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When topics are a bad fit for story maps


Not every topic that I want to cover finds its way into a web application or story map. There are some that end up on the cutting room floor. Knowing what works well in a product for users to enjoy is important and forcing yourself to make an app on a certain subject will not lead to that if things are not panning out well.


A few years ago, I wanted to make a story map about the animated television series called Daria that ran on MTV from 1997 to 2002. Taking place in the fictional suburban town of Lawndale, the show followed the life events of its title character as she navigated through high school as an ultra-brainy, yet ultra-cynical teenager. I thought the show's animated style would lend itself well to some cartoonish cartography, and the exact whereabouts of Lawndale could make for an interesting comparison of presumed locations that have been debated by fans of the show since its completion.


However, I was wrong. I even tried on two separate occasions to make things work for Daria and nothing came out the way I was hoping it would. This article looks at some of the reasons why my story map never amounted to anything worth publishing.


Location was irrelevant


A definition that I have given presentations about story maps is that story maps are web applications that focus on telling a story about something related to location. Without location being relevant to the story, the map components don't really add value to your app. In the case of Daria, Lawndale is depicted as an "Anytown, USA", albeit an upper-class and sheltered one, but really nothing happens on the show that is unique to the setting itself.


Despite this gigantic limitation, I focused on trying to answer the question of "What would be the most likely location of Lawndale if it were in fact real?" I thought I could pull together bits and pieces from episodes where other cities are mentioned, the origins of the show being a spin-off from the Texas-based Beavis and Butt-Head, and a handful of clues that appear on-screen like climate and vegetation. Maybe I could guide users through a map of the United States where states not fitting the description of something would be eliminated and the user is eventually left with the two or three most likely states at the end of the story map.


Creating a web map on ArcGIS Online
Creating a web map on ArcGIS Online

Content was not easy to read


Another key point that I use when defining story maps is that they should be succinct and easy to read. You don't want to burden your audience by throwing too much text at them. Trying to explain something that isn't easily grasped or that may require previous knowledge is unlikely to work well.


So, when building upon my state-eliminator theory noted above, I quickly found that I could not succinctly describe events or clues from the show related to location. If someone was unfamiliar with the show, they could get lost very easily when trying to follow along. Also, the few tidbits throughout the series that are location-based do not follow any sort of chronological order, so there would be a lot of jumping around from season to season without the full context in my explanations. This was not a recipe for success.


Available media was lacking


Since the series aired before the explosion of digital streaming and social media, there is not much Daria media available to use. Showing photos or videos when applicable always adds value to a story map. But in this case, I would be limited to either a couple of existing fair-use images found online or going through the series on DVD and manually screen grabbing different scenes myself; a task that would be laborious and go against the principal of trying to use Creative Commons licensed material when possible.


Daria series DVD case and remote control
Original photo by article author

There have been other topics I've tried in the past that also never made it to completion. I think this is a good thing because knowing when to edit yourself and stop putting effort into something that is not working out is a skill that story mappers should have. Don't feel as if a topic or project you have must be presented as a story map simply for the sake of making one.