The dots don’t represent anything in particular, nor is their number and placement indicative of any kind of data. But when you’re looking at them, all spread out on a map of the United States like that—it’s hard not to be a little blown away.
Seven hundred of them. Seven hundred dots. That’s more than 500 dots—well on the way to 1,000. That could represent 700 people, or crime scenes, or cities. Or something that happens in this country every 20 seconds. These dots could potentially be anything—they’re red dots, so they could definitely mean something bad.
Whatever they might be, there’s no unseeing these dots.
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