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Every Spotify Session Should Be a “Private Session”

The music streaming service tattles on your listening choices unless you manually tell it not to. This is madness.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Right at that grade-school age when the music you like starts mattering a great deal, I sat cross-legged and rapt in the talent show audience at St. Barnabas as a classmate lip-synced to the best song I’d ever heard. It was wry, it was jangly, it was Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” I tapped a classmate on the shoulder at the end of the performance and whispered, “What song was that?” She looked at me with the most contempt a 9-year-old can muster for another child — truly withering, and etched into my memory with the deep specificity of early mortification — and said, “It’s Alanis Morissette, you idiot.”

In her defense, Jagged Little Pill had been out for well over a year. My tardiness regarding music knowledge hasn’t improved with time. It was only this month that I discovered something apparently universally understood by my fellow Spotify listeners — that one must manually turn on “Private Mode” during each session to prevent others from seeing your musical choices.

I’d seen my friends’ music pop up on the Spotify desktop sidebar before, but I assumed they had opted into a social feature. I marveled at their boldness and was glad that nobody could see my objectively humiliating taste in music. Then I saw this exchange on Twitter between my colleague Hannah Giorgis and my internet acquaintance Monica Heisey:


The same post-Alanis pit in my stomach tightened as I realized the implications of these tweets. I thought back to the car ride I’d taken alone this winter, where the only antidote to the dreary landscape had been a marathon Les Misérables sing-along. What had seemed like an intensely dorky private moment between me and the open road had, in fact, been broadcast to a large swath of my social network. Spotify had turned my dream to shame.

It’s not obvious on mobile or desktop that using Spotify on its default mode means broadcasting those habits to the world. (Toggling it on the desktop app is straightforward, since “Private Session” is the first option on the drop-down menu next to your account name. But you still need to know where to look, and Spotify is more frequently used on phones and tablets than on desktop, so that’s a secondary use case.) On the mobile app, the toggle is not on the home screen. To access it, you must click on settings, then go to the social tab, and then switch the session to private.

All of this is designed to condition people to accept the public mode as Spotify’s normal setting. This is not unique to Spotify; most major social networks push people to engage with their platforms in the most public-facing ways possible. Twitter’s default is public, Facebook’s default for updates is public, and while Instagram allows for locked accounts, it doesn’t allow people to change privacy settings on a post-by-post basis, which fosters an all-or-nothing approach to privacy. By having people opt out of public posting rather than opt into it, these social platforms acclimate users to the idea that choosing to share is simply more convenient. With a platform like Twitter, that default makes sense, as it’s a microblogging platform designed to help people get their words amplified. But with something like Spotify, where people simply consume content rather than create it, it’s plain weird. I tend to think of listening to music as a passive, private activity. While the social aspect of Spotify is fun, the assumption that most people want to broadcast every song they take in is strange. In what twisted universe do most people want their friends to know what music they’re playing?

Privacy modes should default to their highest setting for every social network, especially those broadcasting real-time activity. Opt-out privacy settings are great for these companies, since that means they can collect as much data as possible, but it’s almost always crappy for people using the apps, who (like me!) may not understand the extent to which their activity is public.

I’m fine living in a world where John Mayer is celebrated but I’m not fine living in a world where John Mayer is celebrated without the appropriate corresponding level of remorse. Spotify recently nixed its much-loved but infrequently used direct messaging feature, citing low engagement. Instead of getting rid of features, however, what Spotify needs most of all is a healthy sense of shame.