300,000 followers on Instagram
Joost skews your view of the world
Joost Blaakmeer remembers how, when he first started, he’d be ecstatic when he got a hundred likes on a post. That was back when he had a ‘mere’ ten thousand followers, six months after he’d created his Instagram account in 2016 and he was still setting targets. Get to fifteen thousand followers. Get to twenty thousand followers.
But that was back then.
These days, nearly 300,000 people from all over the world follow his account A Map A Day. He’s no longer setting targets. ‘Getting a hundred thousand followers was kind of a big deal, though’, he recalls. ‘So was getting two hundred thousand.’ But after more than three thousand posts and 294,000 followers, he’s become a bit more blasé. ‘That’s also because my follower count isn’t growing as fast anymore’, he says. ‘I only get thirty to fifty thousand over a few months.’
He does get a little upset when his posts get fewer than five thousand likes, because it means something is wrong. ‘I’ll be like, step up Joost; you messed up with that one.’
You won’t see the cultural geography student posing in front of the colourful houses at the Reitdiephaven or the black and white Instagram wall at the Student Hotel. Most of his followers don’t even know his name, and none of them know what he looks like. Blaakmeer doesn’t post pictures of himself: almost every day, he posts a picture of a map or other geographical phenomenon. They’re great images he unearths from the internet and whenever possible, they explain or illuminate things, and make people think. That’s his ultimate goal: to give his followers a different perspective on reality.
People can be pretty ignorant
He’ll post maps of the United States that show America’s favourite fast food burgers per state or a map of the Netherlands in the style of Lord of the Rings. But he’ll also publish pictures where he overlays Chile on a map of the current US. ‘People were so surprised: they had no idea how long Chile really is.’ He’s quiet for a bit. ‘People can be pretty ignorant sometimes.’
He once posted a photo of Hans Island, territory that both Canada and Denmark claim as theirs. The military of either country regularly makes stops to remove the other country’s flag and to leave a bottle of Danish schnapps or Canadian whiskey. He also posted a map that showed the movements of an eagle that had been tracked with GPS over a period of twenty years.
They’re images that skew people’s world views just a little bit, which is exactly why Blaakmeer himself is so fond of maps. ‘They’re a simplified depiction of the world we live in’, he says. ‘As a kid, I’d see a map and it would make me realise how big the world was. Living in Drenthe, I wondered what else was out there.’
He made a list of the biggest cities in Europe and their inhabitants. He compared atlases from the sixties to current ones to see what had changed. ‘A map gives you that overview and makes complicated information visually accessible.’ If you look at a map of how Covid-19 spread across the country, you’ll immediately see how ‘safe’ Groningen was, and how serious the situation in Brabant.
He realised he wasn’t the only one who was into so-called ‘map porn’ when he started sharing funny, pretty, and informative maps on Reddit. ‘People really liked my posts’, he says. ‘But on Reddit, you’re completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter who you are as a person. It’s also kind of pointless. You can’t make any money off it or anything.’
Not that making money is his goal. With 300,000 followers, he could theoretically charge a few hundred euros for a post, but maps are harder to sponsor than fashion or make-up. He does have a ‘coffee button’: you can buy him a cup of coffee by transferring three euros if you like his post. ‘And I’m currently working with Daily Overview’, he explains. ‘They take high-resolution satellite photos. I get a nice bit of pocket money from them.’
Under no circumstances will he ever publish any posts about scratch maps, those maps that allow people to scratch off the countries they’ve visited. Companies have approached him to advertise for them. ‘But that would be like selling my soul to the devil’, he says. ‘Those things… they’re the equivalent of a sign that says ‘HOME’ in your house. It doesn’t feel right.’
Advertising scratch maps would be like selling my soul to the devil
It’s much more important for him to get credit on Instagram for the time and effort he puts into his account. It takes him at least half an hour to find a picture, edit it in such a way that it grabs his audience’s attention in the half second it takes them to decide whether to like it or not, write a caption, and make sure he credits the source.
Perhaps the best thing about his account is how useful it’s been for a cultural geography student to have access to an audience of 300,000 people. When he proposed to use Instagram to distribute surveys for his bachelor thesis about access to food in rural, suburban, and urban areas, his supervisors were hesitant. ‘They didn’t want me to do it. They didn’t think I could collect data through Instagram.’
But when he showed up to their next meeting with five thousand responses, they changed their tune. ‘In the end I got twelve thousand responses to my survey’, says Blaakmeer. ‘They’d never seen anything like it at my faculty.
It’s no surprise then, that he’s once again turning to his followers for his master thesis. He even let his account inspire the topic of his thesis. He discovered that maps can be controversial. ‘If you publish a map that says ‘The British Isles’, you piss off the Irish’, he says. ‘People are still really sensitive about the Irish famine and the British rule.’
A map captioned ‘The British Isles’ pisses off the Irish
He’s been threatened and told to go fuck himself. Turkish people would get upset about maps of Armenia and Americans didn’t like maps that showed inequality or racism, Like a map that showed the bizarre way electoral districts in the US are put together in an effort to fit a single target audience into one district, also known as gerrymandering.
Blaakmeer was fascinated and decided to focus on the way maps elicited responses with people and what it did to people’s world views.
Nevertheless, he has to admit that the responses he sometimes gets can be stressful. ‘I used to read every single comment’, he says. ‘I actively tried to delete every fascist or racist response. But I stopped doing that when I realised I wasn’t enjoying the account as much because of it.’
He knew not to take the responses personally, but they were taking an emotional toll. ‘I’ve installed a word filter that censors the responses’, he says. ‘Whenever I do find something or someone points it out to me, I’ll delete it, of course. And I can mute people. They won’t know that they’re blocked, but other people won’t be able to see their comments.’
He does feel guilty occasionally. Some nasty responses slip through every once in a while. ‘I can’t help but wonder if I should read and analyse every single one.’
But he won’t do it; he enjoys the account too much and he’d like to keep enjoying it. ‘It’s a hobby’, he says. ‘This way, I can keep it up forever.’
Translation by Sarah van Steenderen