Alternate States

I’ve long maintained that I write the Twelve Mile Circle primarily for myself although I’m glad other people seem to enjoy coming along for the ride. Case in point, why else would I devote five separate articles to my recent Dust Bowl Experience when I know that 12MC readers prefer geography contests and the like? Nonetheless I’m afraid that today I’m going to sound like I’m ranting just a little bit and there’s no way around it. I’ll try to get through it quickly and then reward you for bearing with me.

I’m displeased at the moment with reddit, particularly the content model used for its MapPorn subreddit. I have no disagreement with its intent to make a wide audience aware of great maps. That’s a worthy goal. It’s their means of sharing information that frosts me. It links to original images, to maps created outside of reddit, but not to the underlying articles where they appear.

That means content creators, the very people who worked hard to produce these maps, are on the receiving end of hundreds or thousands of hits on the image they created without receiving a single new visitor to the website itself. Many other subreddits link directly to website articles — no complaints there and in fact a big "thank you" because I’ve benefited from that in the past — so my issue is only with the subreddits that lift images without giving something back to the people who created them. It’s frustrating to see an image that one has created resonate very broadly with a large audience and have no way to attract the audience to one’s larger body of work.

View Larger Map
Here’s the Little Trouble Maker

Exhibit A: the 12MC article on Alternate Rhode Islands that I posted in May 2012. It generated about an average amount of attention at the time and resulted in a handful of comments. Someone posted the image on the MapPorn subreddit a couple of months ago where it created a large amount of interest and 225 comments as of this morning. It would have been nice if the original article I wrote had attracted a similar level of attention. I did the work. Reddit got the benefit.

Then it spread to several other subreddits. I changed the map to deliver a little passive-aggressive notation after I watched the first few thousand hits suck away my website bandwidth, "Dear reddit: if you’re gonna keep using this image, could you at least visit the website?" Perhaps one person noticed that addition and threw me a bone because I did get a comment on the article recently. Thank you, random visitor.

The final straw happened when people started creating derivative works with the same underlying theme, expanding the analysis to apply to other small states. I noticed one such example was created for Connecticut. Independently, Steve over at the ever-wonderful Connecticut Museum Quest sent a copy to me, noting that he’d pulled it from a Connecticut radio station website. The idea was spreading and once again 12MC got bupkis.

It’s time for me to play North Korea to reddit’s USA, by acting all crazy and belligerent and sucking the fun from their thread. Before anyone can create further derivative works, I hereby present the map of ALL U.S. counties larger than ANY U.S. state.

U.S. Counties Larger than States

You’ll want to open this in another tab to see it at normal size and in its original glory.

First, let’s talk about source data. Square mileage at the county level came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. State level data came from the U.S. National Atlas.

That second source created a minor change from my earlier version that I’d pulled from the Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State. One would think that two official government sources would agree, but they did not. Rhode Island said it had 1,214 square miles (including water) while the U.S. said it had 1,231. I went with the U.S. figures this time because I wanted a consistent source across all states. Several counties dropped from the earlier list as a result (Mobile, AL; Lycoming, PA; Costilla, CO; Starr, TX, Brown, NE; Atascosa, TX; Mineral, MT; Slope, NC). I adjusted the map accordingly.

Next, I took the states by size and plotted them on a spreadsheet to compare to county sizes. I posted it in a shared Google Doc if you’d care to take a look. It’s "view only" so don’t worry about breaking it. The document will be fine.

I used those data to put counties into distinct classes. For example:

  • Rhode Island-class counties remained in the familiar red color. Those were counties larger than Rohode Island, but only Rhode Island. This was the most common category
  • Delaware-class counties became a grayish-blue. Those were counties larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. They were also quite common.
  • Connecticut-class counties began with what I guess is sort-of a tangerine color. Those were counties larger than Rhode Island, Delaware or Connecticut.
  • And so on…

One can also interpret this going in the opposite direction. Want a map of counties larger than Rhode Island? Every colored county qualifies. A map of counties larger than Delaware? Remove the red counties. Larger than Connecticut? Remove the red and grayish-blue counties.

California’s San Bernardino County (the largest in the Lower 48) was rendered in dark blue which made it larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont or Maryland. That’s impressive although still somewhat reasonable. Contrast that with Alaska’s Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area which is larger than all but four states: Montana, California, Texas and Alaska itself.

I might as well elaborate on Alaska since I know I’ll get comments otherwise if I try to duck the issue. I do realize that Census Areas in Alaska are artificial constructs intended to deal with the uniqueness of the Unorganized Borough. If I were to look at the Unorganized Borough in totality then it would be larger than 49 states. By the way, the largest organized borough, North Slope Borough, is larger than "only" 39 states.

There are plenty of fun anomalies buried in these data too. I love that Hawaii includes a Delaware-class county due to the overwhelming influence of the "Big Island" even though it’s the fourth smallest state. Also, Maine has multiple Rhode Island-class and Delaware-class counties, plus a Hawaii-class county even though it’s the twelfth smallest state.

Take that MapPorn subreddit!

10 Replies to “Alternate States”

  1. All Hail the Glorious Leader, Tom of the 12 Mile Circle!!

    I for one appreciate all of your hard work and love this website.

    It especially makes my day when I see articles about the west (since I live in Colorado and travel extensively for work). I have been to most of the cities in your dust bowl adventure and can attest to the dustiness of them all.

    I was just in California and San Bernadino County is HUGE! We entered California on I-40 and it was a good three hours before we left the County.

    Keep up the good fight and know that there are plenty of people out there who never go to Reddit, but always go to your website.

  2. I might be mistaken (could be something in Canada – didn’t check very carefully), but I think the world’s largest second-level subdivision is Taymyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky District, in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia.
    Its area is 339,700 square miles, which would make it larger than Texas, or any other US state except Alaska; it, however, appears to be smaller than the full Unorganized Borough.

  3. more on the rant: it’s not just reddit. it;s every place where there’s a cool map or a cool chart and NO SUPPORTING TEXT. granted, good labeling means you can figure out what’s going on without supporting text, but i want more information. i want to see sources. i want to know MORE.

    a really spiffy map is nearly useless to me without source materials and all the good juicy bits.

  4. Just fyi, this was posted on the mapporn subreddit without linking to the article, just as you said.

    1. With 126 comments as of the moment, too. Nice. As I read through the comments I notice that they bring up issues that would have been addressed HAD THEY READ IT WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE ON 12MC!

      Appreciated your comment on the subreddit by the way, hipsterdoofus. I finally read all the way down and found it.

      1. Hey, I was the one who posted it (long time reader, well before I joined reddit) and I meant to put the link to your blog post as the first comment with a note on what a good site it is. Usually that means that it gets upvoted to the top because people like crediting sources. Somehow I screwed up and didn’t post the comment. Luckily, it is right there on the image.

        There is a whole “safe for work” “porn” network which only allows links to images in whatever category. Usually the images are rehosted on a site like You can link to the original source if you tag the post with [OS], that is preferred because it gives credit and drives at least some traffic to the actual creator.

        The reason for this is that it prevents people from blog spamming links to their blogs rather than just linking to the image directly. It works really well for things like linking to images of stuff on flickr.

        It works really poorly for maps. Often times maps are interactive, not static images. Often maps need some context and explanation. The status quo doesn’t work for that very well but I don’t think it is going to change. Luckily over time comments giving credit tend to work their way up.

        Again, apologies, but please keep up all the good work.

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