The Reassuring Failure of Spotify’s Discover Weekly

First: a follow-up. I wrote yesterday about struggling to obtain an item in Skyward Sword that I need for gear upgrades. During that evening’s video game time, I played Skyward Sword again and killed three enemies that dropped this item and every single one dropped it. Three in a row, right there, staring at me. And completely inaccessible. No way to get them, even a little bit. 100% impossible. Absolutely devastating.

I’ve been listening to Spotify for my music lately. And by lately I mean for two or three years now. At some point, now lost to history in “The Before Times,” I got a paid membership and began to use Spotify almost exclusively. Getting my own phone plan and a decent amount of data each month helped the transition since I don’t need to manage how much I use my phone off wifi, so now I use it as a catch-all for my podcasts, new music, and various playlists.

My favorite part, though, is my Discover Weekly playlist. Even after however many years I’ve been using it (though I’ve been almost religious about it for a bit over a year now), it is still an eclectic mix of genres that is completely hit or miss. I either love 25+ of the 30 songs on it each week, or I absolutely despire almost all of them. Some of my (current) favorite songs I’ve found through this playlist. I actually found the second most personally influential podcast I’ve listened to this year, NADDPOD (Not Another D&D PODcast) through this playlist. A song from the campaign 1 finale, “One Big Bed” by Emily Axford, showed up in my Discover Weekly and I knew I had to consume whatever media resulted in that song.

I have a whole pile of songs I love from that playlist, another pile of ones I still wanted to jam to but didn’t want to mix into my “liked” songs, and I even found a cover by a friend I had in college that prompted me to text him so we could catch up. Music I’ve used to manipulate the feelings of my D&D players, things I’ve used to make the few D&D characters I’ve gotten to play seem cool, and even some songs I listen to every day to remind me that it’s okay if all I can do is aspire to positivity and happiness… All of them have come from this Spotify feature.

I know enough programming and have enough software testing experience to know that it’s just a clever algorithm using the incredible amount of data that spotify collects from its users, and I’ve experimented enough with it that I’ve learned to be able to manipulate it in directions I want to go from one week to the next (though the effect is diminishing as time passes). Still, though, the playlist somehow always manages to turn out a dud every few weeks. This week’s playlist (as of writing, not posting) was one such dud. The first song started out discordant and grungy in a way I don’t particularly enjoy and it started a skip fest that ended as soon as I realized I’d gotten back to that original discordant song.

Since my day job involves finding the holes and bugs in clever software and my industry training/research involves reading a lot of tech articles, I’m well aware of the follies and triumphs of algorithms, AI, and user-based design. As a result, I’ve got a bit of an antagonistic relationship with most software and programs in general. I absolutely do not attribute them the level of sentience and omnipotence that seems to be growing more and more common in my peers, so I’m not surprised that Spotify fails to predict my preferences some weeks, and I still love being able to stump Google enough that I actually have to crack out my database searching skills to find what I’m looking for, even if both of those things are moderately inconvenient.

I guess I just appreciate knowing that technology doesn’t know us as well as we all like to pretend it does. As someone who constantly feels like I’m struggling to figure out how I work despite being the person best positioned to understand myself, I’m glad to see this feeling validated through the things that sometimes feel like they’ve taken over my life. Some days I’m just sad and that’s okay because sometimes Spotify just tosses me a real clunker and occasionally Google has no idea what the hell I’m talking about. We’ll all try again later and see if we can work it out next time.

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