What with the emerging aftermaths of foreign interference and hyper-targeted flaunting of spending regulations in democratic processes, countless examples of monopolistic behaviour with reckless disregard for user privacy, incomprehensible levels of abuse stemming from lackadaisical approaches to moderation, and Instagram getting rid of the chronological feed, it’s become somewhat en vogue to bemoan social media as the cause of modern society’s every ill. Yet, I still find the thought of adding myself to its ever-expanding horde of detractors rather unfortunate – after all, without Twitter we may never have revelled in Ed Balls Day or #susanalbumparty, a group chat exclusively for sharing pictures of good dogs is probably the only good thing to have come out of 2018, and Facebook has never played a more intrinsic role in my existence than it does today, where my primary use for it is to keep tabs on an 11,000-strong Jason Derulo fan club, for serious fans only.
That said, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that only one social network in my life – Spotify – actually tells me anything about the people I call acquaintances, rather than simply housing the usual blend of their #edgy “candids”, dankest memes, questionable politics, and vague, typo-ridden subtweets that would be better suited to a journal or a passive aggressive Post-It. Instead, the desktop app’s Friend Activity sidebar serves as a radical counterpoint to well-worn conventions of more explicitly social platforms, offering real-time streams of consciousness as its core attraction. Interactions, engagement, and follower tallies may be the treasured metrics of algorithmically-oriented rivals, but Spotify affords these vacuous statistics all the reverence they deserve, either by burying them in the dregs of user profiles or forgoing them entirely.
The result is one of almost disturbing simplicity for the product of a £20 billion tech company: a reverse chronological list of the last songs played by the people you’ve chosen to follow for whatever reason, updating by the second and linking off to full playlists and top artist summaries for when you’re feeling particularly intrigued and/or nosy. What this allows is a genuinely fascinating glance into the minds of your nearest and dearest at any hour, more than what they might actively share ever could, like exposing a certain indie evangelist from The Edge’s editorial team as a raving fan of Shawn Mendes, a rising scent of pungent regret care of a fresher starting their Sunday morning with ‘Hangover’ by Taio Cruz, ancient graduates adjusting to adulthood with the exact same sort of thirst for tacky EDM that I suffered a few years back, or – in a rare example of the feed not entirely being a MailOnline-rivalling sidebar of shame – realising that long-lost school friends might be over 5,000 miles away but they still start the day with the same Tom Misch records as you do.
In five-ish years as a Premium subscriber, I’ve only ended up following 220-odd profiles, which may seem diminutive compared to every comparable online community, but perhaps that’s its strength. I’d hazard a guess that the feed that follows – two-thirds people from the real world, the remainder artists in the hope of guiding my Discover Weekly suggestions in the right direction – is split fairly equally between two camps: people with exceptional taste, who’ll often find the next great things yonks before I’d stumble into them otherwise, and those still followed out of morbid curiosity, as I see them fill their afternoons with copious Death Grips, Hamilton, Yxng Bane, or Ed Sheeran. Such is Spotify’s near-ubiquity when it comes to music consumption that everyone from your closest friends to your GCSE Physics teacher gets chucked onto this same playing field, with refusal to participate in the mass soul-bearing reserved only for three types of people: that half a dozen who still download MP3s or actually listen to physical formats, housemates who I mustn’t name who are perpetually in private sessions lest anyone realise just how much vintage Eurovision garbage they get through on a daily basis, or those whose AirPods are tuned into Apple Music, who simply cannot be trusted.
Despite Spotify’s apparently unquenchable urge to hack mercilessly away at its product to make actually using it for music listening a dash more tiresome or convoluted with each update – I refuse to listen to podcasts their way until the only other option is flying Reply All episodes in via cassette-clutching carrier pigeon, thank you very much – the one element of the experience that seems largely intact since I’ve been a customer is what keeps me locked in month after month, even if I dread to think what version of me my 87 followers would manage to put together from my listening habits. (With my manic array of playlists marked private to maintain some mystique for prying eyes, I imagine it’s likely an incomprehensible blur of Carly Rae Jepsen, PC Music, Bloc Party’s first album, and a sleepytime playlist often being left on loop all night long, punctuated by peculiar new music investigations in daylight hours and the odd ODESZA instrumental when I’m trying to trick myself into being productive.)
However, it’s exactly this raw, unfiltered antithesis to social media’s typical tropes that makes my Spotify profile easily the most honest and intimate portrait of myself to exist online, caring purely for bloody good music and the quest to find more of it, rather than the vicious old hunt one can get trapped in elsewhere pursuing likes, clout, or the illusion of success. For all the pitfalls and increasingly evident impacts of streaming and social platforms on culture and society, the character found in Spotify’s clunky old sidebar – however (un)intentionally – can be a refreshing and wholesome contrast to the rest of what modern life has to throw at us. More than a £20 machine-flattened blob of PVC, at least.