Hundreds of thousands of Airbnb listings allowed us to map and calculate how the American South describes itself
Normally a dispute like this would be decided by the Census Bureau, the ultimate arbiter of all things dweeb. But the Southern census definition appears to be very generous, covering every state from Delaware in the east to Oklahoma in the west.
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Data journalists have struggled to fill the gap. As we noted in last week’s column on the American Midwest, defining regions like the South was something of an industry rite of passage, with the likes of Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight and Soo Oh at Vox taking intelligent, data-driven swings.
But a definitive answer remained elusive until we noticed how many places advertise their “Southern hospitality” or “Midwestern charm” on Airbnb.
We found that all of these Airbnb hosts created a unique map of America’s true cultural frontiers. Airbnb listings contain hundreds of thousands of pages of text detailing how Americans describe their home regions to outsiders, and every single word of it is linked to a geographic location.
This little insight would eventually lead to a database with more than half a million entries. This allowed us to calculate which words and ideas made Southern culture unique. But first we need to define “the South”.
It wasn’t easy to search listings for the word “Southern”—too many people say they’re in “Southern Oregon” or advertise their home’s “Southern Exposure.” But we soon found that searching for phrases like “southern charm” or “southern hospitality” limited the results to true southerners.
According to this, the heartland of the south lies in the deep southern strip of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Their northern neighbors — Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Virginia — are also relatively easy to include.
From there things get hotter: West Virginia, Florida, Texas and DC are in the bubble. We estimate that hosts in these locations are only about one-tenth as likely to include the South in their listings as their friends in Mississippi, the southernmost state of them all.
But they’re also significantly more southern than the rest of the country, and our data shows they encompass large regions with strong Southern cultures—think East Texas or the Florida Panhandle—so including them made sense.
Of course, this version of the South includes areas that were more or less loyal to the Union during the Civil War (it’s complicated). Kentucky and West Virginia were slave states with sizeable concentrations of rebel sympathizers, while DC — also home to slaveholders until emancipation in 1862 — sought economic opportunity amid the Great Migration in the mid-20’s.
With the outline of the south firmly drawn, we can calculate the southernmost things. In order to meet our criteria, at least 200 entries had to mention something. We removed place names and anything that has more than a third of the listings from a single state – they represent a state, not a region.
The result shows a South still steeped in the legacy of slavery. The two southernmost words in our entire database are “antebellum” and “plantation,” words deeply associated with the Confederacy and representing a romanticized vision of an era marked by mass black slavery. (“Confederate” is also one of the 15 southernmost words.)
But it also features a location that is ecologically unique, with alligators, dolphins, armadillos, shrimp, and redfish all among the southernmost words in the database. Southern trees like Crepe Myrtle and Scots Pine didn’t have enough mentions to make the final cut, but they were among the southernmost species in the entire database. The same goes for the daiquiri.
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Many other entries point to classic touchstones of Southern culture, such as the second-person plural pronoun “y’all,” Mississippi-born crossover artist and pompadour popularizer Elvis Presley, and the most hallowed Southern Holiday, “Game Day”.
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