What Makes Maps Go Viral?

Mark Altaweel


In an age of rapid social media and news cycles measured in hours, viral maps have become an emerging phenomenon shared on platforms such as Twitter and other social networking accounts. While viral maps are ways in which information can be shared among a community, they also belie the misinformation they sometimes convey.

The study of viral geography could be a new, emerging field where researchers are now beginning to look at the elements that make a map viral. Perhaps not surprisingly, maps shared on platforms such as WordPress, Twitter, 4Chan, and Tumblr generally have a greater chance of influence or going viral due to the high usage of these platforms. Key figures, such as commentators, using a map they may like to drive their points could also lead to that map becoming viral or serving as a basis for other similar maps. Robinson (2018) points out how election maps displaying different sets of data, such as “what if tax payers only voted” regarding the 2016 presidential election, speak to their communities and even if the information is impossible to verify can be quickly shared as they speak to ideals the community holds. Usually, this type of viral behaviour is not so much seeking a correct answer but simply supporting an existing position. Sometimes simply asking hypothetical questions and demonstrating maps to show this is a main cause for a given map to go viral.[1]

The tweet by Joshua Stevens of his viral map (left) that launched a large cartographic response (right).  Modified from: Robinson, 2018.
The tweet by Joshua Stevens of his viral map (left) that launched a large cartographic response (right). Modified from: Robinson, 2018.

Although research on what makes maps go viral is at its infancy, the larger field of what makes internet content go viral may help shed light into what might make maps viral. One of the biggest contributing factors to viral content is emotion. Maps have an important role to play in affecting our emotions, as they can support our opinions or go against them. In either case, those reactions can cause us to do something with the content, including sharing or criticizing it in some public way. Either way, the fact one discusses a base topic because of an emotional response is more likely to promote others to share or act similarly. In other words, emotional response is likely to create more emotional responses that lead to more sharing of given content including maps.[2]

The intent of maps has long been to display an idea, often held by a cartographer. Even maps that intend to be unbiased have often been biased or communicate a belief. For instance, the fact that most maps still center along the prime meridian often displays a centrality towards Western states. While centring along the prime meridian is convention, there is no real physical rule that force this. Rather than propaganda that is promulgated by a central authority, maps today reflect individual ideas that are more easily spread using social media.[3]

Maps could be accurate and perhaps on the surface unbiased in conveying information, but the subject itself could elicit emotional responses. Take, for example, maps that display how different races voted in the last presidential election. The results could be accurate but different groups with very different agendas could package that information for their purposes. In such cases, maps alone rarely go viral but maps with contextual information that indicates what they support are more likely to lead to the type of response someone sharing them intends.[4]

Viral maps are a phenomenon only recently brought into discussion among geographers. There has been little research and they are poorly understood. Robinson (2018) points to a new framework where they can now be studied, using new machine learning technologies that assess key elements and patterns. If history is any guide, propaganda has long been associated with forms of cartography. The key element is likely to be emotion that a given map elicits. Emotional responses have led to a variety of web content being shared and spreading rapidly. Maps are likely similar in that they are graphics that can centre immediate focus and with little or minimal effort create the emotional response that might be desired by the one sharing such data.


[1]    For more on the qualities that make assess a viral map, see: Robinson, A. C. (2018). Elements of viral cartography. Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/15230406.2018.1484304.

[2]    For more on the science and psychology of viral information sharing, see: Stieglitz, S., & Dang-Xuan, L. (2013). Emotions and Information Diffusion in Social Media—Sentiment of Microblogs and Sharing Behavior. Journal of Management Information Systems,29(4), 217–248. https://doi.org/10.2753/MIS0742-1222290408.

[3]    For more on the role of maps for propaganda, see:  Barber, P., & Harper, T. (2010). Magnificent maps: power, propaganda and art. London: British Library.

[4]    For an example of a map that could be shared but showing information that can lead to varied reactions, see: https://www.informationliberation.com/?id=56040.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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