Places Are Made Of A Thousand Stories

An illustrated guide to Maptia, the new storytelling platform on a mission to build the most inspirational map in the world.

Sep 23, 2013 · 19 min read

Written by Dorothy Sanders, Jonny Miller, and Dean Fischer, co-founders at Maptia. Illustrations by Ella Frances Sanders.

What is Maptia?

Maptia is a beautiful way to tell stories about places. It is a new platform designed for thoughtful, inspiring stories that make us want to get out there and explore the world, and each story has its own unique map.

A story could be big or small, a fleeting moment or the tale of a long journey. It could be about a place close to home or on the other side of the world. A story could be told by someone living just over the road or travelling many thousands of miles away. It could be told by you.

Today we are sharing version one of Maptia with the world. It is just a taster, an embryonic version of what we hope to build one day. Head over to our new homepage to check it out. There you will find some of the top stories contributed to Maptia so far, and you can also create your very own beautiful, typographical version of our manifesto.

Why is Maptia different?

1) Every story deserves a somewhere.

Most stories have a ‘somewhere’, and that somewhere in each of our stories is important. Places are like people and we have wonderfully complex relationships with them. They give us the context for our lives, and often evoke strong feelings or memories. Sometimes it is the external beauty of the setting or land itself, at others it is our inner emotions that colour how we experience a place.

With this in mind, each story added to Maptia is set in a particular location, and each post within it has an even more specific location still. This enables you to create a simple, beautiful map of the place or places that grace the stage on which your life is played out. Places are at the heart of storytelling in Maptia. Every story has a ‘somewhere’.

2) Each place is made up of many stories.

No place has a single story. The interplay of our lives with the landscapes and cityscapes around us is entirely unique. No one can see through your eyes, or experience the world as you do. We each have our own lens on the places we move through. Places are made of a thousand stories, and it is only through gathering our experiences together that the fluid, ever-changing story of a place may be brought to life.

That is why each story you tell on Maptia becomes part of a meta story for the place where it is set. Whether it is a continent, a country, a small village, or a mountain top, stories from that place are tagged and organised together. We will be making this part of Maptia public as soon as we can. For now, we are working to improve it with the feedback of our founding storytellers.

3) You are part of a global, collaborative story that encompasses all places and all people.

Though Maptia is designed for an individual to share their stories, through the very act of telling a story on Maptia you are also contributing to something much bigger than yourself.

We believe that if people from every country, every culture, and every background came together to share the stories of their lives and their travels, then the world would be a more understanding and empathetic place. We also believe that these stories will inspire people to get out there, to explore the places around them, to appreciate and care for the world, and to make the most of their short time on this planet.

Everyone on Maptia becomes part of our mission to gather these stories together and build the most inspirational map in the world. One that tells the story of all places and of all people.

Maptia is for Everyone

We are building Maptia for everyone. It is through no desire for exclusivity that we are limiting access to some areas for now. We value having the time to build personal relationships with our small group of founding storytellers and don’t yet have the resources to support many thousands of people telling stories at once. We are also still working on building the core features, and on the coding and design.

As soon as we can, we look forward to welcoming more people into the Maptia community, and we are delighted to have so many of you interested. To join our community, you can sign up over on our homepage and we are sending out more invites each week.

The rest of this post is devoted to the philosophies behind storytelling on Maptia, and to sharing our vision for the future.

Children Just Like Me

Let’s begin with a story.

There was once a little girl growing up in a quiet, country village in England. What this little girl loved most of all was to read… or to be outside exploring and making dens. One of her favourite books was called ‘Children Just Like Me’. It was a big, beautiful book (you had to sit down and lay it across your lap to read it) and it gave her many stories for what a child’s life could be.

She learned about how some children grew up living in hammocks and hunting with arrows in the jungle, how others lived in big round homes called yurts (she imagined that if people lived on the moon their homes might be a little like this), how some children wore silk and others wore fur, how some lived high in the mountains, and how some lived in big cities with millions of people.

The book was filled with photographs of the children, their most treasured possessions, and the places they lived. What captured her imagination most was that they were real, that they were going to school, playing, eating and sleeping on the other side of the world. They were, indeed, just like her. The same, and yet different. These stories stirred her imagination, and opened new worlds for her.

This little girl was Dorothy. And in case you don’t know us yet, hello, we are Dorothy, Dean and Jonny. We would like to tell you a bit about what we believe and why we are building Maptia together.

Places are Made of a Thousand Stories

Every place is different, has its own distinct flavour, or rhythm of life, every place has its sorrows and its joys, and has been shaped by the passage of time and history.

Writer and author Chimamanda Adichie gives a moving TED talk on the danger of a single story. She speaks of how many of us have a single story for an entire nation, an entire people, or even for an entire continent, and that this leaves no possibility for other emotions, or interaction as human equals. Children Just Like Me gave Dorothy many stories. It showed her that a child’s life might be lived in many ways and in many places, each as interesting and important as the others.

“[A single story] makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar… I’ve often thought it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all of the stories of that place or that person.” — Chimamanda Adichie

On Maptia, we hope to engage with all of the stories from all of the places from all over the world, and to gather them together in a beautiful, accessible format for anyone, anywhere to explore.

The Art and Importance of Storytelling

For millennia, humans have relied on paintings, drawings, the spoken word, poetry, myths and legends to help define the world we live in, and to understand our relationship with the planet and all other living beings. Our basic survival once depended on experiencing stories. On learning new ways of hunting through re-enactments, and on understanding the nuances and terms of human behaviour that would allow us to peacefully co-exist as a band of mutually dependent people.

When we read a dry, factual argument, our intellectual guard is up and we interpret what we learn with logic. Yet tell us a story and we are drawn in, moved emotionally, and somehow left impressionable and vulnerable. As Jonathan Gottschall says, we are the ‘storytelling animal’, and the process of changing one mind or the whole world must begin with ‘once upon a time’.

“The myriad cultures of the world make up a web of spiritual life and cultural life that envelops the planet, and is as important to the well-being of the planet as indeed is the biological web of life that you know as a biosphere… [This is the ethnosphere. It’s] the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s great legacy. It’s the symbol of all that we are and all that we can be as an astonishingly inquisitive species.”Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

Telling stories is part of what makes us human, part of who we are, and how we understand ourselves. They are a shared way of constructing reality, and while all the world’s cultures have different dialects, our basic grammar is the same. We need somewhere to gather the rich memories of human experience, somewhere to record and share our ethnosphere. Somewhere that belongs to all of us and to which we can all contribute.

Maps of the World As It Isn’t

Just as man has been telling stories since the dawn of time, so he has been making maps. In the dusty foothills and on the wide open prairies, our ancestors scratched temporary markings onto the ground at their feet and carved symbols onto rocks. This mapping reflex is part of our cultural mindset. As a race, we have a compulsion to chart our place in the universe.

Maps exist at the intersection of our physical world and our imagination. They are a powerful form of visual storytelling. Often, they awaken in us a strong sense of curiosity, challenging our boundaries, and fuelling our desire to explore the world. Inspiration for the words of our Maptia Manifesto stemmed from these feelings.

“That is the charm of the map. It represents the other side of the horizon where everything is possible.” — Rosita Forbes, Travel Writer and Explorer, 1890-1967

When we first set forth on our ships, sailing for the unknown horizon, there were new continents and new cultures waiting to be discovered. Now we have explored the deepest rainforests and traversed the most barren ice caps. Those few unlikely places, still unseen by human eyes, have been mapped by satellites in our sky. We have created an alternate reality and representation of our world that can be held in the palm of our hands, one in which we are the blinking, blue dot at the centre.

Yet the tangible world we experience cannot be reduced to names or distances on these accurate, digitised maps. From sketches on the back of a napkin to beautiful hand-illustrated posters, subjective maps often convey the characteristics of a place with more truth. These are the maps that tell stories of the world as it isn’t.

Each of us has a personal cartography for the places that matter to us. As Amanda Palmer said, “We can only connect the dots we collect, which makes everything you write about you… Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.” We hope that one day Maptia will provide you with a beautiful canvas for weaving the dots and stories you collect into a unique, personal map.

Fostering Adventurous Empathy

Proust wrote that to see the universe through the eyes of a hundred others, to see the hundred other universes they see, was the only true voyage a person could make. Through stories we are able to do this. We can forget ourselves and step into the shoes of the storyteller. We can feel what they feel, see what they saw, and hear what they heard.

When we foster an adventurous curiosity for lives and places beyond our own experience, the philosopher Roman Krznaric calls it ‘outrospection’. When travelling, instead of asking the usual question, ‘Where should I go next?’, we might ask, ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’ and embark on a journey into the life of a stranger. Roman asserts that there is a critical empathetic gap in society today. He illustrates it as two-fold. Firstly, that we are failing to empathise across countries, for instance, with those in India who are already suffering from global warming. Secondly, that we are failing to empathise through time to future generations.

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts … for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” — Albert Einstein

Yet, where do we begin? How do we widen our circle of compassion to include the whole planet? How can we build bridges to cross Roman’s empathy gap? We believe that the answer lies in storytelling, in compelling, cross-cultural narratives shared throughout the world via the Internet.

It is part of our mission at Maptia to foster a desire for such storytelling, and to encourage people to take the time to read, understand and appreciate stories from all over the world. We are seeking people who, in the words of Harvard scholar David Weinberger, “can show us how the world unfurls from a beginning other than our own.”

Collaborative Storytelling: A Better Way to Understand the Human Experience?

Jake Barton poses this question in his fascinating talk on the power of collaborative storytelling. More than ever before in the history of modern civilisation, everyday people are empowered with the tools to be the generators of content, with the technology to instantly share their content to an audience on a scale never possible before.

Collaborative storytelling is a bit like adding bricks to a wall. Each of us has a blank brick to contribute, a canvas on which we can be imaginative. We can see that others have contributed an astounding variety of bricks to the wall before us, and this gives us ideas, it inspires us. Having the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, and yet at the same time to create something of personal value, is a powerful motivator. The dimensions of this wall are not predetermined or limited, and its scope is infinite. The wall grows and changes with the contributions of each individual, and all of the bricks are somehow connected to each other. This is our networked world of collaborative storytelling.

“In a way with all these global communications, it’s like people across the planet are dreaming together. There’s this imagination that’s coming about by people interacting with one another and creating a totally different thought-space.” — Aaron Koblin, on collaborative storytelling

Through gathering the stories of our lives and the places around us, we have the opportunity to create something much greater than the sum of its parts. To harness a multitude of stories from different beginnings and different places to create a single, larger, cohesive narrative. One that belongs to all of us. One that binds us together and gives us a better way to understand the human experience.

Creating A Home for Places Online

With Maptia we aim to create an ever-changing, ever-growing, collaborative story for every place in the world. You could call it a ‘home’ for each place online. People will be able to explore through time and from many different perspectives. We could ask, ‘What is happening in this place right now?’ or perhaps, ‘How do people live there? or even, ‘What is it like to visit this place for the first time?’

We believe that a place is made up of the stories that have already happened there, those that are happening there in the present moment, and those that live in our imaginations, that might happen there in the future. A tapestry of shared human experience made up of an incomprehensible number of simultaneous, fleeting moments.

In one same instant red, rusty leaves are swept along the banks of the River Seine by a restless autumn breeze, the first long sun rays of dawn dispel shadows as light creeps up to Andean heights, and in the city of Bangkok a stillness settles over the river as floating traders pack up their goods and travel homewards.

The Digital Crisis and Giving Technology Heart

In this age of networked knowledge, we have the capacity to gather these stories together, to filter them, to make meaning out of them, to curate them, and to link them together on a global scale.

Yet as the pace of our world accelerates, and methods of communication become increasingly superficial and ever shorter, our innate need and flair for thoughtful storytelling is being threatened. In less than a hundred years we have moved from books and letters, to telegrams and faxes, and now to emails, texts, and tweets. Online platforms focus on cheap, easy and addictive experiences and it has become too easy to lose ourselves in a flood of transitory, repetitive, and often irrelevant, interactions.

We are being drawn into the ‘echo chamber’ of networked knowledge, which merely reinforces that which we already know or believe. We are in danger of hurtling towards one, single story. Content that is meaningful and longer-lasting, that forces us to question what we know and to learn more about our shared humanity, is being drowned out by the Internet’s obsession with newness.

Yet, as Jonathan Harris of Cowbird says, “we cannot run away to a more primitive time, the momentum of technological growth is too strong for us to prevent it from defining our future.” He also says that we must find humanity in the machine, and if it is not there, we must create it. At Maptia, we have been inspired by companies that look at what they can give back, not what they can take, who give their technologies heart, and who strive to build a company that relentlessly puts its ‘why’ first.

Only now, in this age of hyper-connection via the dense communication network of the Internet, is it possible to imagine collaborating together on a story that encompasses all places and all people. Many factors may determine its success, but it is there, a shimmering, fragile possibility.

Our Vision: A Truly Global Story

We believe in a story, bigger than any other story before. One that celebrates all life on this planet and explores our complex relationships with the stage on which our lives are set. One that acknowledges the beauty and ruthless energy, the sorrows and the joys, the devastation, the greed, the healing, the love, the memories, and the wild left in us and on our planet. One that means, just as Chimamanda Adichie would wish, that we do not have a single story for a people, a country, or a place, but have thousands of diverse and remarkable stories, stories in which we can recognise our differences and our similarities, so that we can celebrate them. Stories in which we come to gain an understanding of the interdependence of all life.

We believe in a story, told by people from every corner of the globe, to share with the generations to come. A shared library of human experience. A story that will continue to grow with each coming day and each new experience added. A story that has the power to effect change, as we learn about realities and lives on the other side of the world, and as we gain empathy and feel wonder for that which is so far from our own experience. A story that is powerfully relevant to each of us on an individual level, that enables us to express our intensely personal relationships with the places that matter the most. Most of all, we believe in a story that belongs to all of us. A story of universal truths, of the life that we as humanity, for the briefest but brightest of sparks, play out here on our one tiny, miraculous planet.

The World is a Shared Stage for our Existence

Places are the one thing we all share, and this makes them the perfect canvas for our community of storytellers. Together we inhabit the Earth’s surface, and across the length and breadth of that land and ocean, every chapter of every person’s story is played out. It is the shared stage for our existence.

Powerful empathetic bonds are formed in those moments when we realise that another person has, at some point in their winding story, crossed our path. Maybe in that very spot where you had your first kiss, a young couple became engaged two generations before, or amongst the orange groves of your honeymoon, an old man is now spending his last days, feeling the warmth on his sun-weathered skin, enjoying fruit from the trees he planted half a century before.

Similar bonds also exist when people share a familiar turn or fork in their pathways. Mirrored chapters that are set thousands of miles apart, in starkly different environments, and yet could have been written by the same hand and the same heart.

If thousands of cultures are going to harmoniously collide as the world shrinks into a single conversation held at the speed of light, then it is important that we say those things which bring us together. It is important that we paint the core pieces of our shared humanity so clearly, that we cannot help but recognise ourselves in every one of our remarkable human cultures.

Where are we today?

At this very moment, we are sat tapping away on our computers, looking out over the Atlantic ocean. We can hear the constant rush of waves on the rocks below. This is our HQ in the little coastal village of Taghazout, Morocco. We relocated here so that we could live frugally and have the time and space to focus while we finished building the first version of Maptia.

Despite burning the candle at both ends, we haven’t exactly followed the conventional path of a startup. Through our blog, we have chosen to grow our community ahead of launching the first version of Maptia, and we have taken the time to be in touch with all of our founding storytellers personally. Our aim is to build something lasting. We believe in the Maximum Exceptional Product, rather than the Minimum Viable Product, and we would rather be the tortoise than the hare.

In the next few months, most of our time will be spent on improving Maptia’s interface, especially the content creation aspect, and on making Maptia more robust so that we can grow the number of people who are telling stories, and on listening to the feedback of our founding storytellers.

Where are we going?

By this time next year we hope that many thousands of stories will have been contributed to Maptia and that our community will have continued to grow. We aim to have created our first digital and print anthology. This will contain one story from every country in the world and will be curated by some of the most respected and inspiring travel writers, photographers and adventurers of our time. We would also like to be well underway with the development of the Maptia mobile app. With this, people will be able to create a beautiful journal of places on the go, and it will be a handy way to keep notes and collect visual memories for creating longer stories on Maptia itself.

We know that what we are trying to achieve will take a very long time. Years in fact. We doubt ourselves often and are our harshest critics. Yet, we are putting everything we have into making such a story possible. What you see today is just a tiny fraction of what we believe Maptia could one day become. For now it is the bare bones of a new online platform, but who knows what this idea could become in the future? A book, an event, a charity, an education, a movement?

In five or ten years time, the world will look very different. We cannot predict the influences or the people we are going to encounter along the way. Maptia is the embodiment of our life philosophies and goals, and there are as many possible paths for Maptia as there are degrees on a compass. That is part of the excitement. You will just have to come along for the ride to find out which paths we are going to take.

The Man Who Said he could Fly

Most days we feel like the man who said he could fly. Intoxicated with the possibility, slightly concerned for his sanity, never satisfied that what he has built is good enough, fully aware that what he has built so far in no way resembles a flying machine, and convinced he would need a hundred years to make it work. Yet something makes us persevere. A conviction. An idea that has rooted itself so deeply in our consciousness that we cannot ignore it, cannot help but work to realise it, and feel compelled to understand it better.

It is about the journey, and not the destination. This is our journey, and today is the end of the beginning.

If you read this far, then thank you.

Join Us

Maptia is for everyone. Its very nature demands this. Only in this early phase, while we develop and test core features, is contributing to Maptia limited to a small group of founding storytellers.

You can sign up to join Maptia over on our homepage. We are sending more invites out each week and are still bringing founding storytellers on board. We hope to read one of your stories on there soon.

For other musings on life, travel, maps, storytelling, and our journey to build Maptia you can check out our blog. You can also follow @Maptia on Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, please hit the big green recommend button below, thanks!

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” — Jawaharlal Nehru

Maptia: See the World

Musings on our philosophies, our vision, and our journey to build Maptia — a beautiful way to tell stories about places.


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    Maptia: See the World

    Musings on our philosophies, our vision, and our journey to build Maptia — a beautiful way to tell stories about places.

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