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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Trends: Spotify's evolution into a social platform

Spotify Wrapped and “Friend Activity”, mark the app’s shift from the private to public space.

Spotify graphic.png

If someone doubts the cultural impact of Spotify — a digital music-streaming platform — they need only to open Instagram on Nov. 29 and witness the endless story posts featuring Spotify Wrapped. Packaged in bright designs and fun fonts, Spotify Wrapped is an annual feature provided by Spotify that summarizes a user’s listening habits and preferences over the past year — including a user’s top songs and artists, total listening time and personalized playlists. 

Over the past few years, Spotify has fundamentally changed. Initially, Spotify fulfilled a specific need: easily streaming music on a smartphone. However, Spotify today is not just about listening to music. It has become a social ecosystem where users curate playlists with a distinct awareness of collective tastes and cultural currents. Most users interact with the platform not just as individual users, but as social members conscious of — and even catering to — others’ listening habits. 

Annabel Everett ’25 identified that Spotify Wrapped has changed the feel of using Spotify by pushing users to more carefully consider how their music taste might be perceived.

“With Spotify Wrapped, I’m way more conscious of what I’m listening to,” Everett said. “I want the songs on my Wrapped to feel accurate. It’s sort of embarrassing that I’m conscious of it, but it’s true.”

I couldn’t help but ponder what Everett meant by an “accurate” Spotify Wrapped. After all, wouldn't an “accurate” Spotify Wrapped be one that simply reflects what music a user listens to? Or, are users increasingly cultivating a digital music persona that reflects their desired image, and not strictly their authentic music taste — guilty pleasure songs and all? 

It seems that Spotify users are becoming acutely aware of what music they listen to, and how it presents to the external gaze. This transition from music streaming platforms as private spaces to public ones can be largely attributed to strategic features added by Spotify that allow users to share their music outside of the app. Spotify Wrapped, for example, was introduced in 2016, with 30 million Spotify users accessing it, and in 2021, there were 120 million users who received a Wrapped. That same year, an estimated 60 million Spotify Wrapped stories were shared across social media platforms.

Additionally,  in 2023, Spotify introduced “Clips,” which are short videos, typically under 30 seconds, which artists can create and add to their artist profile, a specific song, an album or an upcoming release.” These Clips may reveal additional background behind a song or provide a personal look into an artist’s personal history. Spotify Clips reveal how the app’s social aspects transcend interaction between a user and their friends: they also connect artists with their fans. 

Spotify Wrapped also provides opportunities for artists to virtually communicate with fans, with major artists like Noah Kahan and Olivia Rodrigo recording videos to thank top users for listening to their music. In a 2023 statement, Spotify associate director Rob Fink described Wrapped as a method of “putting our listening data to good use and [offering] unique ways for artists and fans to connect on a personal level.” Not only do users engage with their friends, but with their favorite artists. 

Spotify Wrapped and Clips are not the only additions to the app. Spotify’s “Friend Activity” function invites users to observe their friend’s activity, allowing users to see what their friends are listening to in real-time. I remember my own horror when a friend sent me a screenshot of my activity and realized she could see I was listening to Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” — although I shamefully maintain that it’s a timeless, wonderful listen. Avery Widen ’25 cited this feature as one way that friends interact with each other. But Widen also clarified that there are both private and public functions of the app, describing Spotify as a social platform in a “second context.”

“The playlists I choose to make public on my profile are definitely curated,” Widen said. “I have playlists that are just my own private playlists that I don’t make available for friends to view. But overall, when I make my own public playlists on Spotify, they are more curated to be viewed by friends, even if no one is actually looking at it.” 

Public playlists are not the only way to interact with other users’ music. The collaborative playlist function encourages users to make playlists together. Paulie Horvath ’26 emphasized how collaborative playlists have allowed him to discover new music. 

“I love them.” Horvath said. “I actually discovered boy genius through collaborative playlists. My friends made some collaborative playlists for summer with a few of their songs, and I have been listening to them since.”

But this social aspect of Spotify does not always inspire authenticity. In making a public playlist, there is an understanding that someone else might stumble upon it, which may provoke a conscious or subconscious process of curation. Many users view some songs as socially caché, and others as embarrassing. Everett mentioned that she would not want Bruno Mars or Maroon 5 in her Spotify Wrapped. Perhaps this socially-performative aspect of music listening has always existed; after all, before Spotify, people carefully curated mixtapes. But Spotify makes this type of curation widely accessible and easily shareable. Everett described how she would investigate her ex-boyfriend’s music habits after their breakup. 

“When I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, I still followed him on Spotify, and I’d look at what he was listening to and read a lot into it,” Everett said. “In some ways, [Spotify] feels way more personal than Instagram or what people post on other apps. Somehow it feels more authentic.”

But, is Spotify really more “authentic” than Instagram? Admittedly, people will follow far fewer people on Spotify than other apps like Instagram. But the app is undoubtedly public-facing; some users are conscious of how others might perceive their playlists and listening habits. Despite this, Spotify accounts are often approached with much more informality than an Instagram account; following someone on Spotify feels much more intimate than other social media apps. 

Perhaps this veneer of authenticity — despite an ultimate understanding of its public nature — is the final indication that Spotify has begun to function more as a social media platform than a strictly music-streaming platform. It begs the age-old question inherent to social platforms: Are they meant to promote genuine connection or merely to showcase curated versions of ourselves?

Disclaimer: Annabel Everett has written an article for The Dartmouth’s mirror section but is no longer an active writer.