The Virtual Tourist
A Web Navigational Tool.

Kit Dahl

Maps have a metaphorical component, although we tend not to equate them to linguistic metaphors. We believe them to be more direct representations of our understanding of the world. In other words, we take it for granted that maps are 'true' representations of the world rather than aids to understanding that have a conventionalized language-like symbology. The use of maps on the Internet raises some interesting issues because of the nature of the medium: it combines a 'real space,' the physical location of computers that act as repositories for information and the telecommunications links between them, with a 'cyber-space' in which we apply many spatial metaphors for relations that may not 'really' exist.

This is well represented by two navigational utilities that employ maps: The Virtual Tourist and The Virtual Tourist II. Both were created at the University of Buffalo and partially reside there. In the following critique there are links to the site embedded in the narrative. These allow you to take a look before the discussion that generally follows the link. From the site, use the 'back' button in your client to return to this page when you are finished.

The Virtual Tourist top level uses world and regional maps at University of Buffalo that link to national or state level servers which contain list or map-based guides to local Web sites. Now that you have viewed the site, you know that one is presented with a touch sensitive (or 'ismap') world map. Note the URL, which is at Buffalo. If we click on a particular region we go to the next level. Let's try (Europe ) since I am planning a trip there this summer. Again, note that this map is at Buffalo and is thus cartographically consistent with the world map. I believe this to be a very effective use of maps as an interface. It assumes a familiarity with world geography while at the same time reinforcing this knowledge. The two levels of ismaps present a good approach to adapting a map to the Web environment. Often maps we see on Web pages have too much illegible text, either because they were adapted from larger format maps or are in fact scanned images of larger format paper maps. By using links in a cartographic mode these maps can keep the information content at a managable level. Note also that the map fits in the default window size of our client program. The regional maps, like Europe, use color effectively to differentiate between map and list based sites, and countries the don't have directories. I think its interesting that countries without directories are left un-named; in a sense they dont exist as far as cyberspace is concerned! Let's now move one level down and 'leave' Buffalo for some national and local sites. For a brief look at an ismap that suffers from some of the problems suggested above let's jump to the United Kingdom for a moment.

Now that you've had a look perhaps you can see what I mean. I think the map is attractive and the symbology is OK but it is large for the screen and contains a lot of information. One can see that a continued hierarchical ranking of maps (or at least a sub-map for the London area where there are many sites) might help. Of course this demands more computer resources. And if taken too far could become burdensome. We've all had the experience of moving through seemingly endless menus to reach the item we want. If a site did use a system of hierarchical maps, it might be useful to have a parallel list-based directory for those who know just where they want to go.

I will be going to (Norway ) on my trip so let's try the server there as another example. Before you jump!! A few additional notes: notice the buttons at the bottom of the map; go on and hit the one marked Tourist Info and then come back here.

Now that you're back, what did you think? In this case we have the same base map, but the buttons allow it to link to different classes of information. Since I will be taking a ferry up the coast from Bergen let's check out what's given as tourist information for that city.

Did you check out the maps at this site? I looked at the city center map and we see yet again a common Web phenomenon: taking a paper map and scanning it. Thrown up on a Web site it looks like junk. The map is big, necessitating scrolling about. And most of the text is illegible. What if I wanted it for my trip? If I print it out on the 300 dpi laser printer attached to my machine I will have a totally useless product. Its obvious that the Web demands just as much from the cartographer as traditional approaches. One needs to understand the limitations of the medium and design accordingly.

On the other hand, this tour shows some exciting possibilities for Web-based cartography. The ismap routine is not really difficult to make work. (For a really good tutorial chekc out Maps for MacHTTP at the University of Washington.) Just as the Web linking structure allows hypetext to be easily created so the ismap allows makes hyper-maps relatively easy. Design skills will still be necessary to construct the base map, however.

It would be possible to go on critiquing maps forever using the Virtual Tourist because there are now so many ismap guides. For example, if you go to the United States you will find 25 of the continental U.S. states have map based directories. At random I clicked on Utah, still another interesting approach to fitting many server locations onto a map. (Note, however, the Buffalo URL. Hmmm... must be those cartography students practicing.) In many cases the Web sites clump in the urban areas. This is itself an interesting, if obvious, phenomenon demonstrated by map directories. It also is a design challenge that needs to be addrssed.

I e-mailed Brandon Plewe, the developer of the Virtual Tourist with a few questions. Here's part of what he had to say.

I was curious if I could get a little background information on the Virtual Tourist

A short history: The concept began in November 1993, when Norway put up a map of servers in their country, which was quickly followed by several other European countries. In January 1994, several people started asking for a global index to these "country homepages," and since I was already looking to do some map-based applications on the Web, I volunteered, and thus VT was born.

What I'm most interested in is the degree to which you have been in contact with or coordinated with the various home pages that are under the virtual tourist. I noticed that the first two levels-- the world and regional maps-- reside at Univ. of Buffalo. When you get down to the national or state level these sites are maintained at various institutions.

Since the effort has been a bottom-up one since it's inception (i.e. the country servers were created independently of the VT world/continent maps), I cannot (and don't want to) exert much control over the submaps.

Obviously one result is quite a lot of variation between the maps or representations from place to place. I am wondering if you have had any contact, formal or informal, with these sites, either in terms of their link to the virtual tourist or how their home pages should be constructed (layout, content, etc.).

This was the idea. I was willing to let the individual sites go their own way, in designing their maps; thus, we get a lot of very good (but very different) maps, and unfortunately, many very poor maps. I wanted people to be able to experiment with different styles, and add a local flavor to their maps. I would like to see your critique of these country/state maps as well as mine. [well here it is!!] I generally comment every so often when there are serious problems, but people only listen to me half the time.

This last point really interests me. In a sense the Virtual Tourist is a collaborative, interactive atlas. The lack of uniformity makes it less of coherent but, as Brandon says, it allows the 'local flavor' of different sites to emerge. This raises the possibility of developing linked-distributed 'atlases' where local cultural and aesthetic characteristics are made apparent.

How did you find and decide which sites should have links from your service?

I just wait until somebody builds the WWW server map or list for their country or state, and I point to it. My only criteria are that the map or list fits into the VT framework (i.e. it lists Web servers in that area), and that they plan to keep it reasonably up to date (I have removed a few that stopped getting updated). Neither I nor anybody else demands that every country have something (how would we demand? There is no government of the Web to issue or enforce edicts). "Official Home Pages" created by state governments (incl. HI) have become popular lately, but are not part of any national program.

Let's now turn to the companion Virtual Tourist II, which contains information about places. The server does not necessarily have to be in that place. Again, an extract from Brandon Plewe:

Do you see the use of maps as a useful metaphor or symbol to make navigation easier or should it also 'remind' people that sites have a real location?

To a large extent, geography doesn't make a bit of difference when navigating. There are lots of keyword-search and subject-oriented catalogs out there for more productive searching. Sometimes, geography is important; for instance, if I was looking for the U. Hawaii web server, I would likely be able to find it geographically easier than by keywords. [note, however, that Hawaii does not--yet--have an ismap directory] That is what VT1 is for. Of course, VT2 is a different story, since it is more of an encyclopedia than a navigation aid.

Antartica is an example of a place on the Virtual Tourist II that is served by Web sites that are not actually located in this region. VT II thus disconnects physical location from a 'cyber-environment' that may be describing or trying to recreate at place.

In conclusion I would like to briefly touch on some of the issues I was trying to raise at the beginning of this critique. The Internet is creating a new set of meanings for space. In many cases space is used metaphorically as way of understanding (non-spatial) relations that may exist in Internet-land. One of the things that people find exciting about the Internet is the concept of 'travel.' There is no physcial movement, but one gets the sense of travel because sites are constructed by people from different places. They are projecting their minds to create distinctive cyberspaces rather than physical entities. The Web makes these peculiarities of place more evident. Just as we go to a foreign country and gawk at strange monuments and different customs we can now 'go' on the Web and look at homepages that reflect the place of origin. But in fact it is now the person, wherever she or he may be, that is creating this place. It doesn't have to be 'anywhere or somewhere.' Thus a person from Bali or Bhutan (where there are no Web sites) could set up a home page in Berkely that would exhibit a peculiar sense of place-- we might think its Bali or Bhutan until we look at the URL. The person has projected a place, based partly (consciously or unconsciously) on cultural characteristics, maybe from 'somewhere else.' Eventually space will become wholly a metaphor in this way. We will create our own spaces that are particular not for where they are but because of who you are.