Spotify’s mesmerizing new map shows that music can be social again

August 21, 2014
August 21, 2014
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https://www.spotify.com/ca-en/arts/serendipity/(Spotify/Kyle McDonald)

Spotify turned on a cool new feature this morning called Serendipity, an interactive map that highlights places on the planet where two people begin a song at the same time (or within a tenth of a second of each other). The above is a GIF built on screenshots from the site, but for the full effect, turn your volume up and click through to hear snippets of the songs the world is listening to. (You can pause to finish listening to anything you like.)

The feature was built by Kyle McDonald, Spotify’s first “artist in residence.” “There are like 10, 20 thousand songs started per second, which is like 25 to 50 million being listened to at any moment,” he tells Quartz.

It is a lot of fun to play with. But it also highlights the massive, untapped potential Spotify has to exploit social connections and communities among its users. Right now, Serendipity just offers glimpses of listening coincidences around the world, but in theory it could be used to allow like-minded music fans to connect.

As I have previously written, the streaming music landscape is highly fragmented. No one has broken away with an unassailable lead, like Google did in search and Facebook did in social media. With its 40 million active users (10 million of them paying subscribers), Spotify is the biggest on-demand streaming service (where you can choose songs and create your own playlists) which sounds huge, but is tiny compared to even the smaller players in social media.

For centuries, music has been a social activity; it was only in the 1980s, with the popularity of the Walkman and its earphones, that listening to music became a solo activity. Serendipity is a step toward making music a communal experience again, Charlie Hellman, Spotify’s vice-president of product, tells Quartz. “It kind of opened the team’s eyes, that we could so something with the product in real time,” says Hellman. “[Serendipity] has started a lot of threads that we might deliver into the product. How do we deliver that feeling of connectedness and community?”

If there is going to be a winner in streaming music, it might be whoever cracks the social code first, and creates an incentive for music fans to gather digitally in one place. “One thing is for sure,” wrote influential music critic Bob Lefsetz earlier this year, “one service will dominate, it’s where we’ll all go, because we want to share, we don’t want to be left out.”

How this thinking ends up changing the Spotify mobile and desktop platforms remains to be seen, but Hellman says that the company is exploring ways to increase social interaction—for example, letting users get a better sense for others nearby with common musical tastes.

“All over the world, people are listening to music together,” he says. “But you don’t feel those other people, you can feel like you are alone.”

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