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How the Spotify Algorithm is Ruining My Work Life

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GUEST POST BY KATHARINE TRENDACOSTA

Algorithms increasingly seem to be running our lives. They’re used in courts, hospitals, and banks. The use of the algorithms bring up a lot of concerns about bias, privacy, and the kind of content they share. I have a much more basic problem with them: they’re stupid.

Here’s a very minor example:

I, like many people, use Spotify. I mostly use it at work, because I like to have music playing while I work and I don’t want to play music off my phone for that. I don’t really use it otherwise, because of the ephemeral nature of digital music.

You don’t own digital music, movies, or books. When you stream something, it can vanish from the service you subscribe to once the agreement between the copyright owner and the streaming platform expires or changes. And often, when you “buy” a digital copy of something, you can also lose access to it for basically the same reason. Because you rarely actually own a digital copy, you merely license it.

That’s why I have a preference for owning hard copies of media. It means I will always have access to it. In the same way many cybersecurity experts prefer dumb phones to smart phones and anything to a digital assistant, copyright nerds also prefer having an actual, physical copy of music, movies, and books they love.

Music you can actually own (photo by Andrei Bocan)

So I own a lot of music. And I have only some of it on my phone. And because I’m buying it and storing it in my home, I’m pretty selective about it. So what I play on Spotify can get… weird.

I play a number of songs on Spotify that are all-time favorites or time-tested work inspiration. But I also use Spotify to play music that’s gotten stuck in my head or that I’m curious about. Or are novelties I don’t need to own. That has given the Spotify algorithm a very skewed perception of my music tastes. Or, to put it another way: I have angered the algorithm and will pay for it.

One weird hell I am in is that the playlists Spotify makes for me–one of those things people love and endlessly share on social media–are hopelessly screwed up for me. They’re very confusing. For one thing, because I often feel the need to listen to a whole musical soundtrack, it keeps making playlists cobbled together from various musicals, which is the opposite of what I’m doing. The other, very stupid thing Spotify keeps doing is inserting a random musical song into other playlists, where the tonal shift is very jarring.

Another level of Spotify algorithm hell I am in is the Imagine Dragons circle. Why, why, why Spotify keeps thinking that the song I want to listen to most in the world is “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. I cannot stress enough how much this is not the case. I do not want to listen to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. I never want to listen to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Spotify has shoved this song into my playlists enough that the second I hear it, I now start bleeding from the ears. I can’t help it. The  guitar riff and “ooooohh” singing starts and I start gushing blood from my ears. (And yes, looking up the song to link there did infuriate me, thanks for asking.)

WORST OF ALL, because Spotify kept inserting this song into playlists I tuned out while doing other things, I sometimes didn’t catch what was being played in time to skip it. And so this song that I have grown to loathe with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns is…on the playlist of my most played songs of 2018. The algorithm, which seems to not have noticed I skip this song as much–if not more–than I let it play to the end now keeps recommending things that sound like “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. I am being stalked and hunted by this song. And I don’t think I’m going to ever escape. (Do not even get me started on why it INSISTS that I also want to hear Simple Plan.)

This is all very stupid, obviously, and a very petty greivance to have. What it shows is that algorithms that do something very insignificant are prone to extremely frustrating failures. And we’ve somehow decided that the same technology that keeps aurally attacking me is one that should decide who gets bail, who gets a credit card, or who gets medical care. How can that be good?

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