The big problem with Spotify packed

For some, Black Friday heralds the holiday season. But for others, it’s when they open Spotify on a late fall day and see their Spotify Wrapped is available. It’s the opening salvo of year-in-review content — and perhaps the most personal, bringing with it an opportunity to relive summer hits or wince at the cumulative minutes spent listening to a sad song after a breakup.

This year’s surprise wrapped drop came on Wednesday. And just like in years past, Wrapped screenshots flooded Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.

It’s a social trend that’s growing every year, permeating the noise, stoked pride, and/or self-deprecating humor, depending on who your top artists were. And it’s all based on user data, which Spotify wraps up in cool neon colors with cheeky comments — a move that mitigates the creepiness of knowing Spotify is always listening. And in exchange for keeping its users entertained for the day, Spotify gets its annual chance to fuel a social media trend and take advantage of free advertising as millions share their Wrapped publicly.

With more and more companies coming under fire for tracking users and storing data, Spotify manages to largely avoid such widespread criticism. Instead, many await and welcome the arrival of Wrapped. But it’s also a beautifully packaged manifestation of the music streamer’s ability to capture every second people spent listening from January through October.

“This is a particularly shining example of how Spotify’s business model is built on surveillance,” said Evan Greer, director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future. “Spotify has done a great job of marketing surveillance as fun and getting people not only to participate in their own surveillance, but to celebrate it, share it, and brag about it to the world.”

Spotify released its first version of a year in review in 2015. But it didn’t catch on until a few holidays later, when the app started serving it up on pastel-colored cards. It has amplified its interactive insights and further personalized the experience. In 2021, Spotify Wrapped was shared 60 million times by users. But these stats don’t capture screenshots, a common way people post their results on social media.

For 2022, Wrapped has evolved to target each user based on the music they’re streaming and other categories, such as: Spotify has also integrated Wrapped with WhatsApp and Roblox to expand its reach even further. “Wrapped is one of the most exciting times of the year for Spotify users,” Spotify spokeswoman Laura Batey said in an email. “We built something special that our audience expects and looks forward to.”

Spotify is so good at making these lists and predicting the music users want to listen to thanks to a robust artificial intelligence system and its immense data base. It also mined that data for weird personal ads, picking out users’ individual listening habits and anonymizing them before plastering them on billboards. “Dear person who played ‘sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day, what did you do?” read an old ad.

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