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Spotify Wrapped shows how our personal data gets sliced and diced

<i>Courtesy Spotify</i><br/>Spotify sends a message:
Courtesy Spotify
Spotify sends a message: "Your 2021 Wrapped is here

By Rachel Metz, CNN Business

Like many other Spotify users, I opened the music streaming app on Wednesday and received a cheerful message: “Your 2021 Wrapped is here,” it read, imploring me to explore the top songs, artists, and podcasts I listened to “in a year that was far from normal.”

I cringed while tapping the message to learn more. A brightly colored highlight reel played, showing me what I (mostly) suspected: My top songs included “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa, “Banana Boat (Day-O)” by Harry Belafonte (a favorite of my kindergartener) and “Ship to Wreck” by Florence and the Machine (Florence and the Machine was also the top artist I listened to — Spotify Wrapped informed me I spent 699 minutes listening to the band). In all, I listened to 48 different genres of music on Spotify for 6,664 minutes this year; an amount of time that is more than 51% of other listeners in the United States, Spotify helpfully noted.

Oh, and my “audio aura” for the year was heavily green, as my top musical moods, according to Spotify, were “friendly” and “spooky.”

Spotify Wrapped is, of course, a marketing campaign, and it’s an impressively effective one. The music streaming company has presented it annually in early December for the past several years, in the hopes that its 381 million users (172 million of whom are paid subscribers) share these very specific details of their personal listening habits with friends. Spotify knows a lot about its users because it tracks them closely; similar to Netflix, it uses artificial intelligence to recommend music to you based on factors such as what you have listened to in the past.

And people, myself included, were quick to share Spotify Wrapped on social media. I immediately posted a couple of screenshots to Twitter and saw many friends and colleagues had done likewise.

“I’m a walking stereotype,” tweeted my coworker Donie O’Sullivan, whose top artist for 2021 was U2 (Donie, like U2, comes from Ireland).

Even the US Department of Transportation got in on the action, tweeting a top-five songs list that leaned heavily on transportation themes (it included “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo and “Infrastructure” by St. Panther).

As of Thursday morning, a day after Spotify Wrapped’s 2021 release, Twitter search showed the hashtag “SpotifyWrapped” had been tweeted 14,000 times in just the past hour. Yet as some astute Twitter users also pointed out, this marketing campaign is an important example of how a company can conduct in-depth surveillance of our personal behavior over a long period of time and package it as a fun feature that we want to share with others.

“That’s the trick: to make these things kind of go viral and appealing and fun in ways that occlude the harms of the extractive practices,” said Chris Gilliard, a visiting research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Gilliard, who does not use Spotify and admits he’s “like a surveillance killjoy,” likens Spotify Wrapped to other efforts by tech companies to package surveillance as cute or fun, such as Astro, Amazon’s dog-like home-security robot; and Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses. He also pointed out that this kind of presentation of your listening activity could be triggering for some people in different ways. Imagine, for instance, if your Spotify Wrapped list included songs beloved by a friend who recently passed away.

We know, for the most part, that our apps and devices are constantly logging what we do, and using that data to make decisions. But rarely do they present such a glossy dossier of our activity, assembled much like a holiday gift. And while it can be fun, it may make us pause, too, and think about the magnitude and potential drawbacks of such data collection. While Spotify Wrapped feels festive, personal data wrap-ups may not seem so fun and harmless from every tech company. If, for instance, a service like Google’s Gmail sent you an email about your “2021 year in messages”, pointing out how often you started emails with “hey” or ended them with “best,” or the number of times you searched for old emails sent to or from ex-boyfriends, that might be a little creepier.

But the data Spotify is compiling about your music-listening habits is quite personal, because what we listen to says a lot about our lives and our moods, or at least the moods of our music (Spotify cheekily categorizes this kind of thing as an “audio aura”). If your Spotify Wrapped shows you listened to a lot of lullabyes or songs by The Wiggles, for example, chances are decent you have at least one young child — and if you post that list on social media, you might be inadvertently sharing that information with the world. Too many sad songs in your top five for 2021 might prompt an “are you okay?” message or two from friends who see your list on social media.

“It’s not only what you might be revealing, but what might be assumed, whether it’s true or not,” Gilliard said. This could be anything from whether or not you have anxiety, are pregnant, or recently got a medical diagnosis — all the kinds of things that might be guessed from songs or podcasts.

While my Spotify Wrapped felt benign (and predictable) enough to share, there was one surprise. The Rockwell classic “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which my kindergartener has forced me to play countless times over the past few months, didn’t make the list. Maybe next year.

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