Social Mapping: What Is It and Why Should We Care?

Matthew White, USA


Buzzwords abound in billion dollar tech company acquisitions and must-have gadget marketing campaigns. But sometimes, there isn't even agreement on what those buzzwords really mean. The definitions of the terms evolve with the technology.

Social mapping is one of those terms, yet it has the potential to make a huge impact on museums in exhibition presentation and promotion.

Keywords: social mapping, mobile, apps, didactic, mobile touring

Trends and demographics are shifting in ways that have wide-ranging ramifications for museums and nonprofits. Social mapping – a movement underway in mobile technology – offers unique opportunities for these organizations to transform the way visitors and institutional advocates are engaged.

Social mapping involves not just technology, but also changes in perspective. And like any other “next big thing” in technology, the definition of social mapping has not been settled. Simply put, social mapping technology tends to have these common components:

  • Social: As in a tie between users and their personality profiles, with the ability to connect and interact with other users.
  • Discovery: In the sense of leveraging crowdsourced or collective information.
  • Navigation: As in some level of guidance in how to get from one point to another, usually with geolocation capability.
  • Mapping: Meaning graphical representation of a physical location with accompanying data points.

During work in developing the Whitepoint logic and framework for intelligent touring of places and things, a unique perspective and definition of social mapping emerged, largely centered on how the meaning of “mapping” is evolving. But regardless of one’s perspective and accepted definition of the associated terminology, museums and nonprofits that are willing to incorporate social mapping and related technologies now could benefit in a big way from its impact. Why? Each of the components of social mapping speaks to the needs and expectations of tomorrow’s visitors and patrons.

Change You Have No Choice but to Believe In

Ultimately, there will be little choice in whether or not to adapt.  Demographics, of course, are always changing; however, recent demographic changes are dramatic because of the seismic shifts in expectations and demands for intellectual engagement. Implications of this magnitude have not been experienced in decades, and this is not hyperbole. Youth are now more engaged socially. Their networks – and therefore, their ability to influence – are far wider. Their expectations for entertainment are far different, as is what captures and holds their attention.

A recent study compared the attentional engagement of those in the connected, urbanized world with that of the rural, less connected environment, and found that the rural “cognitive state” is likely better for focused concentration on tasks (Bass, 2013). Studies like this and other viewpoints confirm how traditional learning environments often fail to take into account how students outside the classroom find and manage information (Jefferies, 2013). Today’s young people likely do not have memories of life without mobile phones or devices and the answers they provide. Many babies being born today may never even know what a computer mouse is. But, to them, the swipe motion on a touchscreen will be second nature.

One may attempt to disregard these changes, but there is also the economic impact of this demographic shift to consider. In the United States, for example, the over 80 million millennials – those who were born between 1977 and 1995 – represent 25% of the population. (Fromm & Garton, 2013) Their buying power in the United States alone is already estimated at about $200 billion a year. Because they are so socially and technologically connected, they also have greater influence over their elders and the buying decisions that they make. As a result, the total impact can be estimated at roughly a half trillion US dollars. (Fromm & Garton, 2013)

Social Media Helps Create Resonance and Relevance

How will these next generations spend their free time and discretionary income? Because they have grown up with the peer pressures of social media and have been bombarded with marketing more than any previous generation, the “relevance” of the content they consume – or at least encounter – is key to engaging them.

In fact, the practice of content marketing was only recently born in response to the emerging need for communicating relevance. At the heart of content marketing strategy is the admission that the days of interruption marketing and advertising are over. With the abundance of distractions and information – some useful and some not – content must be “relevant and valuable” in order to engage desired audiences (Content Marketing Institute, 2013).

But, what makes for engaging content? Visual content, because it is so easily consumed while on the go with a mobile device, is increasingly having the most impact. Audio, videos, photos, and graphics communicate quickly and effectively (Scott, 2013). Fortunately, there is no limit to the supply of visual content available in the museum world. The challenge comes in first determining how audiences connect with the material, then packaging and communicating that message effectively.

Creating resonance and communicating relevance, however, is now many times more effective when it happens through a social connection. This is one reason why the “social” component is driving social mapping and why social capability is baked into so many emerging technologies. For those who once thought social media was a trend, social technologies – and accompanying expectations for social capabilities – are definitely not going anywhere.

Fortunately, museums – and the arts in general – have unique advantages in creating resonance. More than just selling a product, museums and the arts can provide an experience that creates a meaningful and lingering emotional connection with individuals. Ultimately, this kind of shared experience among individuals can create a strong sense of belonging.

We know that these two factors – a meaningful connection and a sense of belonging – are particularly important to young people. In fact, it goes even further than simply “belonging.” A recent study of the millennial age group around the world shows that they crave “openness, inclusion, and diversity” in organizations and leadership (Bersin, 2013).

These trends, among others, have culminated in a new term to explain how organizations can expect to do business moving forward: The participation economy (Fromm, 2016). While the practice of engaging new audiences with social technologies proves effective, encouraging participation and inclusion is another key differentiator in furthering outreach goals. This is the foundation of crowdsourcing: the sharing of collective resources or collective information. And, the information provided in crowdsourcing is central to discovery – another key component of social mapping.

Discovering (and Re-Discovering) Your Organization

You have probably felt the pride and joy of discovering a new restaurant and sharing it with friends. Social networking, of course, has taken that kind of experience to a whole new level. And because we are inundated with information every hour of the day, we also now receive more prodding to try new experiences and visit new places. Fortunately, the suggestions are fairly accurate, whether we ask for them or not. We see results from algorithms that make suggestions based on our past actions, interests, and the recommendations of others. In tech parlance, this is called discovery.

In fact, it is likely that you have come to expect some form of discovery technology embedded in the mobile or social networking tools you use daily. Now, when traveling, most of us think nothing of the fact that restaurants nearby – with reviews – can be quickly discovered by web search or by using a discovery app such as Yelp.

But, ignore the technology element for a moment and consider the act of discovery. Even though museums and nonprofits have unique advantages in connecting with individuals, many still rely on tried and true methods for finding audiences and for audiences finding them. However, discovery technologies provide convenient new vehicles for making connections.

Consider the fact that exhibits feature a variety of subject matter with multiple potential connection points for new audiences. The act of discovery can occur based on common threads in interest. For example:

So, you like the television show “Downton Abbey?” This is the artwork that commanded the attention of families like the Granthams.

By the age of 9, he was performing before massive crowds. He conquered Europe in his late teens and gave concert proceeds to charity. This isn’t Justin Bieber. This is Franz Liszt.

You saw the finale for “Breaking Bad.” Now see the science behind the show.

That last example may not be a good idea in your community, but you get the picture.

Linking these very interests and coupling with relevant physical location information is possible with discovery technologies. Many social platforms can help you do it successfully, beyond just fields of interest. You can even drill down to bands and television shows, and the capability is getting more advanced every day. Arguably, the biggest challenge that museums and nonprofits face is thinking organizationally about what exactly those compelling connections are.

What is also interesting about the rising popularity of crowdsourcing and discovery is what it tells us about how newer generations process information. The source of information no longer has to be a “trusted” or “established” voice in the way previous generations grew to expect. Trust in specific voices may grow over time as a result, but the focus is on the collective and the exchange of ideas (Fromm & Garton, 2013).

The implications for the curatorial world are significant (Cairns & Birchall, 2013). For museums, the compelling connections that are employed will travel much farther if they are coupled with social sharing by friends and the friends of their friends. 

Navigation By Recommendation

Social sharing of curated information is now even influencing how people get from point A to point B. One of the best examples of an early social mapping app is Waze, which is dedicated to more intelligent traffic navigation.  Purchased by Google in 2013, Waze provides crowdsourced information about traffic as it relates to the user’s physical location on the road (Stenovec, 2013). While certain users may gain a reputation for the quality of the data they provide regarding traffic, this is far from a traffic report delivered by a locally recognized authority on the subject. Again, the focus is on information and intelligence gathered by the collective.

Many museums and nonprofits may have already had an encounter with reviews posted online, whether good, bad, true, or false. Regardless, expect more in the future. As social mapping evolves, the reviews and ratings that you might be seeing now with Yelp! or Google Local will (hopefully for your organization) multiply. Interestingly, these ratings may begin to affect your organization even more than “established” voices do. And as the practice of checking-in – which already occurs on Facebook or Foursquare – continues to become more prevalent, expect more reviews that are more concise and in near real-time.

Obviously, crowdsourced information combined with discovery and geolocation technologies like those found in Waze are already part of evolving navigation habits. These conveniences in turn are dramatically affecting our trip itineraries in real-time (Google/Ipsos MediaCT, 2012), and trends suggest that mobile technology will logically become only more integrated in our interactions with places.

Mapping Perspectives

The term “mapping” immediately calls to mind the traditional, aerial style map perspective. And, obviously that application serves a navigational purpose.

Aerial map view of Las Vegas.

Figure 1: This Google Earth view of Las Vegas is a perfect example of the top-down, aerial view perspective.

However, hunger for detail and rich content in our connected world – combined with access to technology and the improving technological means to deliver that content – indicate that future expectations in mapping include the prevalence of a ‘point of view’ based perspective. This realization was behind Google’s massive Street View effort, providing the capability within Google Maps for point of view perspectives of businesses, streets, and intersections.  Following on the heels of that initiative, Google launched the Google Glass project, its foray into augmented reality, which requires point of view perspective.

Significant investments by companies in augmented reality indicate that wearable technologies incorporating augmented reality, such as heads-up display glasses, are likely to play a role in everyday life. The act of “mapping” will logically extend from places on traditional aerial perspective maps to the places and things in our everyday lives.

Widespread adoption and incorporation of augmented reality is admittedly still well into the future. However, there are lessons to be learned and concepts to be leveraged now. The aforementioned Whitepoint framework, for example, is evolving as a first step, free alternative for managing and distributing intelligent tour content. It combines the point of view perspective with the ability to “map” more granular detail and related data connections – including social media hooks – associated with places and things as data points.

Whitepoints plotted in a mapped gallery.

Figure 2: This screenshot from the Whitepoint app shows a gallery mobile tour from the ‘point of view’ perspective.

Moving forward, we will all find increasingly that the data points we create and share are not always fixed. Rather than just places, data points as things – and even people – move and their characteristics change. If you want to locate your friend or family member as a data point, for example, download a tracking app (Rosenbloom, 2013).

Mapping The Future

Museums are in one of the best positions to benefit from an understanding of the evolving definition of mapping as well as future flavors of social mapping technology and apps. There are obvious advantages to driving new visitors and cultivating tomorrow’s patrons by incorporating social and discovery strategies, for example. It is also easy to see that museums offer some of the richest potential data points that can be created and shared.

Given the above insights into the expectations of tomorrow’s patrons for relevance and participation, it stands to reason that content on-site must follow the same guidelines in order to keep new audiences. Therefore, the challenge museums face is in two parts:

  1. Generate compelling exhibition related content that connects with visitors.
  2. Deliver that content in an engaging way.

Social sharing has already caused the number of sources of curated content and the media and platforms through which curation occurs to expand dramatically. As the works in a museum transform into freely moving data points that are curated and shared by different voices, the possibility for inclusion of new voices continues expanding. And, while parsing museum pedagogy versus museum didactics (Achiam, 2010), there is another question for museums to explore: Should exhibitions really be in competition with the entertainment and information that mobile technologies are now delivering or are exhibitions instead complementary?

Arguably, no choice exists. The shift from the display of antiquities to visitor-focused exhibits with integrated and interactive technology is well underway – especially in the construction of new, world-class museums (Jeffers, 2013).

Nonetheless, by embracing smarter outreach practices today, museums and nonprofits can prepare for the demands of tomorrow’s visitors and donors. The components of social mapping – social sharing, discovery, navigation capabilities, and the mapping of data – are pointing the way.


Achiam, M. (2010) The Generative Question as a Tool for Content Development for a Museum Exhibit. 2010. Consulted September 27, 2013.

Bass, C. (2013) Cities sap our powers of concentration. 2013, 27-Mar-2013. Consulted October 24, 2013.

Bersin, J. (2013) Millennials Will Soon Rule The World: But How Will They Lead? 2013, 12-Sep-2013. Consulted September 27, 2013.

Cairns, S. & D. Birchall. (2013) Curating the Digital World: Past Preconceptions, Present Problems, Possible Futures. 2013, Consulted October 25, 2013.

Content Marketing Institute. (2013) What Is Content Marketing? 2013, Consulted September 27, 2013.

Fromm, J. (2013) Marketing to Millennials: Welcome to The Participation Economy. 2013, 14-Jun-2013. Consulted September 27, 2013.

Fromm J. & C. Garton. (2013). Marketing to Millennials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever. AMACOM.

Google/Ipsos MediaCT. (2012) Today’s Traveler: Google’s Annual Traveler’s Road to Decision Study. 2012, Aug-2012. Consulted October 25, 2013.

Jefferies, D. (2013) Is technology and the internet reducing pupils’ attention spans? 2013, Monday 11-Mar-2013 03.00 EDT. Consulted October 25, 2013.

Jeffers, G. (2013) 2012 Museum Index. 2013, Consulted September 27, 2013. Theme Index Combined_1-1_online.pdf

Rosenbloom, S. (2013) Where Is Everyone? Try a Tracking App. 2013, 13-June-2013. Consulted October 24, 2013.

Scott D. M. (2013). The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to Use Social Media, Online Video, Mobile Applications, Blogs, News Releases, and Viral Marketing to Reach Buyers Directly. Wiley.

Stenovec, T. (2013) Google Buys Waze: Social Mapping App Will ‘Enhance’ Google Maps. 2013, 11-Jun-2013. Consulted September 27, 2013.

Cite as:
M. White, Social Mapping: What Is It and Why Should We Care?. In , N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 28, 2013. Consulted .

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