Meet two social media influencers whose viral content is taking GEOINT to the masses.
Although marketers have spent billions of dollars trying, it’s impossible to predict what will catch fire on social media. Still, some things are sure bets to break the internet. Kids and animals are winners every time, for instance. Posts about music and food also do well. And because everyone loves a good laugh, blunders and bloopers are internet gold.
It’s not always the usual suspects that blow up, however. Sometimes, it’s the unlikeliest subjects that are the most viral—like GEOINT.
Most people have never heard the term “geospatial intelligence.” And yet, millions of social media users around the world are engaging with GEOINT every day thanks to a cadre of “geoinfluencers.” By creating entertaining and educational location-based content, they’re attracting large followings who share their infectious enthusiasm for maps, imagery, and open-source information. To understand how they’re democratizing and commoditizing GEOINT for public consumption, we asked two of the internet’s most popular geoinfluencers for a behind-the-scenes look at their mission, methods, and medium.
JoseMonkey: Finding People Who Ask to Be Found
“Hi. I’m JoseMonkey. And I find people who ask to be found.” That’s how JoseMonkey—who prefers not to share his real name—opens each of his videos on social media. People from all over the world send him recordings in which they declare, “Find me, JoseMonkey.” And he obliges.
Sometimes the subject is in a suburban parking lot. Sometimes they’re on a busy downtown street corner. Still other times they’re in a park, on a riverbank, or at a rural rest area. No matter where they are, however—Boston or Brazil, Kenya, or Kentucky—their videos typically contain context clues that JoseMonkey follows like breadcrumbs to determine their exact location.
“I’ve always had an interest in the puzzle-solving nature of figuring out a location from a picture or video,” says JoseMonkey, who discovered his unique hobby while watching movies and TV. “Sometimes I would see a scene and think, ‘I wonder if I could figure out where that is.’ I was surprised to learn that I often could, and that was a bit of a rush for me.”
After solving numerous geolocation challenges on Twitter, where people ask their followers to determine where photos were taken, JoseMonkey decided to share his talent on TikTok, where he has amassed more than 1.2 million followers. He also has accounts on YouTube, Twitter, and Threads.
Although his videos typically are only 3 to 4 minutes long, they can take an hour or more to research and produce. “It can be a very time-consuming hobby,” says JoseMonkey, who uses Google Maps and a plethora of scenario-specific tools to find locations. “For example, there have been some cases where I want to figure out where an aircraft was. If you know the tail number of an aircraft, there are sites you can use to figure out where that aircraft was flying on particular dates.
Among his favorite resources are the “Store Finder” pages on companies’ websites. “If somebody shows a Target or a Dollar General or something like that in their video, I’ll go see where those things are,” says JoseMonkey, who also has started teaching himself to data mine against the OpenStreetMap database. “It’s not as accessible as something like Google, but … it’s very powerful. You can find some pretty crazy stuff, like power lines or railroad tracks.”
While many people enjoy his work for the fun of it, JoseMonkey hopes his videos are as educational as they are entertaining. “Consent was very important to me from the start,” he says, emphasizing that he only finds people who explicitly ask to be found, and that he has strict criteria for which challenges he’ll accept and from whom. “What I’m doing is eye-opening for many people. People just don’t realize how easily they give away their location with some of the photos and videos they post online. So while I’m having fun with this, it feels like I’m also doing a public service. And that’s a reason to keep doing it.”
Follow JoseMonkey on TikTok and Threads @the_josemonkey, and on YouTube and Twitter @josemonkey.
Map Nerd: Geeking Out on Geography
He’d had successful careers in entertainment and real estate. But Alex Horn wasn’t happy. So, he moved his family from New York to California and took a year off work to ponder his next move.
“That transition gave me more freedom than I’d ever had before to just do things I was interested in,” says Horn, a former geography major whose biggest interest has always been maps. “When my wife is on Instagram and my kid is playing Minecraft, I’m also on my phone—but I’m on Google Maps, just searching for something interesting.”
Horn loves maps so much that he decided to spend some of his newfound free time writing about them. His wife had a better idea, however. Instead of writing about maps, she suggested he make videos about them.
“I made four videos about the most interesting things I had found on a map, and I posted those on TikTok. In a matter of just a week or two, they got a shocking amount of traction,” recalls Horn, who goes by the name Map Nerd online. He posted his first videos in April 2022 and now has more than 360,000 followers on TikTok alone.
If JoseMonkey is a hunter, then Horn is a gatherer. Whereas they use the internet to find people who are hidden, he uses it to learn about things that are sitting in plain sight. His most popular video, for example, is about the Diomede Islands, a pair of tiny, rocky islands in the Bering Sea. One belongs to the United States and the other to Russia. In the winter, the water between them freezes, making it possible to walk from the United States to Russia.
Horn also has done videos about Tristan, the world’s most isolated town; Point Nemo, the farthest place from land in the ocean; and the Atacama Desert, a Chilean dumping ground for used clothing that’s so large you can see it from space.
“I love digging deep into these places … and just sort of telling the geographical stories behind them,” Horn says. “I look for things that are shocking or surprising. It’s not enough for something to be interesting. It’s got to be something that makes you go, ‘Whoa! I never knew that!’ Fortunately, there are endless amounts of things that are absolutely fascinating … on our world map.”
Horn also posts on YouTube and Instagram, and has a newsletter where he shares expanded insights about the places in his videos. He spends approximately 10 hours creating each piece of content using tools like LexisNexis for research and tools like Google Earth Studio for video production.
“Google Earth Studio allows you to use Google Earth with a visual, camera-based editor so you can create movies of places, almost as if you were flying a drone over them,” explains Horn, whose toolbox also includes OpenStreetMap, Mapbox, QGIS, NASA Earth Observatory, SkyFi, and Esri’s ArcGIS, which he’s taken classes to learn.
Although his sabbatical is nearly over, Horn plans to continue building the Map Nerd brand even after he starts working again. “I’ve cultivated a really great community of mapping enthusiasts—people who are interested in exploring the globe, even if they’re not physically going anywhere,” he says. “I love that we can all come together in this cloud-based place to talk about places we share on a map, and that we all have different perceptions of those places depending on where in the world we’re from. That’s super fascinating to me.”
Follow Horn on TikTok @map_nerd, on YouTube @MapNerdYT, and on Instagram @amap_nerd.