DH Assignment 1: Less digital, more humanities, please: The Viral Text’s Project

The Viral Text’s Project is a digital humanities project that aims to help scholars understand the themes and decisions that helped newspaper content ‘go viral’ before going viral was the hip thing to do. The project created an algorithm that ‘reads’ newspapers and traces its reprinting in other areas. By following the reprints they visualize how certain newspaper trends went ‘viral’. 

Most newspapers at the time did not have intellectual property rights, so editors and publishers of papers in smaller cities would literally cut and paste the newspaper sections from larger newspapers into their local papers. This created a sort of modge-podge of ‘viral’ material that publishers thought their readers might be interested in.

Below is a presentation I gave for a Digital Humanities course which asked students to constructively critique and assess a digital humanities website. The Viral Texts Project was the focus of my presentation.

I greatly enjoyed and appreciated the websites’ curation of the Library of Congress’ Newspaper and Magazine archives, but if I had to choose a word to describe the site it would be ‘scattered’. There are strong questions being posed on the homepage, but they’re never explicitly answered. As a critical theory nerd, this seemed neglectful of the humanities side of digital humanities. Though I always have a question to ask, this DH project left me unsatisfied and more confused about how to best interpret the data than the creators likely intended.

There is so much potential for this sort of data collection. It’s interesting how ‘viral’ texts have evolved from cutting out newspaper clippings to sharing and retweeting on social media. Were these texts always ‘viral’? If so, what does that imply for our use of the term now? In this project’s use, it seems to imply that a text is widespread, or reprinted across geographical lines which parallels the modern understanding of ‘viral’.

Although they state their goal clearly, they do not provide an organization that supports their stated goal. It’s like a bunch of very strong, independent columns of data without a roof to make all the columns stand as one building. One heck of a simile, I know, but The Viral Text’s Project just leaves me wanting a little more humanities to match their plethora of digital material.

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