I spent a lot of my time at Backdrop thinking about how social knowledge graphs intersect with space and age.

I’ve never been into video games, but I am fascinated by the world-building that goes into the making of a great one. There’s just something about the richness of the elements; the stories that colour why and where people belong; the ways that lore is shown, not told…you’re invited to take part in the plot, as if you’ve been a main character all along.

I took a couple courses on map-making in college (as clunky as it is, ArcGIS will always hold a special place in my heart!) And to me, maps are worlds just waiting to happen. There are so many stories to be told, and so many ways to tell those stories, on a map. Toggle between Google Maps’ various layers and you’ll find an array of “Choose-Your-Own” Adventures, whether that adventure is biking, driving, or avoiding a safety hazard (adventure is a debatable term here).

AllTrails, Strava, Corners’ new “Spots in Common” feature: all ways of navigating new quests through friends (and friends of friends) and keeping a social record of all the routes you’ve plotted—and when. My siblings have an Awesome Maps poster showcasing all the best kitesurfing destinations worldwide (all of which they plan to hit!) There are those scratch-off maps you can buy to hang on your walls as you traverse new continents; Pokemon Go is essentially a virtual scene blanketed over our IRL landscape—and at the imminent intersection of it all, Mirage is building an augmented layer atop our physical realities.

And not to mention: how maps act as historians, resurfacing patterns over place and period.

Journeys of erosion and deforestation; trails of globalisation and diversification: a bird’s eye view into the ways in which environmental catastrophes and human nature disturb and destroy the spaces we occupy. Maps have catalysed discovery; plotting the clusters of cholera outbreaks across London’s Soho district helped John Snow identify the source of contamination for the virus’ spread (not that Jon Snow). Even plotting the cartography of a single item can be so powerful: I’m sure you’re familiar with the whole WWII-plane-with-the-red-bullet-holes meme where the dearth of hits to plane engines were actually the places most significantly impacted by enemy shots.

I recently heard this analogy: two architects behind a newly constructed college campus forget to add pathways to their final blueprint. After the school’s first year, they’re able to follow the tracks where the grass is most worn down, paving paths in places where they know students will use them the most.

And I guess that’s what product beta testing is about, too: you’re looking for shared pain points in the mean user journey, in order to solve for (or pave) the Path Most Travelled. And it’s also part of the value of building in public: you get to validate your pathways with more people— many of whom have experience plotting their own routes to similar problems, and are eager to give newer navigators the best tips and tricks to building well—to building for the many.

It just makes me wonder: what might we be missing by solving for the mean?