Salvation in isolation: Friend Activity on Spotify

Sunday, January 3, 2021 - 1:41pm

Spotify, like Goodreads and Letterboxd, is a place to know what your friends are feeling and therefore to feel what your friends are feeling.

Spotify, like Goodreads and Letterboxd, is a place to know what your friends are feeling and therefore to feel what your friends are feeling. Buy this photo
Design by Samuel Turner

It’s late. You’re hungry, you have a headache and that 11:59 p.m. deadline feels impossibly close considering the paltry amount of work you’ve done. You ask yourself how you will manage to get this paper done on time, and the only thing that keeps you from totally spiraling out of control is the music in your tinny earbuds. The song is a special one and has anchored you to this side of sanity many times before. You trudge on, word after word, sustained by an old favorite playlist. Then, a text. 

You see yourself, quite small; it’s your Facebook profile photo in a little circle. Your name or username in bold is beside it, proudly above the name of that song for your soul. This is a screenshot, sent to you by a dear friend, accompanied by the most banal yet affirming message. An emoji, perhaps, or lyric-turned-inside joke. You feel amazingly refreshed. You cannot help but grin. Before returning to your work, you tap-tap-tap to love that message. 

For a moment, despite the short and long-term isolations in which we find ourselves ever more frequently, your community was right there with you. In quite the same way a song can instantly light up a room (but with immeasurably greater omnipotence), your tinny headphones can illuminate friendships halfway around the globe. All of this facilitated by Spotify’s Friend Activity feature. 

Remarking on my own listening habits, it is most often Karen Dalton who elicits a giddy missive from one of my fellow folk-fanatical friends. I always keep a lookout for friends listening to John Prine. See, Friend Activity offers something that playlists cannot: simultaneity (yes, I know the data is a bit delayed at times, but there is a presence to Friend Activity that playlists lack). 

For many, there is no better gift than to receive a playlist from a friend. And collaborative playlists offer an experience of teamwork and shared contribution. These are important feelings; Spotify has filled many emotional gaps for music lovers since March. And yet none so profound as these extemporaneous texts.

Why does it feel so wonderful to be recognized in this way? It is easy to withdraw into music. Without concerts and parties and communal listening experiences, music becomes even more personal than it may have once been. It may even take on a touch of loneliness. 

But Friend Activity breaks through this foggy film of isolation. There is no “thinking of you” text more genuine than a screenshot of your current song. It says (1) I see you, (2) the thing you’re doing right now, listening to that song, means something to me and (3) I want to share that with you.

Drawn apart by the pandemic, these otherwise mundane places in which community and friendship linger become much less mundane. Spotify, like Goodreads and Letterboxd, is a place to know what your friends are feeling and therefore to feel what your friends are feeling. 

And what more is there to friendship than genuinely shared emotion?

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.


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