For some, Black Friday ushers in the holiday season. But for others, it’s when they open Spotify on a late autumn day and see that their Spotify Wrapped is available. It’s the opening salvo of year-in-review content—and perhaps the most personal, bringing with it the opportunity to relive summer hits or cringe at the cumulative minutes spent listening to a sad song after a breakup.
It’s a social trend that rises each year and cuts through the noise, fueled by pride or self-deprecating humor, depending who your top artists turned out to be. And it’s all built on user data, which Spotify packages in cool neon colors with cheeky commentary—a move that takes the edge off the creepiness of knowing Spotify is always listening. And in return for entertaining its users for the day, Spotify gets its annual chance to drive a social media trend and reap the benefits of free advertising as millions share their Wrapped publicly.
As more companies come under fire for tracking users and storing data, Spotify manages to largely avoid such widespread criticism. Instead, many anticipate and welcome Wrapped’s arrival. But it’s also a nicely packaged manifestation of the music streamer’s ability to capture every second people spent listening from January to October.
“This is a particularly shining example of the fact that Spotify’s business model is based on surveillance,” says Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future. “Spotify has done an amazing job of marketing surveillance as fun and getting people to not only participate in their own surveillance, but celebrate it and share it and brag about it to the world.”
Spotify released its first version of a year-in-review in 2015. But it didn’t catch on until a few holiday seasons later, once the app began serving it up on pastel-colored cards. It has amped up its interactive insights, further personalizing the experience. In 2021, Spotify Wrapped was shared 60 million times by users. But that stat doesn’t capture screenshots, a common way people post their results to social media.
For 2022, Wrapped evolved to put each user into one of 16 listening personalities based on the music they streamed and other categories, like how early they are to discover something or the age of the music they gravitate toward. Spotify also integrated Wrapped with WhatsApp and Roblox to spread its reach even further. “Wrapped is one of the most exciting times for Spotify users each year,” Spotify spokesperson Laura Batey said in an email. “We have built something special that our audience anticipates and looks forward to.”
What makes Spotify so good at creating these lists and predicting the music that users want to hear is a robust artificial intelligence system and its immense data trove. It has also mined that data for oddly personal ads, picking on users’ individual listening habits and anonymizing it before plastering it on billboards. “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day, What did you do?” an old ad read.