The Viral-Media Prof Whose Kids Got 1 Million Facebook Likes (and a Puppy)

The Cordell kids had to reach 1,000,000 Facebook likes to get a puppy. They did so in seven hours. Their dad, who studies viral media, never saw it coming. 

The Cordell Family

"Hi World," the sign read. "We want a puppy! Our dad said we could get one if we get 1 million Likes! So Like this!" And then, in smaller handwriting: "He doesn't think we can do it!"

And that was indeed the case. When Ryan Cordell promised his kids that if they could get one million Facebook likes, he'd get them a puppy, he thought they would never get there. "My expectation when they came to me was that they would post it and maybe they would get several thousand people who would come to the site over a couple of weeks. It would be family and friends. And then I did expect that friends of friends would find it and would come. But I just thought it would kind of peter out at that point," Cordell told me.

The plan, as he believed it, was that "in the spring, my wife and I would say 'Hey, that was a really great project. Let's go look for a dog. You did a great job,' " he explained. "We would have gotten a dog eventually anyway -- it was a delay tactic."

Just seven hours after his two daughters started a Facebook page entitled "Twogirlsandapuppy," the Cordell children blew past their goal.

But the catch in this story -- the thing that sets it apart from a similar project in which the kids got a cat -- is that Cordell isn't just your everyday observer of social media. He's a digital-media scholar at Northeastern University who studies the first half of the 19th century, with a particular interest in a kind of relevant question: What makes something go viral? For example, he and his colleagues, computer scientist David Smith and English professor Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, are currently mining the Library of Congress's collection of 19th-century newspapers, using an algorithm that automatically finds reprinted texts. They've created an index of 45,000 such reprinted texts, and now they're sorting through it to find out which pieces were the most viral, and identify qualities they share.

What can studying viral culture from 200 years ago tell us about viral culture online today?

So the question becomes: 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.

"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."

In both cases, according to Cordell, technological developments opened up legal uncertainties. In the pre-Civil War era, it was the steam-powered press, that allowed people to print enormous runs of their newspapers and magazines very quickly. And today, it's our sharing technologies online that have exploded our earlier, more settled, state of intellectual-property law. "I think often the two [the legal and technological systems] are tugging against one another. The technology surges forward, and introduces something that the legal system is unprepared to deal with, like we saw when file-sharing services first emerged. ... And then the legal system tries to deal with them, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully," Cordell observes.

Cordell kids with new puppy, Millie  [North Shore Animal League America]

But yet, even seeing these broad similarities, Cordell was still blown away by the response to his daughters' project. Why? Because the speed, not to mention the reach, of digital technologies is on a totally different scale. You don't even need to reproduce anything anymore, you merely share with a click. " In the 19th century," he said, "if I wanted to copy something, then I pay someone to sit down and actually put the type on the press. There was a fair amount of capital that I had to invest in that process. With electronic media, the immediacy of it is absolutely new."

There's still more to be learned from the project of two girls and their puppy. What exactly did that rapid seven-hour spread look like? What can we learn about how the social graphs of Cordell and his wife tied into those of a more than a million people around the world? We don't know yet, but it's there in the data, and Cordell intends to study it.