Blog Post

Maps as Viral Visual Arguments

Maps as Viral Visual Arguments

An introductory note: A forthcoming post from one of my Geography and Location working group colleagues will position geographic literacy as an important 21st century literacy and provide resources for incorporating mapping and associated technologies into the classroom. Even in advance of that post’s publication, I owe much to the context it will provide about geography and pedagogy. While my post deals cursorily with these ideas and certainly assumes the significance of maps as modern literacy practice, it zooms in on a particular type of infographic map being shared via social media and attempts to highlight how investigating the set of logics at work in these visual texts can be a fruitful classroom activity.

Many people often think of maps as scientific ways of putting things in their place, of showing relationships in space. But as shown by geographically-based infographics currently circulating in online social spaces, maps are subjective and are subject to creative license. That’s why they make such wonderful texts to analyze with students. Maps allow us to take something familiar and seemingly natural or “correct” and reveal its constructedness. They provide an opportunity to dissect the rhetorical choices that comprise the text and the worldview those choices forward. In short, maps are one avenue through which we can help students identify and analyze an argument. Most of my teaching experience has been in courses in rhetoric and writing, and these are skills that such courses prioritize.

My interest in using maps in the classroom has been reignited recently by an onslaught of geographically-based visual arguments on internet culture sites like Buzzfeed (“What State Do You Actually Belong In”), and on news sites like TIME Magazine (“America’s Mood Map: An Interactive Guide to the United States of Attitude”), The New York Times (“How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk”) and AmericaBlog (“What is your state worst at? (neat map)”). Though some of these examples take the form of quizzes that show results in map form and others are maps that show defining characteristics of states and regions, they all frame personal and civic identity in geographical terms. Instead of telling us where things or people are, they tell us—with varying degrees of subtlety and based to varying degrees on actual data—where we do and do not belong. They are maps that help us find our way to some “truth” about ourselves and then use those characteristics to put us in our place.

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For example, a short quiz from Buzzfeed reveals that though I’m from Ohio and live in Texas, I actually belong in Oregon, because I’m “always on the cutting edge of the newest thing.” I’m sure this isn’t the case (particularly because out of the three “cutting edge” things they list at the end of the explanatory blurb, I had heard of exactly none). But I won’t pretend to be surprised of the inaccuracy, since the results are based on questions like “What’s your party anthem?.”

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However I’m less interested in what the quiz and accompanying map of results say about me and more interested in what they say about how people view place more generally. Grand narratives about place-based identity are the norm. Complex identities often get distilled to a set of essential characteristics like physical landmarks (e.g., Austin's capital building and 6th Street), or strongly associated with key industries or cultural values (e.g., Austin as synonymous with quirky liberalism), or known for moments of developmental crisis (Austin's East Side and gentrification). These narratives are easy to transmit and easy to take for granted. But no one representation can account for all the ways people understand and interact with the places they live. Because these narratives are so influential in determining the physical sites and local characteristics deemed valuable by a large audience, and because what’s considered valuable about a place impacts residents’ social, economic, cultural, and political realities, representations of place like those made by the maps I reference in this post require close critical analysis. 

My purpose here is not to critique these maps as advancing a dangerous political or cultural agenda or argue that they intentionally oversimplify complex issues of geography and identity. But I do want to contend that because they are colorful and catchy and appear uncomplicated, they are successful at achieving wide circulation. And in the digital environments in which they most frequently appear, like Facebook, they are more likely to be read as innocuous when they may in fact reinforce stereotypes that deserve more careful consideration and criticism. The college classroom environment can foster a rich discussion around these issues. Often students who gather there have been recently transplanted and are eager to talk about where they’re from and what identities are associated with those places.

I appreciate that the visual simplicity of these maps has made them shareable and sparked conversation about geographical identity in social media. As bits of digital culture, they have broad appeal, and I often find it useful to use texts that students encounter in their everyday lives in order to make rhetorical principles and approaches to composition more accessible and more relatable. Texts like these maps also present a wonderful opportunity to discuss audience, how and why particular ideas gain traction in online environments, and the implications of sharing and circulating visual arguments. Just as they’ve sparked a seemingly endless stream of Facebook posts, I hope these maps can serve as fodder for rich class discussion about the subjective nature of geographic representation and call attention to maps as living pieces of visual rhetoric with the power to make widely read claims about identity.


1 comment

Thanks for your post, Megan!  Getting us to think about maps as visual rhetoric and about the arguments made in digital maps seem like essential skills in our digital age!

Here's another collection of maps that could be used to further enrich and deepen such discussion: 40 more maps that explain the world

It seems like there are so many of these "best" or "coolest" map lists floating around online as well, that can also be rich resources for teaching this type of literacy. As lists, or as individual maps, they may provide a supplemental examples and discussion points to conversations about viral maps/map quizzes you describe in your post.  Such maps could be analyzed in parallel with the examples you give, we can also think about analyzing *compilations* of maps and the choices involved there, how the compilations are framed (if at all) etc.

And, as you note a lot of our students (and us!) are looking at these maps anyway, taking these quizzes "for fun," so students might really get into conversations that bring the viral social media world into the classroom.

Thanks again for an interesting post!