The Problem with Muzak

Here’s another article about Spotify, a company that fascinates me. The Problem with Muzak starts by examining the mood playlists that feature prominently on the platform:

Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.

[…]

One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

It goes on to excoriate the branded playlists and the idea that companies should need to “show the world what kind of music your brand likes to listen to while partying, driving, or enjoying a cup of coffee.”

It is absurd to suggest that a playlist created by Bacardi, Gatorade, BMW, or Victoria’s Secret could exist for any purpose other than the sale of its liquor, sports drinks, cars, or fancy lingerie. And this encouragement of a false sense of objectivity found on its Terms of Service is seen nowhere on its “Spotify for Brands” website, where it has published a series of articles luring corporations to the platform: “In the biggest game of the year, many of the ads feature music front and center, whether it’s a big hit like Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ [Chrysler’s memorable 2011 spot] or an indie jam like Hundred Waters’ ‘Show Me Love’ [Coca-Cola’s 2015 spot],” the article explains, directly equating branded playlists to an expression of commercialism. “Using music effectively can also mean curating the perfect playlist that reflects the sound of your brand.”

Brand playlists are advertisements, even if Spotify strives to imbue them with so-called editorial integrity. Such uncompensated advertorial playlists are harmful in that they offer artists no option to opt-out, but also because they undercut what can sometimes be a valuable source of revenue for artists.

You are the product

John Lanchester:

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

I finally got round to reading this—I currently, and temporarily, have a lot of free time on my hands, so I’m reading everything—and it’s fantastic. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the nascent subject of web platforms (in fact this piece is reminiscent at times of John Herrman, who is currently the writer of the most interesting and relevant articles on the topic).

Publishers stop using chumboxes

Sapna Maheshwari and John Hermann’s article for the NYT, Publishers Are Rethinking Those ‘Around the Web’ Ads:

Usually grouped together under a label like “Promoted Stories” or “Around the Web,” these links are often advertisements dressed up to look like stories people might want to read. They have long provided much-needed revenue for publishers and given a wide range of advertisers a relatively affordable way to reach large and often premium audiences.

But now, some publishers are wondering about the effect these so-called content ads may be having on their brands and readers. This month, these ads stopped appearing on Slate. And The New Yorker, which restricted placement of such ads to its humor articles, recently removed them from its website altogether.

Among the reasons: The links can lead to questionable websites, run by unknown entities.

Sounds pretty terrible for readers. Just listen to Matt Crenshaw, VP of product marketing at Outbrain, one of the companies selling these terrible ads:

“As this space has grown up, this is becoming a very significant percentage-wise revenue source for publishers. We have been told from major, major publishers that we have become their No. 1 revenue provider,” he said, declining to name specific companies.

Herrman’s erstwhile colleague at the Awl, John Mahoney, previously produced an excellent and complete taxonomy of internet chum, the term given to these awful pieces of shit.

This shit is toxic and it needs to die yesterday

1: A complete taxonomy of internet chum

Toward a grand unified theory of “Around the Web”, i.e. those terrible ad grids you see on desperate websites:

Chum is decomposing fish matter that elicits a purely neurological brain stem response in its target consumer: larger fish, like sharks. It signals that they should let go, deploy their nictitating membranes, and chomp down blindly on a morsel of fragrant, life-giving sustenance. Perhaps in a frenzied manner […] This is a chumbox. It is a variation on the banner ad which takes the form of a grid of advertisements that sits at the bottom of a web page underneath the main content.

2: Visipedia.

Visipedia is a joint project between Pietro Perona’s Vision Group at Caltech and Serge Belongie’s Vision Group at Cornell Tech. Visipedia, short for “Visual Encyclopedia,” is an augmented version of Wikipedia, where pictures are first-class citizens alongside text. Goals of Visipedia include creation of hyperlinked, interactive images embedded in Wikipedia articles, scalable representations of visual knowledge, largescale machine vision datasets, and visual search capabilities. Toward achieving these goals, Visipedia advocates interaction and collaboration between machine vision and human users and experts.

3: NY Times: Trending

Billed as a real-time dashboard of popular Times content. Interesting to see the way they categorise content:

  • Fresh Eyes: stories that are popular with readers who are new to The Times
  • Page-Turner: stories that are holding the attention of our readers
  • Renewed Interest: older stories that are making a comeback and experiencing a second wind
  • Staying Power: stories that have been consistently popular since publication

4: Why “Agile” and especially Scrum are terrible

It’s probably not a secret that I dislike the “Agile” fad that has infested programming. One of the worst varieties of it, Scrum, is a nightmare that I’ve seen actually kill companies. By “kill” I don’t mean “the culture wasn’t as good afterward”; I mean a drop in the stock’s value of more than 85 percent. This shit is toxic and it needs to die yesterday. For those unfamiliar, let’s first define our terms. Then I’ll get into why this stuff is terrible and often detrimental to actual agility. Then I’ll discuss a single, temporary use case under which “Agile” development actually is a good idea, and from there explain why it is so harmful as a permanent arrangement.

5: The history of Henry Mancini’s Moon River

I didn’t realise how much I loved this song until relatively recently. I recorded a version of it, if you’re inclined to listen.

6: Inside the cult of Secret Wedding Pinterest, where fiances are optional

One third of all boards on Pinterest are secret wedding-planning boards.

7: A plant by any other name

On botanical and common names of plants. No, really, it’s a good short thing.

8: Abandoned fishing village in China reclaimed by nature

In the mouth of the Yangtze River off the eastern coast of China, a small island holds a secret haven lost to the forces of time and nature—an abandoned fishing village swallowed by dense layers of ivy slowly creeping over every brick and path.

9: On the fine art of the footnote

Ever since David Hume noted that, while reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, “One is also plagued with his Notes, according to the present Method of printing the Book” and suggested that they “only to be printed at the Margin or the Bottom of the Page,” footnotes have been the hallmark of academia. For centuries, then, the footnote existed as a blunt instrument, wielded by pedants and populists alike, primarily for the transmission of information, but occasionally to antagonize opponents with arch rhetorical asides. But it would take a couple hundred years until writers again took up the footnote for other, more artful purposes, discovering in this tiny technique emotional and intellectual depth far beyond the realm of the merely experimental.