Spotify can tell if you’re sad. Here’s why that should scare you
Our personal, private moments with music are being turned into data points. That could be lucrative for companies – and emotionally very costly for consumers
Sun 16 Sep 2018 14.00 BST
Want to figure out if someone is a psychopath? Ask them what their favourite song is. A New York University study last year found that people who loved Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean? were more likely to score highly on the psychopathy scale than people who were into Dire Straits.
Now obviously that study is very far from conclusive and no reason to cut Beliebers and Eminem stans from your life. Nevertheless, you can tell a fair bit about someone by their music consumption. Spotify certainly thinks so anyway. Someone who works at the company recently informed me that: “Nothing says more about someone than the music they listen to and their porn habits.” I have no idea if that’s a company-wide mantra, but it’s certainly ingrained in the streaming service’s business model. (The first bit, I mean, not the porn habits.) Over the past few years, Spotify has been ramping up its data analytic capabilities in a bid to help marketers target consumers with adverts tailored to the mood they’re in. They deduce this from the sort of music you’re listening to, coupled with where and when you’re listening to it, along with third-party data that might be available.
- Stan: The name of the eponymous character (stan) has given rise to a slang term online which refers to overzealous, maniacal, overly obsessed fans of a celebrity or personality; the term has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
- Nevertheless: You use nevertheless when saying something that contrasts with what has just been said.
- Ingrained: Ingrained habits and beliefs are difficult to change or remove.
- Ramp up: To increase the effort involved in a process
- Bid: A bid for something or a bid to do something is an attempt to obtain it or do it.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing particularly machiavellian about what Spotify is doing with your data. I certainly don’t think that they are working with shadowy consulting firms to serve you ads promoting a culture war while you’re listening to music that suggests you might be in a casually racist mood. Nevertheless, I find it depressing that our personal, private moments with music are increasingly being turned into data points and sold to advertisers. Or, in some cases, being mined for economic insights by central bankers. This year, the chief economist at the Bank of England said researchers were increasingly gauging the public mood by analysing Spotify streaming data.
- Gauge: If you gauge people's actions, feelings, or intentions in a particular situation, you carefully consider and judge them.
I managed to overcome my feelings of moroseness about the monetisation of our souls (listening to Justin Bieber is very uplifting), however, and do some gauging of the public’s musical mood myself. I asked Spotify to crunch through some playlists for me and find the most miserable cities in the UK. You may or may not be surprised to learn that Oxford and Cambridge listen to the most depressing music in Britain, while St Helens, in Merseyside, and Barnsley have the happiest listening habits.
- Morose: Someone who is morose is miserable, bad-tempered, and not willing to talk very much to other peop
- Crunch: To crunch numbers means to do a lot of calculations using a calculator or computer.
But please don’t get distracted by my fun facts about Barnsley. I think it’s important that we end this piece feeling angry. You see, Spotify is far from the only platform helping brands target people according to their emotions; real-time mood-based marketing is a growing trend and one we all ought to be cognisant of. In 2016, eBay launched a mood marketing tool, for example. And last year, Facebook told advertisers that it could identify when teenagers felt “insecure” and “worthless” or needed “a confidence boost”. This was just a few years after Facebook faced a backlash for running experiments to see if it could manipulate the mood of its users.
You can see where this could go, can’t you? As ad targeting gets ever more sophisticated, marketers will have the ability to target our emotions in potentially exploitative ways. According to one study, titled Misery Is Not Miserly, you are more likely to spend more on a product if you’re feeling sad. You can imagine some companies might take advantage of that. And on that note, I’m feeling a little down about all this. Heading off to treat myself to something expensive.
- Ad: Advertisement
- Head off: To depart or set out
- Treat: If you say that something is your treat, you mean that you are paying for it as a treat for someone else.
The chairdrobe: millennials’ dirty little secret
In the corner of my bedroom, there’s a chair covered with lightly worn clothes that are too clean to wash but too dirty to put away. My partner calls this pile a “mess”, but Unilever has a far fancier name for it. According to the consumer goods giant, it’s a “chairdrobe” and 60% of millennials have one. I imagine a few also have hookdrobes and dresserdrobes and maybe even floordrobes.
- Wear: wear / wore / worn
- Mess: A mess is something liquid or sticky that has been accidentally dropped on something.
Anyway, as the old saying goes, where there is a consumer-research-inspired portmanteau there is a product opportunity! Unilever has recently started selling a dry-cleaning spray called Day 2, which claims to help millennials to launder the clothes on their chairdrobes. The spray comes with big promises (“Revive clothes instantly”) and a hefty price tag. A small can that treats 25 clothing items costs £7.50.
- Portmanteau: : A new word formed by joining two others and combining their meanings. You might remember portmanteau from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, where Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the portmanteau word, in which "two meanings are packed up into one word." So, according to Humpty Dumpty, slithy means "lithe and slimy," and mimsy is "flimsy and miserable." You can make your own portmanteau words, and here are some examples for inspiration: smog (smoke + fog); brunch (breakfast + lunch), sitcom (situation + comedy), and infomercial (information + commercial). The other sense of the word refers a traveling case or bag; esp., a stiff leather suitcase that opens like a book into two compartments.
- Hefty: Hefty means large in size, weight, or amount.
Despite the premium price, Unilever thinks there’s a bright future for Day 2. “We know the chairdrobe is a universal concept ... but as we move into a modern age where we’re more time-poor than ever, that’s becoming an even more relevant consumer problem,” Day 2’s head of marketing, Nathan Olivieri, told Reuters, sounding as if he had just put a bunch of words through a spin cycle.
- Bunch: A bunch of things is a number of things, especially a large number.
- Spin cycle: In a washing machine is the fast cycle.
According to Olivieri, the most reworn item of clothing tends to be jeans. “That’s a high pride point for a lot of millennials, you know, ensuring that their denim is as pristine as possible,” he said. I thought that was a very weird quote when I first read it, but, upon reflection, I reckon he’s right. All the millennials I know measure their self-worth by how pristine their denim is. What can I say, we’re a proud jeaneration.
- Denim: It is the clothes with which texans are made
- Jeaneration: It’s a portmanteou word: jean + generation. In other words is a pun, a wordplay
Time for Americans to pack their bags?
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Americans and Brits are identical in all respects except their language and their attitude towards plastic bags. I live in New York, where people rarely bring their own reusable bags to the supermarket; when I came home to London recently I was flabbergasted by how many people do. According to government figures, England’s single-use plastic bag use dropped 85% in the six months after the 5p charge was introduced in 2015. And, this year, scientists credited a 30% drop in plastic bags littering the seas around Britain to the 5p charge. Seeing the difference in plastic-based behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic is an important reminder that small policy changes can make a massive difference.
- Flabbergasted: If you say that you are flabbergasted, you are emphasizing that you are extremely surprised.