In defense of map porn

These two things are facts:

1. The Internet -- and the bloggers (like me) who write on it -- loves maps.  (And by "love" I mean consume rabidly and share like crazy. Want to fall down a rabbit hole? Go to the "Map Porn" section of Reddit.)

2. Not all maps are created equal. Some are good. Some are, well, not.

GizModo's Alissa Walker takes on the burgeoning of maps across the web in a terrific piece titled, awesomely, "Let's All Cool it with these Stupid Maps". In it, she writes: "Maps are great. Maps help us get where we need to go and can sometimes teach us things about the world we live in. But unfortunately, the Internet has been infected by a scourge of stupid maps. And stupid maps are making us dumber."

She goes on to cite a bunch of maps that either a) don't convey information as well as text might or b) are fueled by data that is, at best, questionable and, at worst, unknowable.  And, by and large , she's right.

But, Walker's post running down stupid maps makes an important point about the power of visual storytelling in a digital age. Substitute the visuals of the bad maps from it and it's way less compelling and interesting -- at least to me.

In an age in which storytelling is changing -- and moving much more toward the visual presentation of data and information -- maps can be a powerful way to tell stories.  Maps -- the good ones at least -- take complex information and make it simple(r) and/or more easily digestible for the average person.  (Our theory on the appeal of maps: They allow every single person to look at where they fit -- or don't -- and compare it to everyone else. It's a way to see how we measure up against everybody else.)

Take this Gallup map that details where party identification stood across the country in 2013.

Image courtesy of Gallup
Image courtesy of Gallup

That map, which was featured in a terrific GovBeat post on 25 maps and charts that explain America, conveys the battle over party identification nationwide far better than a straight textual treatment.

Ditto this Gallup chart on the happiest -- and least happy states.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 2.23.28 PM

(You may have noticed by this point that in a post defending the use of visual aids, I am using them. It's all very meta.)

My point is a simple one: Maps, done right, take you somewhere that text can't. Same goes for charts, graphs, GIFs, Vines and all the other sorts of visual storytelling I am (accidentally) leaving out. That's why we will keep trying to tell stories that way in the future.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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