Public ambience: a social experiment

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In addition to launching a mini-series on the various bots I’ve developed, I’ve decided I want to kick off a bit of a social experiment.

For {insert arbitrary length of time here}, I’m going to publicly document my music listening habits. No, I don’t listen to rather interesting music, mostly classic rock and modern top-40s. But, we live in a world where, thanks to social media, so much of what we do online and in real life is shared, and that which is not shared is almost certainly collected by big data companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon) and used for advertising.

Spotify, my music player of choice, already has a social aspect built-in, “live-streaming” what your friends are listening to on a side column of their web and desktop apps. I actually really appreciate this feature; I believe music is largely a social thing, and being able to join in with someone on a song, or possibly discover new music easily, is a fantastic thing. Plus, this is perhaps one of the last social features before companies like Facebook crossed the sharing threshold into creepy territory.

Anyway, anyone who is friends with me on Spotify (hit me up: https://open.spotify.com/user/122904505 ) would already see what I’m listening to on Spotify (via Spotify), but what about what I’m listening to off Spotify? What about songs that are playing around me in the real world? Not just what I’m actively listening to, but what I’m passively hearing as well?

This is where my phone comes in. My Pixel 2 XL comes with a nifty feature called Pixel Ambient Services, which is effectively always-on Shazam. It’s an exclusive Pixel feature that was one of the selling points for the Pixel 2, though one I honestly forgot about when recently purchasing my new phone.

The phone is constantly listening to ambient sounds, and checking them against (supposedly offline) profiles of songs. If it detects a match, it will display a small notification on the bottom of your lock screen and in your notification shade with the song title and artist. It’s helpful in some instances, and a neat party trick, though I admittedly had turned it off just 24 hours after getting the phone, when the charm of it wore off and it started getting creepy.

Recently though, I turned it back on, remembering a couple IFTTT applets people had created, allowing users to do something with the songs the phone detected (and the logs it creates, which I’m sure get to Google’s servers somehow), such as keeping a record in a spreadsheet or adding them to a Spotify playlist. Recently, I’ve used the latter of those, making a playlist of all the songs that my phone has detected.

This playlist will not only include songs that I’ve listened to on Spotify (at least, ones I’ve played over speakers, including my phone picking up a song from my own phone speakers…), but also every song that has played around me. For instance, where I work has ambient music playing all the time, often either top-40s music or, more recently, 50s music, most of which are detected and fingerprinted by my phone, even when it is in my pocket as I move around the building. Every song that it detects will automatically be stored on this playlist.

To add a bit of social element to this experiment, seeing as an ambient song won’t appear as a “Now Listening” song on Spotify, I’ve implemented a second IFTTT applet that will update my Twitter bio every time a new song is added to the Spotify playlist. I might also make it send out a tweet as well; depends on how much music I listen to and whether I feel like flooding my Twitter feed with that. Either way, my bio will constantly be updating with the last song I heard (either intentionally or not). You can check it out for yourself here: http://twitter.com/nwithan8

I’m not sure what I expect out of this experiment. Perhaps it says something about our constant exposure to data (in this case, music), and brings to the foreground what is already going on in the background. Rather than online giants privately mining my data for financial gain, I actively choose to publicly display it.

Or maybe I’ve just showing that I am more willing to cooperate when the day comes that these online giants convince us that constant observation and over-sharing is “for the greater good.”

Or neither, I don’t know.

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One thought on “Public ambience: a social experiment”

  • That is a pretty cool experiment! I am a teacher and can appreciate creative exploits such as yours! 👍🏻Not to mention I’m a fan of Ark Patrol!

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