December 9, 2022 | CULTURE | By Jonathan Cox | Art provided by author

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Anticipation builds around the day of celebration –– it’s in the air. You get all warm and fuzzy inside and you can’t wait to share this special moment with friends and family. That’s right, it’s time for Spotify Wrapped.  

Colorado College students across campus and social media deck the feeds with boughs of top artists and minutes listened. Rumors circulate of “Stomp and Holler” replacing “Scientia et Disciplina” on the CC seal.  

For those who missed a Spotify Wrapped this year, or worse, settled for a “Replay” (all in good fun, Apple Music listeners) let me lay out how it works.

An enticing banner pops up on Spotify Wrapped morning, and you get to open your present. The Spotify Wrapped storyline builds anticipation throughout. Each slide tells part of your story using data which culminates in the final wrapped review many often post on social media.

Various statistical insights include your total yearly listening in minutes, your top artist and song which head the top five, and your swath of genres. This data is interesting in isolation, but Spotify knows the power of a story. They found a way to connect your music-listening habits to provide insights into your character, showing overarching moods you listened to throughout the day, and even created a proprietary musical personality test (I was an ENVP, the Adventurer… I wonder if it correlates to my star sign).

Spotify made the experience optimal for engagement with users and made posting about it easier than ever, with colorful eye-catching graphics and a share function to multiple platforms.  

I was fascinated with the enormous success of Spotify Wrapped. It made me wonder about the ethics of the viral media event.  This is especially pertinent to today,  a time when powerful tech companies often harness the power of machine learning for corporate gain and ignore externalities, like political polarization and mental health crises. I’ve also started to consider the implications of Spotify as social media and how their business model could last the test of time compared to other tech giants.  

Like almost all consumer-based technology platforms, Spotify is driven by powerful artificial intelligence that personalizes the listening experience through learning your tastes and listening habits to help you find new music you’ll love. These machine learning algorithms drive other platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Apart from podcasts (which comprised less than 2% of revenues last year), Spotify’s content does not peddle conspiracies, reinforce political bias, or make users question their self-worth, like these other platforms. 

The propensity to post my Wrapped feels far more authentic than posting a perfect façade of my imperfect life. The basis for comparison with friends’ Wrapped profiles is based on statistical information but still tells others about my personality and unique tastes. I know the Instagram story of a friend’s Wrapped is not a funhouse mirror or tied to virtue-signaling or other performative bullshit infesting social media.

Spotify Wrapped is not only an ingenious marketing campaign, but also a largely ethical one. This is paramount in an age when a dependence on social media is creating a myriad of mental health crises and the “attention economy” preys on people’s primordial psychological instincts to maximize engagement and profit off of distraction.

This begs the question: is Spotify social media?

In some ways, it is very much so: users can follow artists and fellow users; they can like other users’ playlists; there is a home page, an explore page, and a personal profile page; and the tech company relies on machine learning and data to improve the experience.

However, if I listen to a Caamp and Mt. Joy playlist, Google won’t advertise me Blundstones and Carhartts immediately. This is because Spotify’s business model is not engagement-driven ad revenue, rather a subscription service. Additionally, Spotify’s creator base of highly-skilled artists implicitly causes barriers to entry which is not conducive to democratized “Influencer Culture” –– a trademark of social media platforms.

Society is starting to realize the unintended consequences of social media and is pushing back. Apple took a controversial stance on the issue when they put power back in the hands of iPhone users to choose if apps track data.

Facebook recognizes this growing awareness, and with their main platform losing more followers than it is gaining, Zuckerberg may see Meta as an exit strategy. Society’s reckoning with social media could prove arduous and deeply unprofitable for many platforms, but Spotify is well-positioned to weather the storm with an ethical business model for consumers (the ethics for artists is another story) and a product that will keep people Stompin’ and Hollerin’.

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