Private Dancer: On Spotify, Privacy and Celebrity “Outrage”

The concept of privacy is getting a very public airing in 2012. The Leveson Enquiry on phone hacking throws out more revelations about Sun reporters listening in on our voicemails and hacking our emails every day. Facebook changes its privacy settings once a fortnight, setting off furious barrages of text across the blogoverse about how this is the final straw and Zuckerberg = Hitler (I may have been guilty of a little of this myself). Now good old Spotify has become the latest villain of the privacy war – and this time, I’m with the bad guy.


The problem started when Spotify, looking to bump its profile and funding, hooked up with Facebook and beefed up its social functions. You’d always been able to share songs with friends using a social sidebar to the right of the main window. Now, that list of friends can expand to include all your Facebook contacts–and you can see what they’re playing too. It encourages an open policy towards your listening habits, allowing you to share your exquisite musical taste with the world.

The Facebook connection is a cause for grumbling, especially as you now need a Facebook account to open a new Spotify account. The two are intertwined at a core level. I’ve had a pop about this myself in the past. But, the sharing functions and privacy settings on both are pretty easy to find and either tweak to your liking or disable completely. I’ve mellowed on the subject over the past year or so. I view Spotify sharing as a way of playing my music extra loudly, so that the whole internet can hear how great I am.

Some people disagree, however. Celebrity statistician Ben Goldacre got his panties in a reef knot last week on Twitter, and later on his blog, when he realised that Spotify’s sharing functions were switched on by default. This started an impassioned debate which was joined by celebrity writer Graheme Linehan and celebrity commentator Charlie Brooker, who both agreed that it was a debacle. Linehan loftily declared that he could no longer in all concsience recommend Spotify to his friends, while Brooker got a whole Guardian article out of it. Spotify replied to Goldacre explaining all the ways with which he could keep his musical choices private, a response that he magnanimously put on his blog and then roundly ignored in favour of more stomping around and yelling.

The problem, as far as I can see, is one of context. If I broadcast the fact that I’m indulging in a Sunday Afternoon Manilowfest, there’s unlikely to be more than a few raised eyebrows. If Brooker, Linehan or Goldacre do it then it’s ammunition for snarks and giggles. It’s a way into a bit of the celebrities’ soul, an insight into what they’re really like. Put that way, you can see why they’d be worried.

But the way they went about it yanked my chain until it went twang. Linehan and Brooker are long-time enthusiasts of Spotify, regularly sharing tracks. Brooker’s playlist of the music that went into Screenwipe and Newswipe has nearly 10, 000 subscribers, myself included. I find it hard to believe that two such tech-savvy dudes wouldn’t know how to google up privacy settings. Goldacre was at pains to point out that he was supposed to be working while he was blathering about Spotify on Twitter, even exhorting his followers to tell him to get back to work. That’s not just displacement activity, Ben. That’s playing to the crowd.

The final straw for me was when Goldacre and Linehan piously declared that a ton of people had responded and thought that there wasn’t really a problem, which in their opinion made it even more of a problem. We care about our privacy, and you’re wrong not to care about yours. Well, hang on, boys. You’re taking one issue and conflating it with another.

The vast majority of people out there don’t give a stuff about privacy on Facebook or Twitter. They will happily post pictures of themselves in all kinds of compromising positions, and let unguarded comments out that could get them into trouble. That stuff happens. To say that your choice of music could do the same is stretching the case more than a little. Ben included some examples of situations where he considered there might be a problem:

– you’re a politician who’s just been caught out and might be sacked. do you expect journalists to be able to see and write about what you’re listening to that evening, or will you find that humiliating, and surprising?

– you’ve just been dumped, in vituperative circumstances. do you want your ex-partners friends who are angry with you to know if you’re listening to party music, or sad music?

– you’ve got a “sex mix” like the bloke off Peep Show, and you didn’t know you were sharing that fact or its contents with the world. do you find that embarrassing? and can you see that if you don’t, some other people might?

– you’ve gone home with someone. do you want everyone to be able to see that you put on your sex mix, or a string of francoise hardy records, followed by “let’s get it on” by marvin gaye?

(shonky capitalisation is Ben’s own)

I’ll leave those there, and simply make the point that number one on Ben’s list again talks about a public figure.

I’m a bit worried about the guy, to be honest. Because the idea of playing something just to cheer yourself after a breakup and screw what other people think has never occurred. Because the idea of putting up a playlist called Sex Mix and it not necessarily being something you put on while you’re having sex has slipped past him.

In the process of his Spotify rant, Ben has let slip rather more about himself than he should; not just his musical tastes but something of his character. I’ll be honest–the whole situation is, to me, amusing blog bait. There are lots of problems and concerns with privacy on the internet. But playing your music too loudly, especially when it’s easy to switch that function off, is not one of them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put together a Sex Mix. Lots of Norwegian death metal and free jazz.

(oh, and if you’re wondering how tricky it is to control your privacy settings on Spotify, allow me to show you mine, if you’ll excuse the obvious cognitive dissonance. I choose to publish my playlists, but keep Facebook out of the loop.)

Spotify privacy

The above is the first thing you’ll see when you hit up the preferences. Easy, eh?


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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