The Great Tech Blob
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Another day, another dollar. Another dollar, another design change.
This week it was the turn of Spotify to announce a dramatic overhaul of their user interface. At its ‘Stream On’ event in Los Angeles, the platform demonstrated a new look to its app that will bring it more in line with its social media ‘competitors’ (inverted commas the author’s own). It brings the fabled ‘doom scroll’, the endless flicking that users do on social media, to the music service – as well as a host of other, less interesting, features like an AI DJ and ‘Smart Shuffle’, a new algorithm for curating music discoverability.
Spotify, as a company, has been over-represented of late in the hallowed pages of this newsletter. A few weeks ago, they were announcing a strategic re-orientation and major job cutting, as a pivot away from original content seemed likely. I noted at the time that it felt like the Swedish tech giant was looking to move out of the idea that it is a “Netflix for music” and become a “YouTube for music”. So where does this massive UX overhaul sit in that prediction?
Well, just look at the way that David Pierce at The Verge wrote up the announcement. “Spotify’s new design is part TikTok, part Instagram, and part YouTube,” announced the headline. “The new design goes heavy on imagery and vertical scrolling, turning your homescreen from a set of album covers into a feed that much more closely resembles TikTok and Instagram,” Pierce wrote. “As you scroll, Spotify is also hoping to make it easier to discover new things across the Spotify ecosystem.”
There is an element of circularity in that assessment, as TikTok only looks how it does becomes Instagram first looked like that – and Instagram now only looks how it does because TikTok iterated from that first success. It is part of the blobification of media, that all these services eventually look the same and, increasingly, provide the same functionality.
The boffins at Spotify clearly have intelligent reasons for thinking that video and photo integration into their service is a key part of the company’s future. They’re Swedes, for God’s sake, the land of the Nobel prize. But, all the same, it is hard for me to witness a company like Spotify, which had a clear niche, moving into a space that’s already inhabited by every major tech player. Clearly they didn’t like the fact that people like me (well, people more serious than me) would use the word “niche” to talk about music streaming – but even if it was a niche, it was an enormous niche. A niche of continental proportions.
But omnichannel distribution has become more and more ubiquitous. Facebook, originally a text-based messaging service for you and your friends, now does everything: videos, photos, communities, podcasts, live streaming…etc. And they own Instagram, which is no longer just photos of people’s breakfasts – it’s also videos and music, text and marketing. TikTok, which grew out of Musical.ly – like a state-controlled butterfly emerging from its state-controlled chrysalis – has long ceased to be just a dancing app for kids, and instead becoming one of the most dynamic music-cum-video-cum-streaming-cum-text apps on the market. And so on.
Of the five Big Tech companies – Google, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft – they can basically all provide a version of this omnichannel app. Google has YouTube, which is the market leader in this space, and is increasingly a service that caters to all your music, video, podcasting, streaming needs. Amazon could easily merge Audible and Twitch into something approaching the Blob, but, either way, why should an online shopping mall have any sort of social media app?
Meta have Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp and the weird headset thing, while Microsoft own LinkedIn which provides all of these services, just for people who wear suits. Apple, meanwhile, has never wanted to invest directly in social media – it’s a hardware company, first and foremost, which treats its OS like a finely engineered piece of kit – but, guess what? They’ve got Apple Podcasts (market leading), Apple Music (second in market), Apple TV (competitive, I guess), and a bunch of other integrated products. They have their own Blob, which is prebuilt into every iPhone they sell.
It is my opinion that Spotify are making a mistake by blobifying their offering. There is a fine balance to be struck between meeting the demands of the market – a market led currently by TikTok and YouTube, while everyone scurries behind – and becoming a generic product, or, worse, a knock-off. I am not in charge of Spotify and not answerable to its legion of investors, but I don’t think that the answer to its current problems is to move into a space that makes it less clear what Spotify is, or why you’d subscribe to it.
Spotify has some relative market advantages – this new design is going to make audiobooks a much more prominent part of its offering, for example – but its biggest strength has always been the sense that it is the music streaming service. You think Spotify, you think music. And every tech company, however far it is through the blobification process, has this same immediate, instinctive association. YouTube? Video. TikTok? Dancing. Instagram? Breakfast. Facebook? Pokes (or, increasingly, Boomers). Twitter? Unhinged. LinkedIn? Corporate. Reddit? Dodgy. Spotify? Music.
So moving towards a version of the app which makes that less central, feels to me like a misunderstanding of their main strength. Sometimes you’re better off being a butcher and not also selling, I don’t know, contact lenses – or, think about the survival of bookshops in a world without Woolworths. But Spotify has now been sucked into the Blob, and it won’t be long before they start talking about “a more social way of listening to music” and integrating “reaction” audio and videos, which will end up, as it always does, with teenage girls dancing to rap music.
And this is all without even addressing the fact that TikTok – which I do think is most responsible for the algorithmic doom scroll which is now dominating technology – is horribly addictive, but in a totally commercially useless way. The CDC estimates that American children aged 11-14 spend an average of nine hours a day in front of a screen, with the 15-18 cohort just behind at seven and a half hours per day. PER DAY. There is an assumption, in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, that more minutes (read: hours) spent on a service equals a better performance of that service. But I’m not clear why. If I’m an advertiser, utilising TikTok, I would much rather that people used the service slowly and deliberately, rather than in a numb, somnambulatory haze. If you spend an hour scrolling through TikTok or Instagram, you’ll likely be inured to any advertisement you might see; if you use it in 15-minute sessions, you’ll probably be much more alert.
But capturing eyeballs – and brains – has become the dominant way of thinking about social media, and I suspect that’s to the genuine detriment of humanity. When I see a company like Spotify moving their product into this perpetual motion machine of addiction, I feel a genuine sense of sadness. Because how do we, as a society, come back from this? How do we rethink our relationship with technology? Because more technology does not equate to better technology. It’s just more.
Spotify has long been an ancillary app, supplementing my dog walks or work or commutes, rather than the primary focus of my consumption. But clearly that’s not the position they want to end up in. They want you to be fixed and focused on the app – like you are on TikTok or Instagram or YouTube – even if just means that more people will spend more time on their phones. It won’t improve the music, it won’t add anything to the culture, it won’t generate more revenue for artists; it’ll just stop you from giving your brain a respite.
That may convince Spotify’s shareholders that it’s moving in the right direction, but it won’t convince me. In the end, the Blob always wins.