GEOG 486
Cartography and Visualization

Viral Cartography


Viral Cartography

Though the term “dynamic maps” implies movement within maps (i.e., animation and interaction), we discuss here a similar category of maps, as suggested by Monmonier (2018) in his categorization of “fast maps” – viral maps. Though there is no widely-accepted definition of a viral map, the term applies broadly to a map that is shared widely, and through non-traditional processes (i.e., through users sharing content with each other, rather than from a singular, popular provider) (Robinson 2018).

Maps that spread in this way tend to inspire emotion and be persuasive in nature (Monmonier 2018; Muehlenhaus 2014; Robinson 2018). Despite the heightened study of such emotive and persuasive maps due to their dispersion on social media, persuasive maps themselves are not new. Figure 8.6.1 shows a map from the Civil War, which illustrates General Winfield Scott’s plan to conquer the south. The snake illustrates a dark, emotional message.

US map from the Civil War: Scott's Great Snake, see text above
Figure 8.6.1 Scott’s Great Snake, a persuasive map from the Civil War.

Social networking sites such as Twitter have facilitated the spread of maps to a global audience with incredible speed. Such sites also invite the designing and sharing of persuasive maps by nearly anyone with access to the Internet—it is difficult to overstate the contrast between this new environment of online map distribution and cartography’s history of maps being made primarily by professional cartographers or those in positions of power. In many ways, we find ourselves in an exciting, dynamic, more democratic era of map-making. It is important to note, however, the challenges that have arisen in this new era. The increasing ubiquity of maps and map-making has blurred the lines between mapmakers who make mistakes and those who deliberately mislead; between personal perspectives and dangerous propaganda.

Related to the increased availability of map-making tools and online map distribution channels, web technologies have facilitated increased access to wide amount of data within the public domain. Where debate tends to ensue, however, is when such data are made more visible and accessible to everyone, such as with the creation of an engaging map. Maps printed along with an article in a local newspaper titled “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood” provide a useful case study of such a debate. The article and accompanying maps identified gun-owners in the local area by their names and addresses. The map itself ‘went viral’ both due to people's intrigue in the data mapped, and the outrage that the discussions surrounding it incurred.

Student Reflection

Read the article mentioned above, available here: “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood.” Would you consider it ethical to map any data, as long as it is available in the public domain? If not, where do you stand on this issue? How might we decide where to draw the line? 

As a Penn State Student, you have free access to the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others through the Student News Readership Program. This link provides instructions on how to get access.

Maps are omnipresent in political media—consider the interactive maps used extensively on news channels while reporting election results. About a month before the 2016 US Presidential election, Nate Silver (Silver 2016) posted a map with the heading “Here’s what the election map would look like if only women voted:

In addition to reaching viral status itself, the map inspired many others to create similar maps, such as what the election map would look like if only millennials/white women/people of color voted. Robinson (2018) uses Silver’s map as an instrumental example of a viral map in his recent paper, Viral Elements of Cartography. He notes that it is characteristic of viral maps to inspire the creation of others.

Though viral and persuasive maps are often discussed in tandem (e.g., Muehlenhaus 2014), viral maps need not always be persuasive or political. The map in Figure 8.6.2 below was designed by Joshua Stevens, a cartographer at NASA who despite being well-known in the data visualization community, has only a fraction of the online following of journalist Nate Silver (Silver 2018). It was the creativity and entertainment value generated by Stevens’s map which was responsible for generating its viral status.

Sunsquatch map (where to see the eclipse and Bigfoot at the same time) by Joshua Stevens
Figure 8.6.2 Joshua Stevens's viral eclipse map, Sunsquatch.
Credit: Sightings map by Joshua Stevens

Like Silver’s map of women voters, Stevens’s Sunsquatch map inspired the design of many others, some of which went viral themselves, such as Jerry Shannon’s Smothered and Covered map (Figure 8.6.3) which illustrated where one could watch the eclipse while eating at Waffle House.

The Eclipse: Smothered and Covered map by Professor Jerry Shannon showing where to watch eclipse while eating at Waffle House
Figure 8.6.3 Professor Jerry Shannon's viral eclipse map, The Eclipse: Smothered and Covered.
Credit: Jerry Shannon, map presented at the 2018 NACIS conference in Norfolk, VA. Watch his ( entertaining) discussion of this map here: Viral Cartography: Or, how to make an affective map.

These maps by Silver, Stevens, and Shannon highlight the usefulness of Monmonier’s classification of new-era maps facilitated by web technologies as fast rather than dynamic or interactive maps (Monmonier 2018). The speed at which these maps were shared to thousands of users certainly qualifies them as fast, though they are simple, static maps. And though these static maps do not include animation or permit user interaction, they did instigate discussion and inspire further map-making, making them interactive in their own right. Certainly, interactive and/or animated maps can also ‘go viral.’ The above examples illustrate, however, the power in pairing a simple illustrative graphic with a creative idea.

Recommended Reading

  • Muehlenhaus, Ian. 2014. “Going Viral: The Look of Online Persuasive Maps.” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 49 (1): 18–34. doi:10.3138/carto.49.1.1830.
  • Robinson, Anthony C. 2018. “Elements of Viral Cartography.” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 00 (00). Taylor & Francis: 1–18. doi:10.1080/15230406.2018.1484304.