“Twitter is faster and HuffPo more sophisticated,” acknowledges Greg Miller, “but the parasitic dynamics of networked media were fully functional in the 19th century”:
The tech may have been less sophisticated, but some barriers to virality were low in the 1800s. Before modern copyright laws there were no legal or even cultural barriers to borrowing content, Cordell says. Newspapers borrowed freely. Large papers often had an “exchange editor” whose job it was to read through other papers and clip out interesting pieces. “They were sort of like BuzzFeed employees,” Cordell said. Clips got sorted into drawers according to length; when the paper needed, say, a 3-inch piece to fill a gap, they’d pluck out a story of the appropriate length and publish it, often verbatim.