Digital Junk Food
I think my music taste is going stale. Not necessarily that the music I’m listening to is “worse”, but I’m listening to the same things over and over. I tend to get caught in a feedback loop of just listening to the same album or artist for weeks at a time, non-stop, before becoming burned out and moving on to the Next Thing™.
Even when my primary mode of digital music consumption was through iTunes, I would browse through either album covers or the list or artists I had curated, and decide what to listen to that way. Often, it would be something I hadn’t heard in a while.
A big part of this shift is my fault. I’m choosing what to play, and when I click on an album on Spotify it’s my hand on the mouse. However, I find that when I change the medium of consumption, the way I listen to music changes too.
Presented with my smaller vinyl collection (as compared to the entire library of music streaming), I’m much more likely to jump between albums or genres, bouncing off one record into another. Very rarely do I play the same record twice.
Why is it different now?
Once, my friend Brennan described being online as living a “life of junk food without knowing what healthy food is.”
Modern apps, from music players to messaging services, and of course social media is set up around feedback loops. They’re designed for user time, ideally optimizing the amount of time you spend on their services. The more time you browse Facebook, the more opportunities they have to serve you ads.
The same goes for services like Spotify. Even if you pay to subscribe to the service, they want to maximize the time you spend using it. One of the main ways they do this is by trying to show you what you want to see. If you load up the “browse” page on Spotify (which is the default for me, anyways) you’re immediately offered music they think is similar to what you were just listening to. Then they list the playlists they’ve created based on their algorithmic knowledge of your music tastes.
This doesn’t lead for a lot of discovery of new music, at least without jumping through a few hoops. Instead, you’re served music that is or is close to music they already know you like. It’s a conveyor belt of cheeseburgers, without trying a salad.
Is this a little over exaggerated? Sure. For their credit, Spotify uses their algorithms to generate a “Discover Weekly” playlist, which offers music that’s new, based on what you listen to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with indulging in things you like. It just doesn’t lead to you getting out of your comfort zone very often.
Why would a service want to try and give you something you might not like? That risks them somehow alienating you, and having you move to a different service that’s more catered to your likes.
Another part of this comes to how we listen to music. Think about all the 10 hour audio mixes on youtube, or the “lo-fi radio” streams that are oh so popular (with me as well!) For many, music is becoming more of a background activity rather than something you do actively in and of itself.
Beyond music, this really becomes a problem when applied to other fields, like news. Think about the echo chambers that social media is. We’re still unpacking what effect social media and the sharing of news and lies had on the past election in the United States. We may never truly understand how this affects the sociology of people. How is one’s comprehension of their world affected when you only see the side that an algorithm thinks you want to?
Most of my readers are tremendously savvy in the world of technology, and can see how things like this affects them enough to actively work against it. Consider your parents, who’s view of the world might come from only a few sources.
Or consider the generation who doesn’t know a life outside the internet; it’s inherent and ubiquitous to them. The save icon is not a floppy disk; it only means save. The sound made when an iPhone takes a photo is simply a sound effect. Without knowing the deeper meaning, would you know when to walk away?