When Your Data Tells You Who You Really Are.Spotify Wrapped shows how detailed and personal data collection can be.
By guest author Nicole Nguyen from the Wall Street Journal
I don’t love the idea that my data is collected by websites, apps and devices. Hackers could steal it. Advertisers could use it to get me to buy more stuff. Plus, it’s also kind of creepy that I’m tracked everywhere I go.
There are times when I want my data collected, though. Or at least, there are times I don’t mind because I get something of value in return. I’m reminded of that every year when Spotify sends me my Wrapped results.
In the latest Wrapped, which rolled out Nov. 30, Spotify told me I spent 12,035 minutes streaming this year—just over 200 hours—and I was in the top 1 % of listeners of a certain band I’m too shy to name. (It rhymes with GPS.) I also learned that my musical mood shifts from “Intense Uplifting Soothing” in the morning to “Acceptance Escapism Cathartic” later on.
Certainly, the made-for-social-media feature is a promotional tool for a company locked in competition with Apple and Amazon. It’s also about user retention, says Ziad Sultan, who leads personalization at Spotify. The service “is about understanding our users so we can reflect their taste back to them,” he adds.
Each Wrapped tidbit provides insight into ourselves and our musical year. For the first time, Spotify is assigning users one of 16 different listening personalities. Mine is “The Early Adopter,” someone who is “always seeking the next hot thing.” Seems right, since that’s my job, too.
Spotify users can find their own Wrapped details in the app. (Here’s a mobile shortcut.) If you’re ashamed of your results this year, try using the app’s private listening function. This hides your guilty pleasures from Spotify’s personalization engine, so your profile might be more publicly shareable next year.
For instance, here’s a tweet from one of many Spotify users who learned some embarrassing truths about their listening habits when their 2022 Wrapped results arrived:
Year-end wrap-ups are no longer unique to Spotify: Apple Music users get something called Replay; YouTube Music’s is called Recap. And Strava offers its athletes Your Year in Sport, though the 2022 version isn’t out yet.YYear-end wrap-ups are no longer unique to Spotify: Apple Music users get something called Replay; YouTube Music’s is called Recap. And Strava offers its athletes Your Year in Sport, though the 2022 version isn’t out yet.ear-end wrap-ups are no longer unique to Spotify: Apple Music users get something called Replay; YouTube Music’s is called Recap. And Strava offers its athletes Your Year in Sport, though the 2022 version isn’t out yet.
These snapshots remind us just how detailed and personal data collection can be. It can be unsettling when companies are unclear about how much data they collect, or how they use the data. It feels like a violation when it’s leaked, or shared without our permission. I appreciate that Spotify shows users what it can do with data it collects about us. I wish more services did the same.
The D Word
Data collection has a bad reputation. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica crisis showed how mass collection and leaky developer access could result in the exposure of tens of millions of people’s data. Plenty of other apps capture sensitive location data and hand it to the ad-tech industry and the government.
Other services show us some insights they glean from our data. Your Facebook ad preferences page is what the company thinks you like based on your activity and can read like the world’s weirdest mix of interests. For me, that includes “hair follicle,” “Denver” and “Asian Pasta.”
Google uses our phones’ whereabouts to report traffic information and real-time data on whether a restaurant is busy. It gets more detailed than that: If you have location history turned on, Google Timeline can tell you where you went on any given day. If you use Google Photos, it’ll show you images taken in those locations, too. Startling? Useful? Both.
More Insights, Please
Spotify telling me I listened to Phoebe Bridgers’s “Garden Song” 33 times is one thing. All the data-driven services I use giving me reports about my comings and goings are another. But doing so—despite it likely being a heavy number-crunching exercise—could open up the conversation about data collection and give us more reason to choose the services we do.
For starters, I’d like for Instagram to tell me who I stalked or interacted with the most this year, or for Alexa to recount my most-requested asks. I wish Peloton could reveal which day of the week I’m laziest. I would love for Google Docs to produce a list of my most overused words in 2022, or for Netflix to show me the kinds of thumbnails I’m most likely to tap on. My smart air purifier could probably calculate how often I burned toast. Twitter, please tell me how many hours or days I’ve spent procrastinating on your app.
Spotify Wrapped reveals the kinds of deeply personal inferences that companies and their algorithms can make from our data. It’s fun, but it also gives us a chance to think about what data we shed as we use the internet, and what companies are doing with it.