Who’s your most listened-to artist of 2019?
If you’re one of Spotify’s 217 million monthly listeners, you can now answer that with data-backed precision.
That’s thanks to Spotify Wrapped 2019, a feature which aggregates up to a decade’s worth of your listening data to inform you of your top songs and your favorite artists. It can also tell you how your music taste changed over the seasons of 2019 and over the entire decade. People positively reveled in the data Spotify “generously” supplied them with, posting the results all over social media with varying degrees of sheepishness and pride. (“Guess I only listened to the Rent soundtrack?” “Alright, who was streaming to Post Malone on my account?” etc.)
The Wrapped feature, all bright colors, helpful compilations, and inarguably well-customized playlists, was so innocuous and friendly, it’s easy not to ask a pretty glaring question: Why is Spotify surveilling every song you listen to? And are they doing anything else with that information?
Ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden unmasked the frightening extent of surveillance going down at the NSA, people have become increasingly aware of, and arguably grown inured to, the continued overreach of government surveillance.
But there’s a perhaps less-universally-feared form of surveillance that is equally permeating our lives: surveillance by corporations, and, in the case of Spotify, by streaming services.
As the New York Times wrote earlier this year, a growth in surveillance infrastructure has allowed streaming services and advertisers to collaborate in establishing tracking technology that “quietly sops up information about their [users’] habits and uses it to target them with more relevant, traceable ads.” For example, Hulu offers advertisers the opportunity to present targeted advertisements to users based on “interests and real world actions — both on and off Hulu.”
While some argue that this data serves to improve user experiences and inform them about more relevant products, there’s no denying the fact that receiving a too-on-the-nose ad can be unsettling. From Target figuring out a teen girl was pregnant to Facebook telling advertisers that it can tell when teens are feeling “insecure” or “worthless,” the overreach of today’s targeted advertising seems to know no bounds.
The New York Times conducted an experiment where it used just 16 of 30,000 potential data points to create ads that actively informed people of how their data was being used, like: “This ad thinks you’re male, actively consolidating your debt and are a high spender at luxury department stores.” or “This ad thinks you’re trying to lose weight but still love bakeries.” It’s no wonder that a 2018 InMoment poll found that 75% of users have had creepy personalization experiences. What’s more, 40% of people polled at brands admitted to feeling creepy about their own attempts at personalization.
For its part, Spotify is no stranger to harvesting data. Earlier this year, The Baffler reported that the streaming service was selling advertisers access to listening data, even when a user chooses to listen in a “private session”. Furthermore, the article examines the streaming service’s use of the “Mood” feature, in which users select music based on their mood — whether they’re happy, sad, raging, or even grieving the loss of a loved one. Since 2016, Spotify has “shared this mood data directly with the world’s biggest marketing and advertising firms.” This allows a company like Coca-Cola to choose to play its “Open Happiness” ad specifically when users are listening to music intended to boost their mood.
The Baffler also notes that a current advertising deck for Spotify boasts that: “At Spotify we have a personal relationship with over 191 million people who show us their true colors with zero filter. That’s a lot of authentic engagement with our audience: billions of data points every day across devices!” It goes on to say, “This new research is starting to reveal the streaming generation’s offline behaviors through their streaming habits.” In a 2017 package called Understanding People Through Music — Millennial Edition, Spotify notes that it can take advantage of the way millennials listen to music to maximize advertising opportunities, calling Spotify playlists a “mood ring” for its listeners. People listening to “Partying” playlists would be most responsive to “multimedia campaigns across connected devices” while those listening to “Workout” playlists would be most persuaded by a “motivating story with video and display outside the moment.” All of which is to say: Spotify is using information about your mood to make you buy more garbage you don’t need.
Efforts like Spotify’s Wrapped feature serve to make this constant dirge of online surveillance less menacing, and even enjoyable. It sends a comforting message — that Spotify’s not collecting every iota of your data just so they can sell it to giant data firms that will use it to make decisions about every ad you’re going to see every day of the week. No, they’re collecting it so they can make you aesthetically-pleasing lists that tell you more about yourself and let you share your “individuality” with your friends and followers.
Christine Bannan, consumer protection counsel at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center seems to agree, having told Wired, “These sorts of ads speak to larger issues of these business models. They definitely promote a surveillance culture. They want it to become normalized that all of your viewing and streaming habits are recorded and analyzed.” Judging by the social media success of the campaign, it’s working.
Not all forms of year-end celebrations by streaming services have quite the same success. The less publicly-palatable version of this style of surveillance came in December 2017, when Netflix made the mistake of trolling its viewers with more… unique viewing habits. The company’s Twitter account asked: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”
In a press release, the streaming service also noted that one account had watched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl every day for 365 days. People were creeped out.
The Spotify approach has been different and savvier. Instead of calling out users with embarrassing media diets, the streaming service simply converted each users’ highly-valuable data into fun, colorful time capsules. This feature plays to our innate human nostalgia, much like Facebook’s “Friend Anniversary” does. At the same time, it facilitates a form of “self-expression” — people stake a big part of their identity in the music they listen to. By neatly packaging that self-expression and nostalgia into one fun, shareable chart, Spotify turns its omnipresent collection of user data into an unexpected holiday present. In the process, it makes it easy to forget how creepy it is that they’re listening to us listen in the first place.