Snap Map is pictured on a phone.
Snap Inc.

The app’s newest feature combines two major trends in modern cartography: mapping life in real time, and mapping subjective, emotional information.

There’s a lot going on in the world that you won’t find in the day’s headlines. The Mall of Qatar is hosting a pirate-themed stage show in its central atrium. In Curtiba, Brazil, a group of medical students in white coats are joined in a choreographed dance by someone in a cow suit. In Cornwall, Canada, a small child is spinning nunchucks with incredible ease.

These were just a few of the scenes found on Snapchat’s newest feature, Snap Map, on a recent day in early August. Individually, the scenes aren’t so different from the feel-good, time-wasting content that saturates internet media. But taken together, they add up to an unusual set of spatial data—a collection of points on a map representing snippets of real life. In fact, Snap Map is the latest example of two of the most significant trends in modern cartography: mapping real-time events, and mapping subjective, emotional information.  

Launched in June, Snap Map combines the unfiltered personal charm of its parent app, Snapchat, with the tempting prospect of viewing daily life just about anywhere someone’s willing to share it. Snapchat, more than other social networks, is defined by the amateurish, ephemeral things its users post. The images broadcast on Snap Map are often so mundane that they begin to feel interpersonal—until you remember that it’s mostly full of strangers in faraway places.

At first glance, Snap Map might not seem so different from some other social media and digital mapping features out there. Photo maps from Instagram or Flickr have been around for years, but mostly display carefully composed images, often of popular attractions. On Google Maps, “areas of interest” identify what Google considers the most vibrant parts of town, while Street View offers a snapshot of what neighborhoods look like at ground level in one moment in time.

Tap on a location, and your screen fills with images from that day (Snap Inc.)

Snap Map has some elements of all of these. The most discussed feature of the cartoonish map is the ability to view your friends’ location, if they choose to share it, causing a great deal of grief among anxious parents and footloose young people alike. But this aspect of Snap Map seems minor compared to the glut of content clinging to nearly every populated region. To find the map, zoom out from the camera screen in Snapchat. Then zoom into specific areas and you’ll see a heat map showing where large numbers of users are posting public photos and videos, some of which are curated into featured stories organized around events or tourist attractions, like the Running of the Bulls, Yankees vs. Red Sox, or the Golden Gate Bridge. Tap on a brightly colored part of the map, and your screen fills with images of that place, from that very day.

“Maps like this help us seamlessly flit between the physical and virtual worlds,” says Antoine Picon, professor of the history of architecture and technology at Harvard. Since we are at once physical bodies in space, and electronic identities on the internet, we are perpetually “both here and somewhere else,” he says. “The map is actually one of the very few ways that enable us to live this dual existence and reconcile these two aspects. The map locates you, and says ‘you are here,’ and at the same time it allows you to see what’s going on around you and to be connected.”

The ability to know what’s going on around you in real time on a map is, of course, a function of the internet and geo-location. Without these technologies, we wouldn’t have so many of the maps we now rely on daily, whether they depict live traffic information, an approaching ride share vehicle, the number of bikes at a bike-share station, or your own location. For Picon, these new features of maps signify a transformation of cartography from conveying static information to in-progress events. “The map used to map things that are,” he says, “and Snap Map is very typical of this shift towards what happens.”

What differentiates Snap Map from the real-time maps employed by Lyft or a bike-share app, however, is the nature of the data being displayed. In fact, the content of Snap Map seems to butt up against the productive limits of the concept of spatial “data.” Is that what you would call footage of a gathering of hang-gliders in Saudi Arabia, or the frantic, painful scenes following the terrorist attack in Charlottesville? What about the teens in suburban Missouri, waiting for the chicken to cross the road?

Because maps depicting objective data like roads or rivers are so plentiful and easy to access, cartographers are increasingly looking to map squishier information like perceptions and experiences. Following in the footsteps of Guy Debord and the Situationists, who sought to map the “psychogeography” of Paris in the 1960s, contemporary artists are creating maps of smells, emotions, and protest sounds.

“There’s a lot of ongoing interest in trying to map subjective experience,” says cartographer and Yale professor Bill Rankin. But the field is still nascent. “I can’t point to a project that I think has worked great. It hasn’t been institutionalized. There’s not a platform for it.”

While Snap Map has yet to introduce a smell feature, it represents a major step forward in subjective cartography. “What does it mean now that a major corporation with millions of users is trying to do this?” Rankin says.

In a way, Snap Map’s size and scale recall an era when map making required teams of surveyors and illustrators working under a major institutional umbrella like National Geographic. Snap Map is also a massive collective effort marshalled by an iconic brand; but instead of creating as accurate a map as possible, Snap Map’s army of amateur cartographers produce their map almost without thinking.

This truly social map is, fittingly, both sloppier and more accurate than any other map on your smartphone. As we continue to spatialize our lived experiences on Snap Map and future emotive mapping technologies, it follows that our maps will begin to look more like us, the most complex data imaginable.

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