I have no idea why I like tracking ships.
November 21, 2016 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I recently discovered that apparently tracking ships or trains is a hobby for some people. I'm wondering if anyone has identified the reasons why.

Recently my son and I saw a cargo ship out on Lake Michigan, and he wondered what the ship's name was. In my Googling I found that there is a whole hobby around people who like to watch and track ships or trains. I downloaded a ship tracking app, and I've found it interesting to watch the activities of the ships...finding out which are near me, tracking the journey of the ship my son and I saw, etc.

However...I have no idea why this is interesting to me, or why I like watching the ships on their routes. I'm not particularly interested in ships themselves, I didn't grow up around them, and until this weekend I had little more than a passing interest in ships...and even then, it was mostly shipwrecks. It makes me wonder if people have identified why this is satisfying, the way psychologists have identified why people collect things. There has to be a reason since it seems to appeal to a number of people.

Does anyone know if this has been studied, and what the motivation might be behind this hobby? I'm looking less for personal anecdotes, and more for studies or psychological information. Thanks!
posted by christinetheslp to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You've hit upon something quite interesting. There sure are a constellation of "spotting" or "tracking" activities once you start to think about it—trains, ships, buses, planes, birds and satellites. On a surface level, these kinds of hobbies have elements of collecting, and of identifying, categorising, et cetera. But what else is there?

My speculation is that it's a combination of collecting (even if you're not explicitly "check-listing") and a form of deeper engagement with the world around us (in a physical sense, when observing outside, but also in a systems sense; for example, cargo ships form part of a supply chain we don't normally notice). Related to the latter, a loosely relevant scrap from my search of the scholarly literature (excerpt from an explanation of the rise of "dark tourism"):
... tourism is no longer restricted to its traditional forms (e.g. 2 weeks in the sun, a cruise, a safari, a cultural experience in London or Paris), but now encompasses almost all human activity – food tourism, sex tourism, sports tourism, sports tourism, literary tours, city breaks, trekking holidays, eco-tourism, scuba diving, singles holidays, train and plane spotting, etc.
In that respect, when "spotting" and "tracking" hobbies are focused on modes of transport, they may represent a form of geographical escapism. But yeah, I couldn't find any studies that specifically test or discuss these ideas.
posted by nagemi at 5:27 PM on November 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who is into this, but with planes. My takeaway is that it's adjacent to the "gotta catch 'em all" instinct of collectors, but you don't end up with a house full of clutter. It also seems to appeal to gearheads. Though I'm not sure everyone with a tracking hobby is necessarily a gearhead.
posted by Sara C. at 6:10 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think of it more as a kind of cultural cartography. Here is this huge system that operates all over the place, small pieces of which are visible at any given time. I'm not a big believer in human nature, but for whatever reason I think there's something that drives people to wonder what the "whole" is that is represented by these parts, and how they fit together and run.

There is also the collector-y spotters, where one is compiling a list of elements of these systems that are observed. Trainspotters, to my knowledge, aren't particularly interested in the routes of tracks, and there is a form of trainspotting in the DJ world where fans will camp out next to the person playing music and note the records played in order to acquire knowledge of the scene in which they're participating. Part cartography, part collectorism. Similarly, planespotters don't to my knowledge track route changes, bird migration patterns, or any of the other aspects of actual flight.
posted by rhizome at 6:32 PM on November 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Observational hobbies are indeed very widespread. Some people are into amateur astronomy, bird- or butterfly- watching, trainspotting and so on. It's like collecting things without actually accumulating anything. I think the sort of activity you mention falls into the same category.
posted by plep at 2:11 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's also a connection between observation hobbies in general and citizen science - hence you have things like butterfly counts (which can also track migration paths - of a different kind).

ISS spotting is also a thing which might overlap a bit with ship-watching (and amateur astronomy of course).
posted by plep at 2:14 AM on November 22, 2016

One of the most popular forms of these observational hobbies, at least here in Britain, are birdwatching and trainspotting but, as plep notes, it also spills over into the biological sciences in general as nature-spotting. See ISpot.

The socio-psychology section on wikipedia's birdwatching entry provides some references.
posted by vacapinta at 3:30 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

There's a great movie called Station Agent that's kind of about this.
posted by monologish at 7:54 AM on November 22, 2016

I think the predictability is part of it, especially for a thing like a ship-tracking app where you don't have to actually see the thing - it's a reassurance that things are rolling along as they should, that some parts of the world are trustworthy and dependable.
posted by momus_window at 2:26 PM on November 22, 2016

I can give you one reason: I read this ask and thought, wow, please tell me what app this is because I live in Baltimore and am down by the ports often and would LOVE to know where the ships are coming from and going to. It's an insight into my environment that I would enjoy. So, 'deeper connection with one's hometown' is apparently a reason. (seriously, what is the app?)
posted by AliceBlue at 3:45 PM on November 22, 2016

Just want to make sure you are aware of this site: http://www.marinetraffic.com/
posted by terrapin at 4:03 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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