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Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications


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July 31, 2020

Gendered Algorithms in Spotify Music-Streaming Service
By Sophie Ashton

Sophie Ashton

My name is Sophie Ashton. I wrote this essay for the course Critical Studies of Social Media, taught by Dr. Matthew Flisfeder. I am heading into my fourth and final year of my Rhetoric, Writing and Communications degree at the University of Winnipeg. I spend much of my free time listening to music, and as a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community the reproduction of dominant ideologies through algorithms within streaming services was of particular interest to me.

The intention of this research is to determine the cultural implications of biased ideologies on marginalized groups that are excluded by the binary oppositions inherent to algorithms. In studying the works of communications, technology and cultural scholars, new insights develop showing precisely how algorithms interact with ideology in contemporary culture, particularly in marginalized communities. In his book, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, Adam Greenfield stresses the grave importance of algorithms in contemporary culture; they are coded by binary oppositions and therefore generalize and essentialize people into limiting characterizations. Algorithms both collect and produce the content we consume, including our music interests if we use streaming services such as Spotify. If algorithms collect our data to determine the content a user is provided, they have the ability to reinforce and shape culture and ideology.

Since 2008, the Swedish music streaming service, Spotify, has provided avenue for musicians and listeners alike to engage in a social music experience online (Spotify). As of December 13th, 2019, Spotify had 124 million subscribers, and 271 million monthly users, making it the music industry’s largest source of revenue (Spotify). While the platform offers a free streaming service, they also offer a subscription-based service for users wishing to skip advertisements, download music to their device, and skip songs in playlists (Spotify). The platform has over 50 million tracks, upwards of 4 billion playlists, and more than 700, 000 podcasts available to stream in 79 countries (Spotify).

Spotify and Algorithms

Spotify uses The Echo Nest, a data analysis company which collects and analyzes data about each song’s aural factors such as pitch and tempo to recommend songs that have similar qualities. They also collect data about cultural factors from online discussions about music in blogs and tweets, as well as user generated data like favourites, skips, and ratings to curate playlists to each user’s musical taste (Prey 1090). Echo Nest refers to this data as a ‘Taste Profile’, which, along with non-user-specific information like general song and playlist popularity, curates a ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist for each subscriber every Monday morning (Prey 1091).

While the algorithm itself relies on cultural, and user-specific data for curating content rather than demographic data, algorithms are still mathematical equations, which require binary oppositions to categorize users (Finn 21). Algorithms are created to answer a specific question or questions, which are posed by humans with biases, making the results of the algorithm inherently biased (Finn 25). If the content we consume is decided by biased algorithms, then algorithms are capable of shaping culture and ideology. (Finn 26). Through this process, users become ‘data subjects’, or numerical representations of the self, defining and influencing our self-perception (Prey 1088).

Algorithms and Ideology

Jean Burgess of Queensland University of Technology and Frederik Dhaenens of Ghent University researched LGBTQ-specific Spotify playlists to discern precisely how algorithms both enable and inhibit specific cultural groups, and work to reinforce dominant ideologies. In a study considering thirty-seven LGBTQ+-specific playlists, Burgess and Dhaenens organized their findings using three considerations: (1) the amplification of LGBTQ+ issues, (2) the mediation of identity on algorithm-based platforms, and (3) the simultaneous adherence and resistance in ‘queer’ music-streaming (Burgess and Dhaenens 1193). Within this study, there were multiple factors that constituted ‘queer’ music, including music by artists that are publicly out as queer LGBTQ+, artists who actively seek to subvert heteronormativity, and artists who create music with relatable messages to the LGBTQ+ community (Burgess and Dhaenens 1199).

Within these categories of ‘queer’ music, there are numerous differing manifestations of ‘queerness’ and ‘queer’ culture. Many of the playlists, particularly the ones more closely related to Pride parades, and mainstream popular-culture, are situated at an intersection between identity politics and commodification (Burgess and Dhaenens 1203). These playlists work to reinforce a queer popular culture that is mostly decided by white, gay men, while other playlists with less mainstream artists, particularly artists who are transgender, or people of colour, are underrepresented in the recommendation software (Burgess and Dhaenens 1202). This music is less recommended sometimes because it has a lower stream-count, and music with more streams is recommended before music with less. More significantly, however, songs that are less simple to categorize into binary oppositions, or whose artists are more challenging to categorize are considered “difficult” to recommend to specific data-subjects, and therefore are recommended less (Burgess and Dhaenens 1202).

Maria Eriksson and Dr. Anna Johansson, researchers in communication studies at Umea University, used bots to perform a study on the gendered components of the Spotify algorithm. Particularly, they intended to assess whether those who self-identify as women, receive different recommendations to those who self-identify as men on the platform (Eriksson and Johansson 174). While the research found only marginal evidence that women and men receive different recommendations to one another, they did find that overall, music by men was recommended far more often than music by women to all users. Eriksson and Johansson found that Spotify in a few countries allows users to self-identify as non-binary upon registering for the service. However, the algorithm simply recodes the non-binary-identified users back into binary code, to gather more precise data for advertisers, making the option to not adhere to the gender binary only representational (Eriksson and Johansson 174). within genres.

Shaping Culture: Spotify and Identity

As one of the leading music streaming services, Spotify and its algorithm hold immeasurable power over popular culture, and cultural identity (Burgess and Dhaenens 1196). The interplay between human-defined problems and algorithmic solutions replicates already dominant ideologies that place white, straight, cis-gender men as the standard, with all identities falling outside of these categories as ‘other’ (Finn 18). Although hidden underneath the interfaces we browse every day, we must consider the underlying structures that generate the interface material (Finn 53). Spotify is only one of the many platforms through which we consume content in modern-day communications. All social media platforms use algorithmic technology to curate the content we are exposed to. To understand our culture, we must understand the algorithms on which it relies. To understand the algorithms, we must consider who is asking the questions for the algorithms to answer (Finn 55).

Algorithms, by nature, require binary oppositions to generate answers to the questions posed by programmers. For LGBTQ+ people, women, and people of colour, the this affects their ability to gain recognition on the Spotify platform. Although Spotify has created LGBTQ+ specific playlists, the underlying heteronormative ideologies remain inscribed into the platform’s structure. This could explain why Burgess and Dhaenens found many of the songs in their study were not by people who actually identified as LGBTQ+, but rather, popular artists whose music the algorithm could more easily categorize (Burgess and Dhaenens 1202).

Conclusion

Most of the LGBTQ+ playlists on Spotify reinforce ideologies that oppress people within the community the queer community, disadvantaging people of colour, and gender non-conforming people. Algorithms, which curate our entire social media experience, replicate the ideology of those who program them, making them effective in shaping and defining culture. With over 124 million subscribers and an extremely popular recommendation system, Spotify holds great power in their ability to create a specific reality. Spotify’s algorithm, inherent with gender-biased ideology, has an effect on the art of marginalized communities’ culture and self-perception

Works Cited

“Company Info.” Spotify, newsroom.spotify.com/company-info/.

Dhaenens, Frederik, and Jean Burgess. “‘Press Play for Pride’: The Cultural Logics of LGBTQ-Themed Playlists on Spotify.” New Media & Society, vol. 21, no. 6, June 2019, pp. 1192–1211, doi:10.1177/1461444818808094.

Eriksson, Maria and Anna Johansson. “Tracking Gendered Streams.” Culture Unbound, vol. 9, 2, 2017, pp. 163–183, http://www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se.

Finn, Ed. “What Algorithms Want.” Imagination in the Age of Computing, MIT Press, 2018, pp. 15–56.

Greenfield, Adam. Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. Verso, 2018.

Werner, Ann. “Organizing music, organizing gender: algorithmic culture and Spotify recommendations.” Popular Communication, vol. 18, no. 1, 2020, pp. 78-90, doi:10.1080/15405702.2020.1715980.


July 20, 2020

The Year of Remote Learning and Uncertainty: Graduating During a Pandemic
By Giordana Curatolo

My name is Giordana Curatolo, and I recently graduated from The University of Winnipeg with a degree in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications. While writing this piece, I was able to reflect on the challenges of graduating in the time of coronavirus, but also celebrate my achievement and all other 2020 graduates.

Completing my undergraduate degree amid a pandemic posed a unique set of challenges beyond the already stressful realities of finishing a university degree. As an undergraduate student, I followed a strict daily routine that kept me sane. When the university cancelled classes and shut their doors, I quickly realized that the schedule I lived by was going to be disrupted. In-person interactions with students and faculty turned to stressful Zoom lectures, which at times resulted in ‘zoombombers’ and technical obstacles, and my daily Starbucks study set-up switched to a work from home scenario. Oh, and I purchased a Keurig to satisfy my iced coffee cravings. However, aside from adjusting to a new routine it felt like we lost the privilege of knowing it was our very last day. We missed the opportunity of a goodbye; a farewell to classmates, professors and faculty, and the environment where we spent numerous years dedicated to our work.

Regardless of the added academic challenges and the sadness of leaving our secure environment, we were all consumed with coronavirus stress, which made a usually demanding exam season more difficult. Many of us, myself included, were (and are still) fearful of contracting the virus, fearful for our loved ones, and fearful for our future. Yet, amid these stressful times I quickly recognized my privilege. I was not an international student miles away from family, a student who lost their job, or a student taking care of loved ones. Unlike many, I was fortunate to finish my studies with my professors’ support in the comfort of my newly designed study space (courtesy of Pinterest and lots of plants) surrounded by family and many Zoom dates with friends.

Despite the loss of an in-person convocation, my crisp 8" x 11" degree made the thousands of words written, the several all-nighters, the countless presentations, and a few (a ton of) tears worthwhile. But what is next for me? Well, leaving behind student life is undoubtedly stressful and uncertain, but the pandemic created new uncertainties. It feels like our life has been put on hold, not just us graduating students, but most of the world. As recent graduates, searching for work during this pandemic is entirely different. Internships are cancelled, seeking opportunities outside of your hometown is next to impossible (not to mention frightening), and building professional connections is challenging. However, it was vital for me to use my time appropriately. I updated my portfolio, improved my digital skills, and expanded on some freelance work. No, I do not think I will miss remote learning, but it will be weird not to open a textbook come the first week of September. Who knows, I might be back to the student life sooner than I think. Grad school anyone?


July 07, 2020

The Implications of Social Media on Communication During a Global Pandemic
By Daryn Arnott

Daryn Arnott

My name is Daryn Arnott, and my major is in English, Creative Writing. I wrote this essay for the course RHET-2131 Professional Style & Editing, taught by Dr. Jaqueline McLeod Rogers. It was for an assignment about voice; we wrote the same essay three different times, once using informal or colloquial voice, once using formal voice (hence this essay), and once in moderate voice.

The aftermath of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is yet to be determined; regardless, it continues to affect how humans communicate amongst themselves. The situation is more dire in parts of the world other than in Canada, but it continues to have resounding impacts around the globe—its influence is far-reaching, as physical distancing measures prevent people from gathering with their friends and families. Due to these restrictions, social media platforms such as Facebook have seen their user activity increase dramatically; this is a direct result of the quarantine, which has restricted people to the insides of their homes and away from others. From restaurants to movie theaters, large public spaces have closed down to prevent the spread of the infectious COVID-19. As a result, social interactions have shifted almost entirely online. These changes affect the ways that humans contact one another, and restricted interaction and exposure have a deleterious affect on both their mental health and personal relationships.

Social media impacts academic performance; therefore, increased use of social media may hinder students’ abilities to perform well in an educational setting. This is further confounded by the fact that university closures have moved courses online, making the temptation to access social media platforms during class time incredibly enticing. For students to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world, they will need to practice stringent self-discipline when using the internet to properly comprehend educational resources. A study that measured students’ social media use and examined the effects on academic performance found that “student exposure to social media sites has found statistically significant as it does affect the Computer Science student’s academic performance” (Aqueel et al). There is an argument to be made for the benefits of social media, such as its ability to connect people and draw support in times of need, but this study found that “negative impact is more than positive effect on the students” (Aqueel et al). Addiction to social media is impeding students’ academic progress. Specifically, it was discovered that “addictiveness of social sites has a significant influence on academic performance of the students” (Aqueel et al). As more educational facilities are moving online to offer their resources to students, it raises concerns about how social media will interfere with this process.

Another intersection of social media and communication is its impact on the mental wellbeing of users. An advantage to social media during times of isolation is that it connects people who are physically restricted from contacting their friends and family. Isolation involves introversion and infrequent interactions.[1] Conversely, it has negative effects on the psychological health and strength of these users—it is difficult to discern if the positives outweigh the negatives. One study sought to examine how social media impacts mental health and the challenges it poses to individuals with anxiety. It found that “people who are socially anxious like to use social media to fight loneliness” (Ramezankhani et al). The pandemic has dissolved this distinction because not only the socially anxious rely on social media for interaction, but rather every individual that abides by social distancing measures does. The study found that “online communication could further isolate persons offline and decrease social wellbeing” (Ramezankhani et al). In an already isolated world, social media may exacerbate the effects of loneliness and isolation. Since the pandemic is such a recent phenomenon, it is difficult to study whether or not social media is enhancing loneliness or reducing it. Another effect of social media was discovered, which is that “occasional or chronic exposure to social media platforms could be a negative impact on people’s self-evaluation and self-esteem” (Ramezankhani et al). The implications of this effect are concerning. In an isolated world, more and more people are turning to social media for interactions and communication; does this mean that the negative impacts of these platforms on self-esteem will apply to an increasing number of individuals? COVID-19 may result in greater levels of loneliness, and reduced self-esteem around the globe. It is difficult to imagine how these circumstances would change without the presence of social media. Namely, would isolation increase tenfold without the ability to communicate online with friends and family? Due to the rapidly evolving nature of this pandemic, the answers are not yet clear.

Social media is like a double-edged sword[2]: for all its benefits, it also has negative impacts on the human psyche. Yet another troubling outcome of an increased reliance on social media for human contact is its effects on alcohol and drug use. The open nature of these platforms means that “alcohol and illicit drugs-related content is easily generated and consumed by young adults” (Ramezankhani et al). Similarly, due to stay-at-home mandates, more people are consuming drugs and alcohol throughout their days, due to relaxed responsibilities pertaining to education and employment. This study found that “teens and young people who used social media were more likely to used alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco than individuals who did not use social media frequently” (Ramezankhani et al). As activity rates for social media soar and the consumption of drugs and alcohol increases due to worldwide stress and uncertainty, these two factors may interact to produce a worrying effect on humanity as a whole. If social media leads to increased consumption of intoxicating substances, then the world may experience a greater surge of addictions to these substances, especially amongst younger age groups.

The same study acknowledges that social media has the potential to enhance social relationships. The authors write that social media provides “a fantastic opportunity for relationship expansion by enabling individuals to connect with others by sharing their opinions, beliefs, and experiences” (Ramezankhani et al). Although it comes with its own set of challenges and negative outcomes, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also allow users to connect with other people and share their experiences. They can seek support in especially troubling times, such as during a global pandemic. It allows people to contact and share information with those who they are physically restricted from seeing. As such, the negative and positive outcomes of social media must be weighed to determine whether or not it is an overall helpful or harmful addition to society. To certain people, social media is a blessing that provides the ability to connect and empathize; to others, a curse[3].

Social media is a landscape that is rapidly evolving and changing how people relate to and share information amongst themselves. Ideas are posted online, posts are consumed by relatives and friends, blogs are commented on by strangers, videos are uploaded by creators[4]—the possibilities for communication that these platforms provide are endless. There are numerous benefits of social media: it connects those who are isolated from their support networks, it gives a platform to share information and seek support, and it allows for the easy spread of vital information such as precautionary measures regarding the pandemic; conversely, social media has its downsides[5]: it can increase feelings of loneliness, isolation, exacerbate anxiety, and encourage the use of intoxicating substances. Whether or not social media has an overall positive or negative impact on the psyche of its users during the pandemic is yet to be determined.

Works Cited

Aqeel, Muslim Bin, et al. “Investigating the Effect of Social Media on the Students’ Academic Performance.” Gomal University Journal of Research, vol. 35, no. 2, Dec. 2019, pp. 66–78. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=142237285.

Ramezankhani, Ali, et al. “Impact of Social Media on Psychological Health: Challenges and Opportunities.” Novelty in Biomedicine, vol. 7, no. 3, Summer 2019, pp. 158–164. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=138267597.

Footnotes

Tropes:

Metaphor: “social media is like a double-edged sword…”

Antithesis: “There are numerous benefits … conversely, ….”

Schemes:

Ellipsis: “To some, social media is a blessing… to others, a curse”

Alliteration: “Isolation involves introversion and infrequent interactions.”

Parallelism: “Ideas are posted…videos are uploaded…”

 

[1] Alliteration

[2] Metaphor

[3] Ellipsis

[4] Parallelism

[5] Antithesis