Bad Internet Maps: ‘A Social Media Plague’

Business Insider

Business Insider’s widely mocked, since-deleted-from-Twitter, but very very viral map of the most popular fast food restaurants by state is the launching-off point for The Ringer’s Claire McNear, who rants about the maps clogging the Internet that are stupid, uninformed, wrong and exist only to generate clicks. Among other things, she writes:

The map is bad, is my point, and obviously bad, and I sincerely wish that we didn’t have to talk about it. But we do. Because maps like this one aren’t merely birdbrained schlock: They are a social media plague, a scourge that can reduce just about any social network to gibbering in-fights in the space of a few virally shared minutes. We’re all susceptible; we’re all defenseless. A dumb internet map with incendiary falsehoods is coming for all of us, and there is just about nothing we can do to stop it.

The formula goes something like this: Map plus declaration of definitive statewide preference equals profit. Profit here means eyeballs or clicks or reshares or, most likely, some combination of all three, especially the last one, because it turns out that there are few sentiments more appealing than Oy, check out the terrible things the cretins in [Bad State] get up to.

Consider some other recent viral highlights. “This Map Shows What People Hate the Most in Each State” (using data from a brand-new dating app that no one outside a handful of stunt pieces seems to have used, and which was obviously trying to drum up interest). There are maps showing states’ Favorite Holiday Movies and Favorite Reality TV Show and Favorite Romantic Comedy (using an arbitrarily arrived at combination of AMC user ratings—what?—and Google Trends data). “This Map Shows the Most Popular Food in Every State” (using Pinterest recipes specifically selected for their range). Even The New York Times has gotten awfully close to its own Map of Dubious Adorations, publishing a 50-state anthology of Thanksgiving classics in 2014, in which the effort to differentiate by state yielded questionable dishes like “grape salad.”

The truth is we’re all very boring, and our preferences aren’t all that different.

Worth reading in full.

The problem is that even though their methodologies are shoddy and their conclusions are dubious, clickbaity maps like these are popular. The competition for attention is fierce, and maps are a quick and dirty way of generating traffic. My traffic skyrockets whenever I post a link to something even remotely like these maps (xkcd is usually a safe bet), and if I resorted to posting maps like these all the time, I’d be making much more money at this. But I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror.

Earliest Known Astrolabe Confirmed by 3D Imaging

University of Warwick

An artifact recovered in 2014 from the wreck of one of Vasco da Gama’s exploring ships, the Esmereldawhich sank in the Indian Ocean 1503, was believed to be an astrolabe, a navigation tool used to measure the inclination of celestial objects, but the 17.5-cm bronze disc appeared to lack any navigational markings. Scanning and 3D imaging the object at the University of Warwick revealed etches separated by five degrees along the edge, confirming that it was, in fact, an astrolabe. It’s dated to between 1495 and 1500, roughly, which makes it the oldest known astrolabe still in existence. BBC News. [Tony Campbell]

Ben Smith’s Maps of British Stream Names

Ben Smith

Streams in Great Britain have many different names—brook, burn, stream, water—and it turns out that the variations are regional. On Twitter, Ben Smith has been posting maps of Britain’s obscure and idiosyncratic stream names. Atlas Obscura has more, and also points to Phil Taylor doing something similar with Britain’s lakes. Language maps, meet toponyms. [Benjamin Hennig]

Canada Before Confederation

Written by Chet Van Duzer and Lauren Beck, Canada Before Confederation: Maps at the Exhibition (Vernon Press, July 2017) explores 18 maps from the 16th through the 18th century. The book accompanies an exhibition of (presumably the same) maps and a conference, Canada Before Confederation: Early Exploration and Mapping, which takes place next month, 13-14 November, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia (preliminary conference program). The back cover copy mentions that the map exhibition has travelled or is travelling to several other locations, but I haven’t been able to find any online; if anyone knows where else it’s been, let me know and I’ll update this post. [WMS]

Ingo Günther’s World Processor Project

Ingo Günther’s World Processor project, which projects historical, political, social and environmental data visualizations onto literally hundreds of illuminated globes, gets a writeup in, of all places, Bloomberg’s Pursuits section, which treats his globes as a luxury good: “as much fine-art object as C-suite accoutrement.” This seems rather beside Günther’s point, in spectacularly late-capitalist fashion. [The Map as Art]

I first told you about Günther’s work in 2005. Here’s his home page, and an exhibit at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery.

Crowdsourced Satellite Image Analysis

There are many circumstances where the amount of data vastly exceeds the ability to process and analyze it—and computers can only do so much. Enter crowdsourcing. Steve Coast points to Digital Globe’s Tomnod project, which basically crowdsources satellite image analysis. In the case of the current project to  map the presence of Weddell seals on the Antarctic Peninsula and the ice floes of the Weddell Sea, users are given an image tile and asked to indicate whether there are seals in the image. It’s harder than it looks, but it’s the kind of routine task that most people can do—many hands, light work and all that—and it helps researchers focus their attention where it needs focusing. (A similar campaign for the Ross Sea took place in 2016.)

Another ongoing campaign asks users to identify flooded and damaged infrastructure and trash heaps in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.

Christopher Saxton Remembered in Leeds

Christopher Saxton, Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, 1579. British Library.

The Yorkshire Society has erected a plaque in Tingley, Leeds, West Yorkshire, to commemorate the 16th-century cartographer Christopher Saxton, the Yorkshire Evening Post reports. Saxton produced the first county maps of England and Wales; they were collected in his 1579 Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales. A major name in the history of British cartography (see this page about Saxton from the University of Glasgow Library), Saxton was born in West Yorkshire—thus the local interest. [WMS]

Mapping Glacial Retreat

Elevation change of Mount Rainier glaciers, 1970-2016. David Shean/University of Washington.

Using elevation data from stereo satellite observations, David Shean is mapping the retreat of some 1,200 mountain glaciers in the continental United States. “Until recently, glaciers in the United States have been measured in two ways: placing stakes in the snow, as federal scientists have done each year since 1957 at South Cascade Glacier in Washington state; or tracking glacier area using photographs from airplanes and satellites.” Shean’s method, which measures each glacier twice a year and uses automated software to track changes, seems to cover a lot more territory. [GIS and Science]

The Illustrative Purposes of Old Maps

Excellent Twitter thread from Jeannette Ng talking about old maps in the context of fantasy map design. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart: fantasy maps are essentially modern maps whose design language post-dates 16th- or 17th-century mapmakers like Olaus Magnus and Joan Blaeu; Ng talks about what are essentially the non-geographic purposes of old maps, and as I understand things she is entirely correct. Start here and scroll down.

More New Map Books for October 2017

It’s an even busier month than I thought for map book publishing. In addition to the eight books I told you about earlier this month, plus the two new editions of the Times Mini and Reference atlases, here are three more map-related books that were published this month:

  1. Atlas of Nebraska by J. Clark Archer et al. (Bison Books). “Far more than simply the geography of Nebraska, this atlas explores a myriad of subjects from Native Americans to settlement patterns, agricultural ventures to employment, and voting records to crime rates.” [Amazon]
  2. Bermuda Maps by Jonathan Land Evans (National Museum of Bermuda Press), a look at Bermuda’s cartographic history back to the 1600s. Available directly from the National Museum of Bermuda; I’m not sure where to get it off-island.
  3. Explorer’s Atlas: For the Incurably Curious by Piotr Wilkowiecki and Michał Gaszyński (HarperCollins UK). Illustrated large-format book full of factoids. There’s an accompanying wall map. Published in the U.K.; available elsewhere through resellers. [Amazon UK]

Previously: New Map Books for October 2017New Editions of Two Smaller Times Atlases (One Very Small Indeed).

Update (30 Oct.): Jonathan Land Evans writes with information on overseas orders for his book, Bermuda Maps: “The most direct way by which people overseas may order copies is by e-mailing, as the museum now uses The Bookmart bookstore in Bermuda for all order-fulfillment involving shipping to addresses outside Bermuda. The hardback book is a large one, handsomely illustrated in colour, and costs $65 plus postage.”

Map Exhibitions in Boston

“Bird’s-eye View of the Eastern Railroad Line to the White Mountains and Mt. Desert.” Boston: Rand Avery Supply Co., 1890. Harvard University Library.

Opening today at Harvard University in front of the Map Collection in Pusey Library and running until 28 February, Look but Don’t Touch: Tactile Illusions on Maps looks at the use of simulated textures in maps.

Beginning particularly in the eighteenth century, philosophers began to debate what role each of our senses has in this experience. For eighteenth-century philosophers, the crucial distinction was between sight and touch. Would we, they asked, be able to experience depth and understand size without our sense of touch? George Berkeley and Etienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, among others, hypothesized that touch, in fact, was primarily responsible for our experience and understanding of space. All visual knowledge about depth and size, they suggested, derived from tactile experiences. In other words, we needed touch to teach us to see. But what happens to the map if we take seriously this challenge to a visual understanding of space?

All maps in this exhibition toy with the relationship between touch and sight. For some, their interest in touch and sight is ornamental. Either by delighting in the visual illusion of tactility or by referring to a visual cliché, these maps enliven their design—and attract buyers—by appealing to our hands. For others, their interest in touch and sight is about knowledge itself. Either by depicting cartographers’ tools and materials or by tempting us to touch what is not there, these maps play with our sense of what a map is and where it comes from. Paradoxically, they teach us visually about particular places while also questioning the basis for their own visual instruction.

The online version can be found here.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe has a review of the Leventhal’s exhibition on subsurface mapping, Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below (previously).

A Look at GOES-16’s Imagery

This NOAA article looks at three kinds of imagery provided by the GOES-16 geostationary weather satellite: GeoColor, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (!), and full disk infrared imagery from the Advanced Baseline Imager. GOES-16 launched last November and is currently in the checkout phase before it replaces GOES-13 at 75° west latitude.

Michelin Acquires Streetwise

On 1 September Michelin announced that it had acquired the assets previously held by Streetwise Maps, in an all-cash deal. Streetwise announced that it was closing last year. Michelin will continue to publish maps under the Streetwise name; their publishing wing already produces a ton of travel guides, restaurant guides and maps (my Michelin map of Paris was essential during my trip there). [MAPS-L]


You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City

You Are Here NYC: Mapping the Soul of the CityAn exhibition taking place now at the New York City Library, Picturing the City: Illustrated Maps of NYC, features 16 pictorial maps from the Library’s collection of illustrations. Running until 9 April 2018, it’s curated by Katharine Harmon, whose book, You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City, came out last November from Princeton Architectural Press. Here’s an interview with Harmon about the exhibition in Print magazine.

This seems as good an excuse as any to take a closer look at You Are Here: NYC. Past time, actually, since I’ve had a review copy in my hands for a year now.

You Are Here: NYC is the third of Katharine Harmon’s map books. The first, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, came out in 2003, the second, The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, in 2010. Harmon’s distinctive style in editing and curating these books, carries over to the present volume.

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