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Why your brain finds Spotify Wrapped so irresistible

Spotify Wrapped endures despite privacy concerns surrounding the data it collects from users.
Screenshot by NPR
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Spotify
Spotify Wrapped endures despite privacy concerns surrounding the data it collects from users.

Do you love sharing your favorite music with friends?

That's what Spotify users are doing now that they can see their newest Spotify Wrapped — a snapshot of a user's listening habits over the last year that can easily be shared on social media.

The buzz around the latest Spotify Wrapped rollout is a bright spot for the company, which recently announced that it's laying off around 1,500 people.

This year, Spotify, which is a financial partner of NPR, added some new features to Wrapped. This included placing users in the city that most aligns with their music taste. It also classified users into groups based on their listening habits — like the vampire, who prefers emotional, atmospheric music or the time traveler, who listens to old songs again and again.

We reached out to Spotify for comment for this story and did not hear back.

Morning Edition host Michel Martin said she doesn't need Spotify to tell her that her favorite artist is Beyoncé. Her co-host Steve Inskeep said his top song on Apple Music was Buddy Holly's 1958 hit, "Rave On."

But for the rest of us — why are we so obsessed with sharing our year-end aggregations with the world?

"We love it because it's irresistible," Brian Uzzi, a professor of leadership and social networks at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management told NPR's Morning Edition.

He said that Spotify Wrapped satisfies two competing human desires.

"We really want to be part of the group, but at the same time we want to be different from everybody," Uzzi said.

Users can feel unique by being told they listened to their favorite artists way more than other people on Spotify.

"And that had never really been done in music before," Uzzi said of Spotify's level of listening data given back to users.

Before Spotify Wrapped launched in 2015, websites like Last.fm allowed users to track their listening habits. But Spotify popularized giving users customized infographics — practically begging to be posted to an Instagram story.

Other apps do this too — like Duolingo, a language learning platform that lets users share how many words they learned and what learning style they have.

Nick Seaver, assistant professor of anthropology at Tufts University, said that music recommender systems like Spotify and Pandora are more powerful in determining personal music taste than people may realize.

"We often think that we have taste first, and then recommender systems are either good at figuring out our taste or not," Seaver said. "But what we see in practice is that people develop their taste in music over time, in interactions with technologies and listening to music."

He said that we like things that reflect ourselves back to ourselves.

"People like to identify themselves with the objects that they consume, with the things they listen to, with the things they watch, with the things they read," Seaver said. "And so it's a sort of normal bit of human culture."

There's also an element of surprise in seeing Spotify Wrapped results for the first time.

"It might reveal something about yourself that you did not know," Seaver said. "And I think some people find that exciting. Some people find that annoying. Some people find it offensive."

In an era of data privacy concerns and skepticism about tech companies, it might seem surprising why people still love sharing their Spotify Wrapped — a tension Seaver calls the privacy paradox.

"People on the one hand say they value their privacy. But on the other hand, give up a lot of their data," Seaver said.

"I think there are critics who will see Spotify Wrapped as a way of normalizing some kind of data tracking or surveillance," he added. "But I wouldn't want to understate the degree to which people often enjoy seeing themselves reflected back."

Beyond the human desire to understand ourselves, the issue of data privacy is complex.

Seaver said that many researchers who work on the privacy paradox are critical of framing it as a paradox "because it suggests that we have an option to keep our privacy."

The radio version of this story was edited by Adam Bearne and the digital version of this story was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.