I used to run another map blog, before this one.

It’s an effort that I look back upon with regret, and prefer not to think too much about. After leaving it fallow for years, I finally took it offline a year ago and hoped nobody would notice, or remember it even existed. However, I think it’s time that I more publicly own my mistakes.

Cartastrophe was a map critique blog, in which I took other people’s maps and pointed out their flaws. There was a lot of sarcasm. I’ll spare you any quotes because I think you know how it goes; there’s plenty of similar content out there in social media right now.

I started Cartastrophe because complaining about the work of others was easier. See, I’d originally planned to run a blog like the one you’re looking at now — discussing my designs and my thoughts on cartographic processes. But, as a post on Cartastrophe recalls:

it quickly turned out that I didn’t have much to say on the subject. So, instead, I closed [somethingaboutmaps] down and started Cartastrophe, because I had plenty to say about other people’s maps.

Apparently, just not blogging wasn’t an option for me. Fortunately, I eventually found that I had actual constructive thoughts to share that didn’t involve criticizing other mappers, and so I resurrected somethingaboutmaps and posted less and less on Cartastrophe; it was mostly quiet by the end of 2012.

It’s worth mentioning that I did try to make Cartastrophe more than a place for simply complaining that some mapper had done a bad job — I wanted to use these examples to teach. As with any good critique, I tried to explain my rationale: why I thought certain things should be changed, and what this person’s “mistake” could teach us about design and human perception. I also required myself to say a minimum of one nice thing about each map, and I occasionally posted analysis/critique of maps that I really liked. I learned, however, that for me, it is a lot harder to clearly express what I like about something than what I don’t. Finally, I tried to show that I and others were not immune to mistakes: A few colleagues and I posted critiques of our own work.

In the end, though, most of the site was me posting what I thought were “bad maps,” and telling people how I thought they should have been done better.

I took people’s maps, uninvited, and publicly stamped my thoughts on them. I did not ask the authors about their goals or process; I made assumptions, instead. I did not ask them if they were comfortable with a public critique. I did not ask them what they thought about the work — maybe they didn’t even like it (my maps sometimes feature parts I don’t want to claim credit for, as clients push me to make decisions I disagree with). I did not invite them to be a part of the process of improvement and learning. They never had a chance to explain themselves before I passed judgment.

Now, I’m not suggesting there’s absolutely no value in looking at other people’s designs and trying to learn what we might want to avoid, nor do I suggest we stop having negative thoughts about the works of others. But it’s all about the approach and context: my good and/or educational intentions did not matter as much as the importance of including the original map author as a partner in public critique, which I rarely did.

Now, someone’s going ask, “should we never publicly call out a grossly misleading map without the author’s permission?” That’s not what I’m saying, and that’s not what Cartastrophe did. I wasn’t looking at maps that were serious threats to public knowledge and warning readers about them. I was nitpicking the design choices of innocuous maps that were perhaps confusing or difficult to read. It’s one thing to say “The public must know that this particular map is incorrect about something important,” and quite another to say “this map about tectonic plates has an illogical color scheme.”

I ran Cartastrophe because it was an easy way to get attention when I was in graduate school. It was easier for me to point out flaws than cogently praise excellence, and it was easier to write quips about the failings of other people than to form coherent thoughts about my own cartographic practice. And it was easier to feel I was a good designer if I could break down ways that other people were not. That’s the core of it. I am certain I’m not the only one to offer a critique for such reasons. I, and probably some others, learned a lot through the process (again, I won’t deny that this stuff had pedagogical value), but my approach was rarely one of partnership, and instead one of “I’m the expert and I’m here to school you (but I’m making jokes so it’s all OK, right?).”

Also, I don’t even like puns. I have no idea why I liked the name “Cartastrophe.”

I hid the site last year, without fanfare. I didn’t really want to draw attention to my mistakes — perhaps I wanted simply to avoid the public criticism that I had given others. I was content to bury that whole embarrassing business. But today, I saw an excellent and quick talk by Amber Bosse, in which she discussed cartographic gatekeeping. I remembered that, in Cartastrophe, I had once been a full-throated gatekeeper. And so I thought it was time to say that I should have done better; I likely hurt people, and I am sorry to have done so. I will surely continue to make mistakes (hopefully different ones!), and I can only hope that my colleagues will be kind enough to continue showing ways that I can be more positive in my contributions.

Addendum: I thought of one more point, about a day after I posted this.