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What viral maps get wrong about America

The internet loves a good map (see some of our favorite collections), and maps of the different US states are particularly appealing from a content standpoint. Americans like reading about America, and with the exception of a handful of tiny northeastern states they have a kind of pleasing reader-friendly size and shape. But of course for maps to be interesting, they need to show difference. And that means that at times the quest to devise appealing maps obscures one of the fundamental facts of American life — for a great big country, we actually don't have that much regional variation.

Slate's Ben Blatt laid out how this works pretty clearly in a post about a map of his that went viral. What he realized is that while mapping the most common language in every state would be boring (English) and so would the second most common language (Spanish) but if you went for the most common language other than English or Spanish you'd get something fun.


(Ben Blatt/Slate)

This map is super-fun. But here's the genuinely important fact about language in America: every single state has the same most common language (not true of Canada or Switzerland or even Italy which has a German-speaking province) and immigration from Latin America is so widespread that Spanish is number two almost everywhere. Not to be holier-than-thou about it, Vox's own Dylan Matthews did a similar map charting not the most common ethnic group in each state, but the number two ethnicity. That map is much more fun to scan than a map showing how predominant white people are. But the White People Everywhere map arguably would tell you more about America.

I myself did a map earlier this month about the location quotient of bartenders in every state. Location quotient data is a great source of internet maps, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a tool that lets any old schlub generate the maps.

It's also cool because by definition what location quotient does is tell you how states are different from one another. Bartending is a rare job everywhere, but my map shows it's relatively common in Nevada and relatively rare in Arkansas.

I got the idea of using location quotients from Andy Kiersz at Business Insider who used them to make this awesome map of the "the most popular job in every state":


(Andy Kiersz/Business Insider)

Location quotients was an inspired idea here because, as he wrote, the actual most common job in each state map "would be very boring, since the most common job in 42 states is 'retail salesperson,' the most common job in the country." By contrast, there's something delightful about knowing that upholsterers are disproportionately common in Mississippi.

Boring maps are bad for Facebook shares, but if you want to understand the economic geography of the United States it's worth knowing that not only is the economy similar from place to place, it's increasingly similar. An important paper from Greg Kaplan and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl argues that the growing homogeneity of jobs in the US explains a big share of the decline in people's propensity to move from state to state. Sometimes these efforts to generate exaggerated differences can become incredibly sophisticated. David Leonhardt, for example, recently teamed up with Google's Hal Varian to explore the differential web-searching behavior of people in thriving and struggling parts of the United States.

"In the hardest places to live in the United States," he wrote, "people spend a lot of time thinking about diets and religion. In the easiest places to live, people spend a lot of thinking about cameras."

It's an amazing set of factoids. Yet here, again, we find lurking several grafs into the piece the disclaimer that "these aren't the most common searches in our list of hardest places" because "searches on some topics, like Oprah Winfrey or the Super Bowl, are popular almost everywhere."

To generate the fascinating discussion, you need to see which terms are disproportionately searched for in different counties. If you simply look at raw searches, you end up with the banal reality that Oprah and the NFL are both very popular. But this is the real story of America — it's a country full of English-speaking people with retail jobs, looking to chill out and read about Oprah and/or football who probably aren't going to move someplace else in search of a better life because they figure it's just more Anglophone Oprah fans working retail jobs wherever they might go.

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