What can studying viral culture from 200 years ago tell us about viral culture online today? As it turns out, the impressions Cordell has formed studying a period so long ago are exactly those that would lead you to believe that Twogirlsandapuppy would have a chance at catching on, but would at the same time lead you to dramatically underestimate the velocity and degree to which it would do so. Nineteenth century viral culture is quite like today's Internet culture. And then again, it's something totally different.We're in an interesting transition currently, where the free wheeling nature of the internet is being on the one side, colonised by media organisations who want to appropriate popular elements of the internet to popularise their products. On the other, Governments (and lobbyists) who want to lock down content flows to ensure that "objectionable" content isn't available.
"I mean, first of all, we know obviously that cuteness does well on the Internet," Cordell said. In the 19th century? Well, it was a bit different then, as we're talking about texts more so than images, but the kinds of content that did well, at the broadest level of characterization, share qualities with what tends to go viral today. Many of these are obvious: Brevity, comedy, charm, and resonance with cultural values (in the 19th century, those were often religious ones) all increased the likelihood of virality. "Even 200 years ago, it still wasn't complex philosophical treatises that were going viral. It was a short little pithy story that taught you a lesson," Cordell observed.
One of the more surprising ways that the Internet age resembles the pre-Civil War period Cordell studies is not culturally nor technologically, but legally. "The period that I work on is before a lot of modern copyright law went into effect," Cordell told me. "It's kind of a wild west back then, when something that's printed in a newspaper or magazine -- obviously there's no video -- and anyone down the line could simply reappropriate it; they could reprint it; they could attribute it; they could not attribute it. And there was really relatively little anyone could do about it." Publishers and authors fretted about how to control their works, and make sure they could make money from their use.
Cordell says that it's much the same today. "In many ways, it feels like the Internet has reopened up things that got codified and changed toward the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century. That wild west really gets tamped down; journalism becomes very professionalized; systems are set in place to prevent the kinds of rampant sharing that was happening before. In some ways, when the Internet came along, that open, wild sharing atmosphere had returned."
On the advertising side, the most obvious example is Virgin Media's appropriation of Success Kid for a recent campaign. The owner of the photo got on board with this use and now the image of the fist pumping infant is plastered across billboards all over London. On the Governmental side so far there has been almost no success in the developed world in limiting the internet's content flow, despite widespread attempts to do so. In large part this has been due to the unwillingness of the general public to tolerate the idea that "their internet" should be limited.
This article however hints at the pathway which has previously been adopted when an unrestricted content flow is unwelcome. Regulation, restriction and commercialisation.
At least that's the plan