Friday, February 21, 2014

Geography Is Having A Moment - Why Maps Are The New Meme

Source: Maptic
An unexpected type of viral visualization has steadily been trudging to the tops of search results. Maps, it seems, are the new vogue. They've taken Tumblr by storm, and with over a billion Google hits, maps have nudged out kittens and lipsynchers as the most-flared pop culture content.

A search of Fast Company's most popular pages yields 15,526 entries for "map"-related articles. BuzzFeed, the barometer of web bravado, daily pushes geography to the top of its "Win" column.

Recent popular BuzzFeed features have included, "This World Map Shows Where Every Disney Movie Is Set," "This Tube Map Of The Best Coffee Shops In London Is Marvelous," and "6 Maps That Show How The United States Has Changed Since 1990."

Source: BuzzFeed; The Most Interesting Maps From 2013

For crowd-sourced proof, YouTube features 24,300,000 map-related videos. For more scholarly evidence, a survey of literature over the past 200 years has seen a 363% increase in references to maps in English language books.

Source: Google Ngram Viewer

Geography, for some reason, has piqued the modern zeitgeist. Not too long ago, many purists decried the predicted demise in skills as paper AAA maps were replaced by handheld GPS devices. The effect, however, was the opposite. More people than ever began interacting with cartography on a daily basis.

Source: Maptic
Maps have become popular because they appeal both to function and to art. They serve practical and visual purposes. They are serious and whimsical, literal and metaphorical, and yet they still subscribe to certain unbreakable tenets. They have borders. They seek to represent spaces. They acknowledge their biases. It's no surprise that Edward Tufte called maps the purest form of visualizations, where nothing is extraneous.

In essence, the two forces spurring geography's current widespread allure are the human search for place and meaning, combined with the clever art of contemporary cartography.

The Search For Place And Meaning

The Atlas Of True Names aims to plumb the origins of the world's most familiar names. The reimagined maps on this terrific site replace the familiar schoolhouse combinations of vowels and consonants with actual interpretations of their historically given names. The site is an ideal crossover for humanities courses, where social studies and English teachers can navigate the resources together. The maps use word etymologies to offer a more accurate rendering of what each label actually signifies. In North America, for example, New Mexico is "New Navel Of The Moon," Idaho is "Light Of The Mountains," and British Columbia is "Doveland Of The Tattooed." The global derivations are even more interesting. The site, a mixture of scholarship and whimsy, is self-described as "an invitation to the world as a strange, romantic continent."

Source: Atlas Of True Names

As students encounter more and more geographic variations across the web, they begin to recognize that maps are self-creations. This YouTube clip (which is no stranger to history teachers or West Wing watchers) has notched almost a million views in revealing the true nature of earth's landforms. Americans reared on the Mercator projection may be stunned by the more authentic Gall-Peters rendition.

As another avenue toward defining one's personal space within a metropolis, the Urban Cartography project from Alex Varanese seeks to add patinas and labels to the moods and buildings of a city's facade. The geography, in effect, becomes a living infographic.

Source: Alex Varanese

Clever Art And Graphics

Among the many enterprising individuals delineating their own geographic spaces, perhaps the most consistent is Jerry's Map. Heralded on multiple sites and blogs, artist Jerry Gretzinger from Cold Spring Harbor, New York, has designed a fascinating, beautiful map of an imaginary city. What began in 1963 and now spans 3100 panels has become a feat of internally defined rules and freewheeling topographical genius. The video is worth showing to any audience of students or adults.

Other artists have sought to stamp their signatures on top of preexisting, classical charts. Ed Fairburn, for example, transports the physical features of valleys and rivers into the facial lines of expressive portraits. Take a look at Visual News' write-up on his work in "On The Map: Synchronizing Face With Cartography."

For her part, Becky Cooper sought to transfer the design of place into the hands of everyday New Yorkers. She gave out blank maps of Manhattan to passersby and invited the strangers to render their own dreams and demons of the city. Her ensuing gallery became an unforeseen map of personal memories.

Source: Ed Fairburn; Visual News

Source: Becky Cooper; NYTimes
Social media has given rise to a host of other quick-hit platforms for map's proliferation. Mapstalgia presents examples of individually created and curated maps on Tumblr. Maptic is another excellent archive for contemporary and historical renderings. MapYourMemories offers perhaps the final verdict, in suggesting that, "maps are more about their makers than the places they describe."

For related resources about maps and education, check out:


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