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Spotify Wrapped and How We Manipulate Our Social Image

Content warning: The following blog discusses topics such as cyberbullying, harassment, and death threats, which some readers may find distressing.

The end of November once again brings with it the internet’s favourite musical-statistics event, Spotify Wrapped. For the last six years, Spotify has successfully turned its data monitoring into an entertaining spectacle for music lovers and infographic enthusiasts alike, and this seventh year has been no exception.

In case you have managed to miss what Spotify Wrapped is, it’s a personalised annual breakdown of everything you’ve listened to in the last 12 months in the form of a short-and-sweet slideshow. Your favourite artists, how much time you spent listening to music and podcasts, and which genres you’re the biggest fan of, are just some of the highlights of the Wrapped rundown. To top it all off, at the end of the mini presentation, you’re given a personal playlist of the top 100 songs, in order, that got all your love in the last year.

If you haven’t already, you can check out your own Spotify Wrapped 2023 summary now! For Apple users who don’t have Spotify, the tech company also launched their own take on Wrapped, Apple Replay, which you can check out now too.

For a lot of Spotify users – of whom there are 574 million, including 226 million paying subscribers – this is an event to look forward to all year, and its popularity across social media is undeniable, with its trending hashtags, countless articles in the months leading up to the release, and inevitable memes.

A big part of the fun that people have with Spotify Wrapped is sharing their results on social media. Within mere hours of a release – this year’s was yesterday, November 29th – post after post of people sharing their personalised playlists and top songs floods every Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Tumblr feed. However, while maintaining the fun and unserious tone that it began with, over time, this annual viral event has also become yet another way for some people to curate an idealised image of themselves they want the world to see.

Curating Our "Social Images"

It's not news that people often showcase only the good parts of their lives on their social media, especially on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat; romantic getaways with the love of their life, life-changing trip after trip across the big wide world, long-awaited promotion at work, their beautiful and talented children collecting yet another impressive accolade. Moments of pride, moments of love, moments of joy and peace. And that makes sense! Of course, these are the moments of your life you would want on display. Most people aren’t going to be too eager posting about their mundane day-to-day or about their thoughts during the darkest hours – though the shift that has taken place in the last decade cannot be ignored.

Caring about how we’re perceived by our peers isn’t a novel concept unique to social media by any means; it’s simply made more obvious to more people than before. Research has even shown that our desire to establish a positive “social image” is a greater motivator in cooperating with others, even more so than punishment.

The effects of exclusively posting the idealised life on both the poster and the viewer has been a topic of interest for years. So, instead of talking about the impacts of selective posting (i.e., only ever “the good”), I want to focus on how manipulating “social image” and worrying about things as minor as a Spotify Wrapped playlist can affect the poster.

Manipulating the Data & Social Perfromance

Around October last year, I began noticing posts on Twitter from people warning fellow Spotify users that the coming days would be their “last chance to fix up your stats!”, encouraging them to intentionally change their listening habits so that their Wrapped breakdowns would appear more impressive to both their peers and to strangers online.

At first, I found this incredibly strange but then also a little… sad. We shouldn't be so dependent on Twitter clout and approval from strangers online that we feel the need to purposefully manipulate your Spotify Wrapped, something that is meant to be just a bit of fun. Most of the time, people are far too focused on their own stats to be paying attention to who ended up being in your top 5 artists. That’s quite harsh, and probably not true for everybody, but what I am sure of is that most people are not going to remember what your most played song of the year was the next morning. Especially not when millions of other users are also sharing their own lists at the same time. Music is also a form of art that is especially personal; we listen to music that deals with difficult emotions from grief and loss to love and faith, so we should be celebrating the differences and using this little event to learn more about the people around us and art we may not have explored before.

It is true that so much of the content shared on social media is some form of performance. I’ve even talked about the effects of performance, specifically performative activism, and its use as a marketing strategy by brands to appeal to our moral and social identities to ultimately sell their products. Even corporations have caught on, for quite some time now, that for a lot of people, there is this deep desire to appear perfect. And, for some, that includes a trivial yearly music statistics breakdown.

Social Perfectionism & Loss of Personality

It’s a little bizarre that even with things as unserious as usage data for a music streaming application, there is still concern about how others perceive us. Perfectionism can be harmful enough on its own, and then we add anxiety over being perceived by others into the mix, and it becomes an even greater stressor –and often one where we also project beliefs onto others, which I’ll talk a little bit more about in a moment. The obsession with appearing morally and socially perfect can be extremely unhealthy and certainly unrealistic; Courtney Worrell talks about this brilliantly in her blog “The Trials and Tribulations of Moral Perfectionism” which I would definitely recommend reading.

When we become more concerned with presentation and how others view us above earnestness and honesty, the person we appear as becomes disingenuous. In the case of Spotify Wrapped and, more broadly, the wide world of art in its many forms, black-and-white thinking is completely counterproductive. The whole point of art is that there is no one way to interpret and react to it. It’s supposed to be a personal experience, while simultaneously one that connects like minds. At some point along the way, the balance between the personal and the public experience was thrown off and personal has become oxymoronically rebranded to being unique, yes, but only if it’s in a way that the rest of the group approves of and relates to.

The moment we claim that certain music is “cringe” or “basic” or “bad” and that only liking a select group of artists is acceptable, we shut down space for personality. Everyone has to like the same things, echoing the same praises the same critiques. I don’t know about you, but that sounds painfully boring.

Promoting Toxicity & Intolerance for Variance

Sadly, however, fostering a boring community isn’t the only downside to this way of approaching art. It also further encourages intolerance to deviation from the communally defined norm. Going hand-in-hand with the moral perfectionism I mentioned earlier is the unreasonable intolerance for any sort of disagreement or misalignment of taste. Over the years, I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many of you also have, how casual hostility has become more and more commonplace on platforms like Twitter. Threats of violence, unsubstantiated and easily debunkable accusations motivated by a need to feel justified in disliking somebody, constant bad faith readings, and casual cruelty for the sake of a social-media-clout-bait joke, Twitter and TikTok have it all!

Look, I’m not so disconnected from reality that I can’t tell that most of the time these posts, despite how distressing their language may be, are not meant to be taken seriously and are intended to be “jokes”. But, what’s the joke? How does graphically detailing how somebody should kill themselves or accusing them of heinous crimes in the quote replies of their posts, just because they criticised an artist you love, equate to comedy?

Likewise, constant use and exposure to this kind of language desensitises us to it, which itself can be dangerous. A death threat is a death threat, and yet often times, all of us from everyday people to content creators and celebrities are told to ignore them and not let it get to us. To call that an unfair expectation is quite the understatement.

We're so caught up in how we're perceived that we're forgetting the whole point of Wrapped to begin with: to listen to the music that moves us and then watch our vibrant little slideshow about it at the end of the year.

It’s easier said than done, absolutely, but we need to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, we can only control our own words and actions, not how others perceive them. There are far crueller words said, actions taken, and interests entertained by people for which they should be ashamed – casual threats of violence, slinging slurs, and intentional sharing of dangerous misinformation. Your music taste and what you happened to listen to this past year don’t even come remotely close to something to feel embarrassed about. Who cares!

Who cares if you exclusively listened to "All I Want for Christmas" this whole summer or spent two cross-country road trips listening to songs from a tv show so that “The Cast of Crazy Ex Girlfriend” is now in your top 5 artists of the year (Shoutout to my best friend Katie for that one. Hi, Katie). You had fun. As long as you’re having fun and nobody is getting hurt, enjoy what you enjoy. And if that happens to be “cringe” or the “wrong” art, that’s fine. Keep enjoying it anyway. Better to be your cringe-but-genuine self than a personality-void person, simply mirroring everybody else's behaviour.


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