginia’s renowned Rare Book School. The program aims to provide young scholars with hands-on instruction in interpreting the material forms of textual artifacts, from medieval manuscripts and early American hand-press books to born-digital materials.

“Part of why I’m excited about this fellowship is a lot of my work tends to take place in these digital archives, these large scale repositories we have of historical texts,” Cordell said, noting that his research bridges a gap between traditional and new media investigations.

Once the newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and novels are translated into zeros and ones, Cordell and Smith develop algorithms to comb through the entire database. “It breaks all of that text down into little chunks—five-word chunks, 10-word chunks—and looks for repeated strings of texts,” said Cordell. If the algorithm finds these chunks repeated several times, the researchers can be fairly confident the text was reprinted, and thus of cultural significance at the time.

So far, one of the most surprising findings has been evidence of wide reprinting of “quasi-truthful anecdotes,” as Cordell put it. These were artifacts ranging from a potentially fictional letter from a wife to her dying husband or an alcoholic’s story of religious salvation and reform. “What we’re finding in this study is that seems to have been an incredibly popular genre in the 19th century,” said Cordell.

Whether it’s an anecdote, a poem, or a presidential speech, finding the repetitions in printed media can lend insight into the people and values of the day. “My next inclination as a scholar of the period,” said Cordell, “is to ask why. What’s going on? What do these texts tell us about the people who wrote them and read them and wanted to pass them on? That part of the research is really just beginning.”

The next step, he said, is to figure out what they tell us about culture.

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