Facebook and Spotify have confused recommendations with shouting

On Sunday night I went to see Death Grips at XOYO in glittering East London. To say it was not really a Sunday night kinda show would be a bit of an understatement.

If you’re not familiar with Death Grips, they are MC Ride, producer Flatlander and Hella drummer Zach Hill. They make dark, unwelcoming, industrial hip hop, a sound which was represented on Sunday (other than by the music itself) by the lack of almost any discernable lighting or on stage banter. It was brilliant.

Mind suitably pummelled by the aggressive sounds of Death Grips, I stumbled out into late night Shoreditch and waited for my eyes to adjust to the night sky, which was considerably brighter than the lighting inside the venue.

The fact that I had just returned to London after a weekend in the countryside provided further contrast to add to my Sunday evening experiences.

I’m telling you about the contrasts I experienced the other night mainly so you can contrast this Editor’s Letter from last week’s, because I’m about to bang on about Facebook and Spotify again. Though with a week to reflect on the new look Facebook, and the various subsequent events relating to Spotify’s hook up with it, there are some new things to say.

As you’ll remember, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the social network’s big new redesign last week, and he put Spotify right at the heart of it. Although plenty of other content providers will be feeding endless amounts of user data into Facebook’s new activity tracker, it was Spotify’s Daniel Ek he called up on stage to talk about it. And although the latest redesign is yet to properly roll out, it’s Spotify which has probably garnered the most attention for hooking in to the evolving social network, though not with entirely positive results.

Spotify displeased a very vocal and sizeable minority of its users on Monday when it announced that from now on new users would have to sign up for the streaming service using their Facebook account. No Facebook account, no Spotify account. That’s it.

This assumes two things. Firstly, that everyone is happy to have a Facebook account. And secondly, that everyone who does is happy to use it to sign into other services. But not everyone in the world is a Facebook user, and many of those who are not – especially if they are web savvy enough to want to sign up to Spotify – have made a conscious decision, on whatever grounds, to not use the social network. Therefore, Spotify’s advice to just “set a Facebook account up and not use it” wasn’t very helpful. And even those who are Facebook users aren’t necessarily going to be comfortable with it having access to their wider online lives (even if it’s getting harder to stop that being so).

Then came the next change: Without really explaining properly what was happening, Spotify asked current users to agree to send data about every track they play via the service over to Facebook, so the social network could build a profile of their listening habits, and share details of every single track played with their friends. It is possible to turn this data sharing off, even if you inadvertantly allow it when presented with an update window by Spotify, but at the outset it wasn’t especially clear how to do this. Responding to criticism (and, to be fair, they did do this pretty quickly), Spotify added a ‘private mode’ to its software on Thursday.

Spotify argued that all these changes were justified because they added up to “creating an amazing new world of music discovery”. But even if you agree that this is where Facebook and Spotify are taking us, trying to force everyone to join them on their journey, from day one, isn’t really on, and is particularly unfair on those who object to having a profile on Facebook.

The way Spotify seems to have leaped so resolutely into the Facebook camp – and the way in which the company seemed to try to trick its customers to follow – was either a gross misjudgement, perhaps because the geeks at Spotify got carried away with Zuckerberg’s grand plans, or was perhaps the result of some sneaky deal with the social network, which got Ek top billing at Facebook’s party but tied his team to certain Facebook promoting commitments. Conspiracy theorists speculated that the reason Ek was so openly responding to criticism on Twitter on Monday night was so he could persuade Facebook to let him out of previous commitments.

That all seems a bit far-fetched – Ek was probably just doing the decent thing, and handling the critics head on rather than hiding behind a PR machine – but even if we assume good faith on Spotify’s part, and that they genuinely believe the Facebook hook up will deliver the holy grail of music discovery and that we’d be mad not to want to be part of it, does that justify the rush? After all, the immediate benefits of Spotify-hooked-to-Facebook for the user are few and far between (the benefits for Spotify itself, of course, are more obvious, the Zuckerberg induced hype has scored them a flood of new sign ups).

As I noted here last week, the changes Facebook are implementing provide a service akin to Last.fm – ie one that logs your online activity, and makes recommendations and tries to form communities based on your tastes – though rather than just logging the music you play on your computer, it will try to record everything you do online, from reading news stories to watching films. This information is then shared with your friends in real time. For the reasons outlined above (ie the almost forced participation), the newly shared data from Spotify is most obvious as a Facebook user, because now you’re being bombarded with information about every track every one of your friends (well, the opted in Spotify users) ever plays. It’s a huge amount of data I’ve subconsciously trained myself to ignore within five days.

It comes in constantly via Facebook’s new ‘ticker’. It flashes before your eyes so quickly it’s hard to take in, even if you’re not already ignoring it, which you almost certainly are. It’s hard to see how this will ever amount to an “amazing new world of music discovery”. Of course, this is presumably just stage one. But what’s stage two? Even if Facebook begins grouping together tracks, so it tells you “ten or so of your friends have listened to track X”, how does that help? It assumes that a play equals a recommendation. Which it doesn’t.

In my job I listen to a lot of new music that I definitely don’t want to inflict on others. Even some of the things I like, I might not want to explicitly recommend to all my friends. When Spotify announced its easier opt out button – the ‘private mode’ – it suggested this would be used to hide “guilty pleasures” you don’t want people knowing you listen to. But that misses the point – a play doesn’t equal a recommendation, whether it’s a guilty pleasure or not. On top of all that, because Facebook logs a track as soon as it begins playing, rather than (as Last.fm does) half way through, I found it was logging an awful lot of stuff I wasn’t actually listening to, but was skipping or stopping after a few seconds. Or on a couple of occasions, after I’d mistakenly clicked on a link and a track had automatically started playing. That doesn’t aid music discovery in any way at all.

By confusing tracks being played (or even just clicked on) with tracks being recommended, Facebook and Spotify’s bid to find this new world of music discovery is heading in the wrong direction. Which is why I’m not travelling with them, and have turned the tracking function off.

I’m hoping any of you out there who I’m friends with on Facebook appreciate my selfless act of not filling your newsfeeds with pointless information. I’ll continue to help out by not installing any other tracking apps either. Because, frankly, who wants to be told every time I click on a link to a news story, which I may or may not then read or enjoy or find useful or want to recommend. If I want to recommend something on Facebook, I’ll just carry on linking to it manually, as before.

Of course Facebook and Spotify will say “that’s fine, we’re not forcing you to join us in this brave new world, so stop your moaning”. Which is fair enough. Except I suspect sharing information via Facebook in the old way will become an increasingly infruriating thing to do, as partner websites make it harder to link to and embed content without installing their activity-tracking-apps. I say “suspect”, I’ve seen that happen already this week.

I don’t want to sound like a luddite, and I’m willing to accept Facebook’s data capture frenzy might – might – result in some genuinely interesting services down the line. But until it does Facebook is going to have to do a lot to convince me that these new changes are a good idea. For the first time since I signed up to the world’s biggest social media network I’m genuinely thinking I might have to give up on it. I’ll just stick to Twitter, or maybe I’ll give Google+ another go. Maybe this will be the making of Google+. We’ll see.

Or perhaps I’m sounding like a luddite because that’s what I’ve become, the lone moaner who harks back to the good old days of the internet, aka 2009. Is that what Spotify getting all these sign ups since its hook up with Facebook actually means? Maybe I’ll just go back to standing in the dark listening to aggressive hip hop. That’s the future, I tell you!

This is taken from my CMU editorial for this week. Read the whole thing, including some links to music I actually recommend you listen to, here.

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