Presence and activity in Spotify, and how it just became lonelier

I have been listening to music through Spotify pretty much constantly since the service became available in the US. I love it because of the fact that it provides the music lover’s dream of immediate and free (or cheap) access to a good share of the music that’s out there. With my Spotify account connected to my Facebook account, I have also grown accustomed to seeing the listening activity of my Facebook friends scroll by on the righthand side of the Spotify window throughout the day. This is not by any means the service’s main feature. But it was one that provided a friendly sort of awareness of what other people were listening to at any given moment, and perhaps also some indication of things like how they would musically cope with Mondays.

This social aspect of Spotify is also one of a number of small cases I am working with currently for my dissertation, in which I am looking at how small technologies and applications make presence and activity visible. This is why I have this screen shot (right) of my feed from a few months ago. Image

So I was somewhat startled when, after upgrading to the latest version of Spotify a few days ago, this feed disappeared and was replaced by the activity of the single account whose playlist I had subscribed to. As Spotify describes the changes:

Before these changes, Spotify Social gave you a People list. This would be populated with all your Facebook friends (if you have connected Spotify to your Facebook profile). You could also “Add” any Spotify user to your People list. This system has been rebooted. You can now “follow” people and artists on Spotify.

Of course it seems possible to replicate the earlier setup by subscribing to all of one’s Facebook friends, and there are clearly many advantages to explicitly following only certain people. But this is also a different dynamic, one in which using Spotify Social is an intentional activity more than a passive and general awareness. It will probably encourage me to subscribe to artists I like, close friends, and people with similar musical tastes. Explicitly following people one barely knows seems somewhat stalker-like and, once you think about it, kind of pointless. This is perhaps why the ‘featured’ accounts that are suggested for following are big-name entertainers and media entities.Image

As yet another social platform, Spotify provides a way for people to find and share content they like, and for content providers (even, apparently, generally non-musical ones like the GMA morning news and entertainment show) to market to fans or build their brands. It seems to be following the same general trajectory of other platforms like Twitter and Facebook in catering more to the latter as it matures.

This new configuration seems both more useful and more lonely. It is also an example of how code can create structures that determine how and under what conditions presence and activity are made visible.


NPR, SXSW, and the nature of (digital) experience

A few days ago I read Pieter Tijmes’ excellent chapter on Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology in the book American Philosophy of Technology: The Empirical Turn, before getting sucked into NPR Music’s equally (although differently) excellent live stream of concerts in their showcase at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference. That juxtoposition got me thinking about the nature of experience in relation to technologies, particularly vis-à-vis Borgmann’s device paradigm and thoughts on the relation between technology and reality.

In his device paradigm Borgmann lays out a compelling framework for thinking about the distinctive characteristics of modern technologies, or devices, and their relation to the good life. A device, he says, is something that separates means from ends, and provides a commodity without requiring any particular engagement on our part. While devices disburden us, they can also draw us away from the kinds of activities that lead to the development of character and engagement with our world. In contrast, things richly interweave means and ends and gather together multiple contexts. They serve a centering and grounding role. They are also bound up with focal practices: things like celebratory meals, practice of a musical instrument, festivals, and runs (not the treadmill variety). For Borgmann, technologies typically fall squarely into the ‘device’ category, and thus constitute a threat to focal practices.

From another angle, Borgmann similarly describes the kind of information that is produced by technologies as being independent of reality, and sometimes seeming to replace it. This is in contrast to ‘natural’ information, which is rooted in the physical world and is significant in its own right. He sets up an opposition between reality and technological, or hyperreal, information. The technological, for him, calls us away from focal engagement with reality.

This is an approach to thinking about technologies that is quite useful and provocative, and that I really like. But its pessimistic assessment of the role technologies play in our lives doesn’t seem entirely warranted. After all, some technologies can actually be thing-like and facilitate focal practices (as Verbeek has pointed out). And on a deeper level, it seems that technology is also increasingly providing ways for us to engage with reality.

This is where my experience of virtually watching SXSW concerts comes in. NPR Music had a high quality live video stream of the concerts, as well as a chat room that enabled conversation among music fans and the NPR Music hosts (and collective complaints when the video feed gave out). At one point I asked a question in the chat room (about how on earth Colin Stetson was able to produce those crazy layers of otherworldly continuous sounds on his bass sax). NPR answered this in the chat room, and then also sent a tweet with the explanation. So I was at times simultaneously watching a video feed through my laptop that was hooked up to my tv and sound system, sitting at my computer and monitoring and contributing to the chat room, and also monitoring Twitter. By some accounts, this would be a very fractured experience.

But it also has some of the same characteristics of Borgmann’s focal practices. It was not the same as actually being there, for sure. But in some ways it was richer because of the other interactions and experiences I was able to have – a better view, the artist interviews after the concerts, the other people commenting in the chat space, etc. I was also able to see several of the All Songs Considered presenters after only hearing them for several years. Usually I hear them report on these kinds of concerts once they come back and wrap them up in podcasts, but in this case I was able to see a video stream of them actually there talking about it as they experienced it live.

Another ‘context’ that was woven into this experience was the political movement to eliminate federal funding for NPR. One performer actually gave a shout out to NPR for its extremely important role in supporting and bringing visibility to independent musicians such as herself, and admonished the crowd to pledge (with their right hands up) to do everything they could to ensure that NPR would remain in existence. Given the legislation passed by the House that day that would discontinue funding for NPR, this is in a way a very pressing ‘local’ issue, in the sense that it affects the everyday lives of everyone both physically at that venue and those of us who watched online. When the performer said this I was also reminded of how much music I have discovered through NPR Music and KCRW Music over the years. (And I actually called my congressional representatives later to ask them to support funding for public radio.)

So in this small experience there were drawn together my history of listening to All Songs Considered over the years; the space of the performance in Austin, Texas; the space of the online chat room in which many strangers were able to in some way share a virtual experience; and the broader space of political debate over funding for NPR. It was an experience that called for me to be present and engaged: with the performances, with the musicians I heard for the first time and began to follow, with other music fans, with NPR Music, and with a political issue that had achieved new relevance. Although it was entertaining in many ways, it was much more than entertainment as commodity.

Some digital technologies can certainly act as devices that call us away from engagement with the real. But, as I’ve been describing here, they can also serve as powerful tools for engaging with our worlds. These are very real worlds that matter in real ways – even if we sometimes need to use mediating technologies to reach them.


I’ve always been opinionated. But recently I’ve been noticing that technology is giving me more ways than ever to express my opinionated self, and maybe even encouraging me to be more opinionated than I would be otherwise.

Case in point: Pandora. I love Pandora. One of the things I like the most is that I can give it feedback. I can tell my digital DJ when it’s doing a good job and when it’s on the verge of being fired. (Well, I may not be able to express quite that strong of an opinion, but the thumbs-down lets me at least get at my general sentiment.) Ever since I started using Pandora last summer it has provided the soundtrack of my life, taking over the role that KCRW Music had filled for the past couple years. Recently, though, I decided to check back in with KCRW, and found that my experience of it was different. I missed my thumbs. My voting thumbs, that is. When one of the (excellent) KCRW DJs played something I didn’t like, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it (other than turn it off completely, of course). It is somewhat ironic that one of the reasons I wanted to listen to KCRW for a while again was that I wanted to be exposed to music I wouldn’t be exposed to through my self-selected Pandora channels; and yet when some of this music played I grew immediately impatient.

Netflix is another service I’ve started to use in the last few months which has also encouraged me to be happily opinionated. The more movies I rate the better my recommendations will get, they tell me. As in the case of Pandora, the Netflix system figures out the types of things I like and recommends other options that are quite similar.

While Pandora and Netflix solicit ratings very explicitly and for the purpose of refining personal recommendations, the general idea of user feedback and interactivity is one of the themes of Web 2.0.* In the world of journalism, for instance, we are generally no longer toleratant of  a one-way flow of information from corporate producers to consumers, insisting rather that we be able to at least give feedback. One interesting example of this type of thing is the CNN/Facebook partnership for inauguration day coverage.

I’ve also found that just having the ability to broadcast my current thoughts to the people I’m connected to on Facebook and Twitter has allowed me to express my opinions on things I would probably not talk to them about otherwise. For example, my Facebook and Twitter friends have heard a decent amount on my opinions of the Indiana winter weather recently. (In case you’re wondering, they’ve been overwhelmingly negative.)

While I do like to be able to express my opinions, particularly in ways that enable more personalized service (as with Pandora and Netflix), at the same time I wonder if these systems might prevent me from being exposed to things that could expand my horizons or challenge me in positive ways. If a track plays on Pandora that is not readily accessible or that does not conform to my current tastes, I will likely give it a thumbs-down and go on to the next track. On the other hand, if the same track plays on the radio, I will probably sit it out, and perhaps even grow to like or at least appreciate it.

As with a lot of things, this is probably a case where everything has its place. And this is why I’ve started to bring KCRW back into my playlist once in a while.


*I know there are about as many definitions of Web 2.0 as there are geeks, but I’m pretty sure that the idea of feedback and interactivity is a commonality. At least that’s my opinion.

Technical / musical synergy

Disclaimer: I just posted this on my old blog at, but am duplicating it here so this new blog won’t look so bare and empty!

I just listened to the 2008 year in review episode of the NPR All Songs Considered podcast, and was intrigued by a reference that the commentators made to technology in a discussion of the over-arching themes or moods of 2008 music. One of the main themes that they identified was that of retreat, solitude, reflection, etc., as exemplified by artists such as Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. One commentator (I think it was Bob Boilen) equated this with the ‘death of the boom box’: the public listening experience of the boom box has given way to the more solitary and intimate experience of music through iPod headphones.

I thought it was interesting how there could be this synergy between musical trends/evolution and the evolution of our collective listening habits. Then of course, being the nerd academic I am, I started wondering what kind of sociotechnical theory could be used to account for this. Does technical change cause musical change, or vice versa? Do they mutually shape each other? Are they causally unrelated, and the iPod experience just happens to accentuate one of the current musical moods?

I’m not going to work through all that, and it may be just coincidence. But even if it is, I still think it’s interesting to think about how technology design shapes the way that we relate to and experience music.