Posted on September 13, 2022 in Technology

The Panopticon Comes for Your Playlist

Artists can see what playlists you add their songs to on Spotify.

That hasn’t really been a problem – most were polite enough to simply look the other way, understanding that users aren’t always aware of that feature and that a playlist can get pretty personal once you’re not assembling something for a party or a road trip.

Having the info and admitting that you actually look at it pretty closely was not something you’d want to post publicly. You may want to analyze where the song is ending up most often, as it can give you a hint as to where listeners are hearing you, who they associate you with, and how much they like you, but you do not need to post that info. That’s for you, the artist, not everyone else. If it was supposed to be for everyone else, they would have made it that way.

However, now TikTok is here, and Indie artists are not only posting where their songs are ending up, but criticizing their listeners for what they’re calling the playlist. The panopticon has come for your playlist titles.

The Panopticon

The panopticon is a concept for a prison in which the cells are arranged to circle a central guard tower that has visibility of all of them, and the prisoners cannot see where the guard is looking. As a result, most of the prisoners begin behaving as though they’re always being looked at, with all of the stress and lack of perceived privacy that entails, even if they’re not doing anything wrong and not planning to either. The digital panopticon may even be slightly worse as it’s constantly giving you signals that it is watching and hey, don’t you want these cool curtains we showed you? You looked at them. Your mouse hovered over them. Algorithms for ads and algorithms for content are aiming to make a profile out of you, so they can subtly manipulate your behavior into buying or consuming more. To do that, they must watch.

But it doesn’t stop there. Real people are often contributing to the panopticon, both willingly and unwillingly! Social media is constantly threatening to doxx people, even when the person in question, realistically, doesn’t deserve that sort of response. Look at West Elm Caleb – algorithmic recommendations on TikTok lead to all of the people he’d slighted seeing each other’s videos, because the algorithm weighs video makers close to viewers heavier than ones who are far away. He was dating a lot of women local to his area, so those women, who were total strangers in most cases, ended up seeing each other on TikTok and commiserating over this guy ghosting them. That would have been a simple ‘haha, this guy sucks’ moment for them as a group, something friends IRL have all the time… if it hadn’t all happened in full view of the completely public TikTok trending page, where anonymous strangers could watch.

Strangers online who’d seen those videos overreacted, trying to get him fired from his job, trying to find out his real location, trying in general to make his life miserable over ghosting some people. Most of the women who’d made or commented on videos with personal experiences about this guy didn’t want that to happen to him, but it was already too late! Others decided they had been slighted, and that he needed to be punished so other ghosting men would watch their backs or something. Sometimes witch hunts just happen because they’re fun for everyone but the alleged witch.

Even if they’d still made the same videos and comments, and even if they’d still been public, this wouldn’t have happened if the collective internet wasn’t so enthralled with ‘making examples’ out of total strangers in order to showcase how the anonymous hivemind, the social media panopticon, is always watching, always waiting for missteps so it can punish. Aberrations from the norm will not be tolerated. It took collaborative internet sleuthing to find this guy off the incredibly limited description ‘West Elm Caleb’, which only says that his name is Caleb and he lives in West Elm, but by golly did TikTok manage to do it. His internet footprint wasn’t anything special or distinctive, but it was enough to make his life scary for a few weeks until everyone lost interest again.

Social media is always watching, and even if they’re not, so much of you can be saved and then looked at later for review that they may as well be.

The Content Machine

Back to Spotify! As I said, TikTok is what turned this ability to see what playlists your songs have been used in into a problem. You can’t stop posting on any service using an algorithm, because that would make you a bad content creator, and bad content creators don’t get any favor with the algorithm even if said ‘bad’ creator is well-liked – just not constantly producing. Indie bands and music artists struggle more than most to get people to give their stuff a listen, and so they resort to producing content the algorithm will like just so they have a consistent content schedule and have a better shot at being seen – and then listened to.

A few musicians on TikTok realized that Spotify could be used for that easy schedulable content, and started doing that. At first, the videos were simply showing funny or potentially worrying playlist titles, sort of a wink and a nudge that the song was sad and putting it in ‘sad songs to listen to when you remember her’ might warrant that person seeking out actual help instead of just making a playlist about it.

And then I saw this one.

Always Watching and Scrutinizing

The text over the video at the start reads “Looking at the playlists y’all put my songs on until I find ones that isn’t made by a self proclaimed real life supervillain ( teenager who sometimes does a little pose in the mirror and pretends they are evil)” . The caption reads “YOU HAVE NEVER HAD A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE I SEE YOU ALL”. This post is about their song ‘Bad Luck!’.

Is this not completely bizarre? Even your playlist titles need to be ready-to-view and socially acceptable because an artist in the playlist might ‘call you out’ on it if you’re not unique enough, if you’re being too edgy, or if you’re otherwise being ‘cringe’. You thought that title was for you and your music sorting purposes? Think again, he can see it, and he’ll post about it online!

But it doesn’t matter if he thinks it’s cringe because it’s not for him. The playlist titles cater to the taste of the playlist creator, not him. He just happens to be able to see it, and as both a social media content creator and an eye of the panopticon, he must make an observation about it, consume it and synthesize an opinion and then give the opinion to other eyes, his TikTok following, so more consumption and opinion synthesis can be produced to fuel the algorithm and the machine behind that.

The Other Part of It

Besides that – which really is enough to end the argument by itself – if he’s going to make a video noting that a bunch of people who listened to his song put it in a themed playlist for when they want to listen to music and imagine a theme to go with it, why not… just admit that that’s the song he wrote? That the song ultimately fits the supervillain theme, instead of calling the listeners unoriginal? Even if they got the idea from each other, not all of those playlists are the same. The kids listening all have different ideas of what this playlist should be, otherwise they’d be passing around one playlist titled Supervillain Arc (because Spotify allows you to search for public playlists by name), not each making their own.

While some songs get added to playlists because the listener only heard a snip of it off TikTok and misinterpreted the song (hello Strawberry Blond by Mitski), at this point, the number of streams (which you can see in the video) should tell him that it hasn’t been removed from the supervillain playlists for a reason. Spotify playlist titles aren’t for the artists, they’re for the creator of the playlist, right? So their perception that this song belongs there, in their cringey uncool posing-in-the-mirror supervillain X3 playlist, is their call. Not the artist’s.

As a side note, it’s also not fair to dunk on kids and teens for having questionable taste in music, music mixes, and playlist titles – especially since they often end up being right about what’s actually groundbreaking and cool and history-making. Little Richard, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, more modern groups like Metallica, or even more modern groups like MCR and Paramore have had majority teen audiences in their time. Every time, the critics have had to begrudgingly admit that the teens were right and this phenomenon is actually cool, only to have to re-learn this lesson the next time something cool came around. Having a teen audience is a fine sign you’re writing something good – why be annoyed by it?