keeping up with the friend feed
By Sophie Mitchell
If you’re unfamiliar with Spotify’s Friend Feed, its essential function is to publish what the people you follow on Spotify are listening to right this very moment. Formatted in a column on the right side of the platform’s interface, a little green speaker-volume symbol lights up next to someone’s name to show the song, artist, and album or playlist from which they’re listening to. The last thing you listened to will be visible for five days, at which point your name and tiny circle icon will float away into oblivion, only returning to the feed when you decide to bang out some tunes once more. Looking at it right now, current pals of mine are ranging from Ms. Lauryn Hill, to Louis Armstrong, to Kendrick Lamar. Three separate people in the past hour last listened to a track off Bon Iver’s new record. Someone listened to Joni Mitchell forty-nine minutes ago, even though it wasn’t ‘Both Sides Now.’ And I’m listening to The Saxophones, if you were wondering.
Observing the Friend Feed is one of my favourite hobbies. The feed is, first and foremost, an alternative way to find new tunes and (what I’m guessing was Spotify’s aim) to connect with friends over doing so. Spotify has always been one of the more social music platforms, what with it providing the ability to follow friends, stalk their profiles, follow their playlists, etc. You can technically message over Spotify as well, but has anyone ever slid into a Spotify DM? (Is this joke dead yet?) If Spotify is to be considered a social media platform, the Friend Feed is remarkably significant in that it actually connects people in real time. When the green speaker lights up next to someone’s name, I can click on my mate’s icon and Spotify will play the exact tune from the exact playlist or album they’re listening to. Two of us united in time and space with song. With any luck, they’ll see the green speaker light up next to my name to let them know I was A.) watching them and am now B.) potentially listening to a hidden playlist of theirs. Did you know that Secret Spotify playlists (that is, playlists you don’t make Public) aren’t actually kept secret from the Friend Feed? Now you know. Listen to your coitus songs in Private mode.
Speaking of this, let’s call it, ‘music invasion,’ the unintentional invasion of privacy that Spotify allows is what I find most compelling about the Friend Feed. In giving me real-time knowledge of what music someone is listening to, I can reasonably infer what they are in fact doing at any given time. This may sound obvious, and a lot of the time it is, but for some reason this doesn’t make it any less fascinating. There’s a bizarre comfort in watching Johnny’s (2) speaker light up next to Hard Grime Workout every other day around 9:00 AM. I sip my tea and I watch him go from Big Narstie’s ‘Don’t Fuck Up The Base’ to Swindle and JME’s ‘Mad Ting,’ envisioning a sweaty gym mat and feeling content not to be on one. When Johnny’s speaker lights up next to Chopin: The Complete Sonatas at 1:02 PM, I know he’s made it to the library and I hope I see him there because I think Johnny’s got good chat. At 7:49 PM, I can see he’s got sweepingly romantic dinner jazz playing (Sinatra, Cole, Tony Bennett, etc). As I know Johnny’s single, I can muse over whether he’s actually got a date round or if, like me, he enjoys singing ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ to his ready meal for one. A little later, at 11:17 PM, that green symbol blinks next to Drake’s Views and I have a little bit of FOMO because it is a Friday night but then I remember they never play ‘Too Good’ in the club anyways so what’s the point. Johnny, however, has successfully, albeit unintentionally, given me another full day-in-the-life. And without the help of a single bad instagram or shite- filtered snapchat. Two thumbs-up, Johnny.
Yet, knowing what your mates are up to via Spotify isn’t always a jovial time. I made a joke about coitus songs but I catch people in the act by way of the Friend Feed far more often than I’m comfortable with. 12:21 AM and you’ve got ‘Glory Box’ by Portishead on? I know what you’re up to, pal. If you’re not listening in Private mode, at least be subtle in your playlist names. ‘SEX’ or ‘Lust’ or ‘;)’ does not cut it. Also, Eric, stop listening to Tropical House all the time. I thought you were a cool dude but it’s 8:11 AM and ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ is not the vibe, now or ever.
On a more serious note, I had a friend we’ll call Charlotte go through a fairly rough breakup a while back. Naturally during this period, her little speaker would light up frequently next to various Daughter, City and Colour, Norah Jones tracks etc. She was healing, it was natural, and her Spotify habits didn’t reveal anything abnormal. But that didn’t stop it from feeling as if I’d deeply encroached on her privacy when I’d see her listening to the demo version of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ on repeat at 2:00 AM. We were friends, but hardly that close, and this access to her moments of emotional solitude felt violating. This worsened as the time since the breakup increased, because as she grew happier and seemed entirely herself again when I’d see her out and about, I’d still find that green light in the early hours of the morning blinking next to the same playlist it had been for nearly a year. Iron & Wine’s ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ to Keaton Henson’s ‘Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us’ and back again. It began to feel, on the nights that I would catch this, like I was reading her diary.
I have a friend David; whip-smart, unbearably funny, brimming with dark humour and self-deprecation to the point of overflow. I’ve known him since we were wee kids at primary school together, and now we’re senile twenty-somethings who only see each other once a year. He’s a fantastic human and also really into good music, so his appearances in the Friend Feed are ones I greet with glee. We consistently message each other to discuss new albums and when he let me know he hadn’t been able to stop listening to ‘Real Friends’ off of Pablo I smiled because, thanks to Spotify, I already knew this. He is truly one of the best humans I know, so on the particularly off chance I catch him listening to something like Sufjan Stevens’s ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr.’, I feel something that resembles a mix of sadness and nausea. So rarely, I witness that green light blinking next to both his name and to a song so depressive I am quite literally embarrassed to see its title. It feels, each time, like I’ve walked in on him crying. Like I’ve read a page from a journal he’s had since he was seven. It feels like I’ve crossed a line, and all because I keep up with his activity on Spotify.
Of course, the obvious remedy would be to hide the Friend Feed. I am one semester and a half away from graduating uni so I am proud to say I was able to come up with this solution myself. But I like the Friend Feed. I told you that. I like that I can keep tabs on my friends through their music habits. I like that I can find infinitely better curated playlists through my friends than I can through the ‘Browse’ feature. I like that when I’m violently hungover and listening to Billie Holiday to ease the alcohol shakes at 8:32 AM on a Saturday I can see that my friend across the Atlantic is listening to ‘Trap Queen’ and probably taking a fourth tequila shot at the exact same moment. The Friend Feed is wonderfully intimate. Woefully and awfully intimate. But it’s part of the charm, much like the glowing green light aspect being just one massive Gatsby cliché. And, frankly, if people can watch me listen to ‘Stuff We Did’ from the Up soundtrack for 144 straight minutes and I can’t intrude on their emotional binging in the same way, well it just wouldn’t be a ‘Friend’ feed, would it?