If you are a member of the Facebook, Tumblr, Pintrest, or Imgur community, you have most likely seen posts like this show up in your feed as of late with increasing frequency:
As a geographer, I am fanatical about maps, and am very passionate about their use as an educational and informative tool, so you can imagine my elation to see posts like this rise in popularity. The above post, for example, claims that these maps, unlike all the others before it, will actually teach us something about the geographical makeup of the country. That’s a bold claim, let’s see if they follow through on that with some examples from their post.
Okay, kind of a rough start, I’ll admit. This map doesn’t really tell us a whole lot, nothing that couldn’t have been said in a single sentence. That sentence being: professional coaches are the highest paid public employees in the nation. There, this entire map summarized in eleven words. Let’s see if the other examples are any better.
Well, at least this map is a little more varied in its results. However, it suffers from a lack of communication. Are these the most popular actors born in these states, lived in these states, or the most popular actor as polled from the residents of each state? The other question one can ask when looking at this map is, well, why? Why does this map exist? It’s not really saying anything about each state, and provides no context as to why the question was even asked. I still haven’t been “taught a damn thing about [my] state” like the title says.
I am willing to give one more map from the post a try. Show me what you’ve got. Teach me something.
Oh come on. This map doesn’t even have a title (and no, I didn’t crop it out). Much like the first example, this map could be summarized in just a few sentences, which would honestly be preferable, because this “map” lacks many of the essential aspects that actually make up a map. There’s no title, very few labels, nothing showing how this data was acquired, and no clue as the fundamental question the map is asking. Clicking on the link that takes me to the site this map was created on just sends me to an ad for anti-hangover pills.
It was at this point in the article (if you can even call it that) that I realized what was going on. The entire article, including all the links and “maps”, was a toxic collage of click bait and native advertising. If you aren’t sure what either of those terms mean, you can learn more about them here, but be warned, knowing more about them may make you depressed.
This recent infatuation with maps like these has been given the term “map porn”, or just that maps, regardless of quality, can be very popular if they are very pretty. I love looking at maps, but maps without real substance do not excite me. Well written arguments for and against map porn can be found here and here.
The purpose of this piece is not to vilify the creators of these maps, but rather to show that the power of maps lies not in their click-worthiness, but rather in their content. I do understand that these maps are mainly meant to be entertaining, rather than informative. I will, however, call the three maps I posted earlier, as well as a great many others on that list, bad maps. For a point of comparison, here is a good map that functions in the same entertaining way as the maps above:
This is a classic example of a map that is not only entertaining, but also well-crafted and informative. It has appropriate labels, an author, a title, a creation date, and tells us where it got its data from. Most importantly though, it shows a geographical pattern better in visual form than it would have had it been solely written out. The content is also scholarly, although you wouldn’t know it from how good it looks. It does not sacrifice being informative for flashy, clickbait-style visuals. This, to me at least, is what map porn should be.
Be cognizant, internet, and don’t let the work of artisans and scholars be overshadowed by someone who essentially only used the paintbuckect tool in Photoshop. Read smart, share smart, map smart.
– Ben Kessler