Fun With Maps!

Cartography doesn’t usually get much attention, but in the past week there have been a couple of maps that have been making the rounds on social media and entertainment websites.  These maps were an attempt by Music Machinery to break down the listening habits of people by state and document exactly where certain artists are most popular.

Unfortunately, plenty of people seemed to have forgotten the basics of reading a map, like “take a look at the explanation below the map”.  That’s usually a good place to start, especially if you’re confused.  Since plenty of people forgot about that general rule, the reactions to the maps could charitably be described as chaos and total bedlam.  Also there was general mocking of Arizona and South Dakota, but at least this time we could tie that mocking directly to the maps themselves.

A Useful Map.

A Useful Map.

The first map that caused the ruckus was one entitled “Distinctive Artists By State”.  The purpose of the map was to represent whether certain artists enjoyed a particularly strong interest in certain states as opposed to the rest of the country.  The result was that a lot of people from different states responded with great vengeance and furious anger, shouting “I have no idea who the hell this band is!” (which was actually a fair complaint by someone from Alaska, because does anybody really know what a ‘Ginger Kwan’ is?)  Of course, when you’re looking for an artist that’s distinctive, that means there’s going to be a greater likelihood that the result is not universally known.  Generally, the most popular artists are ones that are universally popular, but the ones that are slightly below may vary quite a bit.  In other words, you and your friends are not special for liking Kendrick Lamar–a lot of people like him.

The site printed out some of their data to show how they got the results, and you can see how very obscure artists could be spit out.  If you think about it for a little bit, it makes sense then that someone like Kurt Vile could represent Oregon–while there are tons of alternative acts that get a lot of attention here, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s not significantly more attention.  We’re generally talking about maybe a slightly bigger venue for when their tour comes through (a difference of probably a couple of hundred people at the most), which wouldn’t be anything like a standard deviation off.

(It also helps if you take two seconds and realize that “by state” does not mean the artist comes from your home state, but that may be some second-order thinking for some folks.)

The second map was much simpler: a map of “Favorite Artists By State”. People then expressed surprise and anger at the results that…the most popular artists in the country are also the most popular artists in several states?  Did people honestly expect Jay Z, Drake, and Macklemore to not be popular, even after selling millions of albums this year?

That’s when people began attacking the methodology, though I doubt many of those who did so know the meaning of the word (or even knew that such a word existed).  I love that some complained that a sample of 250,000 people was too small, without knowing that very accurate polling (especially in politics) often comes from samples that are 10 to 100 times smaller.  The other complaint that I noticed was how the map used only streaming sources.  This is in some ways a legitimate point–due to the demographics of those who stream (young folks), the results are going to be skewed a bit.  On the other hand, a large sample size can help cancel this out a bit.

And on yet another hand (hopefully you packed an extra set),  were any of you going to answer a phone survey for just a fun side project?

I hope you enjoyed this short lesson in maps and statistics.  At the very least, it should help you understand what you’re dealing with when you tackle the Anti-preference map.


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