This post was written by Dylan O’Sullivan, a Research Masters student in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam.
In the words of Bloomberg columnist Lionel Laurent, Spotify is having a “Facebook moment” (Ghosh, 2022). On the 1st of January, a group of scientific and medical professionals published “An Open Letter to Spotify,” laying out the threat to public health posed by the podcaster Joe Rogan, who had hosted two outspoken Covid-sceptics, Robert Malone and Peter McCullough, the month prior. “This is not only a scientific or medical concern,” stated the signatories, “it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform” (“An Open Letter to Spotify,” 2022). Despite the severity of the language, however, the letter failed to capture public attention, making few waves on Twitter—that was, until the 24th of January, when Neil Young threw his Stetson hat into the ring, penning an open letter of his own and ending with an ultimatum: “It’s me or Joe Rogan” (Forde, 2022). Though there are few media more personal than the podcast, whose narrowcasting capabilities have turned the tables on broadcast radio, the threat to public health posed by the Joe Rogan Experience and Spotify soon became the subject of a global debate, with the podcaster and the platform drawing criticism from the likes of Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. On Twitter, meanwhile, once African American singer India.Arie drew attention to resurfaced footage of the podcaster using racist terminology (Gajewski, 2022), the controversy quickly progressed from a ‘debate’ to a ‘scandal’ (Marres, 2004)—a turn for the viral and tribal, which splintered the Twittersphere into a constellation of affective publics—defined by me Zizi Papacharissi as “public formations that are textually rendered into being through emotive expressions that spread virally through networked crowds” (Papacharissi, 2015: 15).
II. Affective Publics
Named after the Middle French for a plateau or raised level surface (Bratton, 2015: 43), digital platte forms have lowered the bar to entry for “minimal politics,” which Oliver Marchart (2011) describes as action that must be (i) publicly visible, (ii) directed toward becoming majoritarian, and (iii) entail a conflictive dynamic. On Twitter, one can often meet all three requirements whether one wants to or not: for the one-to-many nature of the interface renders every Tweet and Retweet a Janus-faced signal. Such were the cases of politician Andrew Yang and actor Dwayne Johnson, who publicly backtracked personal endorsements of Joe Rogan amidst the political furore. Infrastructurally, Twitter is underdetermined and recombinant, writes Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, “making it subject to the interpretative flexibility of the particular social groups involved in developing and appropriating the technology” (3). For the likes of Apple Music and SiriusXM—two of the closest competitors to Spotify—personal endorsements of Neil Young served as political advertisements: the former adding a ‘We Love Neil’ banner to the ‘Browse’ section of the app, the latter announcing that the station would be bringing back the Neil Young Radio show for a seven-day run (Eggertsen, 2022). In the wake of platformization, the anti-statist slogan of the twentieth-century has become the status quo of the twenty-first: the personal is political—and vice versa.
The socioeconomic merger of Big Data and Big Tech has afforded (and, disquietingly, can afford) the splintering of metanarratives into “micro-content” (Dash, 2002), “nanostories” (Wasik, 2009) and “hashtag publics” (Bruns & Burgess, 2015): fast and loose groupings of (counter)publics, often too MAD (mutually and assuredly destructive) to support lasting change. It is at the point of reassembly that newly calculable, calculated and calculating publics (Gillespie, 2016) are left upstream without the paddling processes of democracy, famously described by Max Weber as the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” (Weber, 1946: 128). Instead, as Papacharissi writes: “They assemble around media and platforms that invite affective attunement, support affective investment, and propagate affectively charged expression, like Twitter” (Papacharissi, 2016: 2). Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is slower—six times slower, by some estimates (Vosoughi et al., 2018). During such moments of polarized, personalized and politicized complexity, preconceived narratives and preexisting communities become a valuable source of solid ground: the unfolding saga of Joe Rogan gives way to the prefiled data onJoe Rogan. In such scenarios, the digital trace of affective publics can produce patterns of behavioural lock-in (Arthur, 1990); a path dependence that can reroute debates toward the deconstruction of personal pasts, as opposed to the construction of political futures.
III. Defective Politics
In the first few days of the #CancelSpotify trend, Spotify shares dropped by $2 billion. By later that week, however, after the eye of the Tweetstorm had shifted to racism and politics, Spotify shares were back to trading at pre-Neil Young levels (Stone, 2022). Upon analysing the market trends resulting from Joe Rogan controversy, the App Store analytics firm Sensor Tower found “no meaningful change’ to average session counts or duration metrics for Spotify, nor did Tweeters of #CancelSpotify switch providers to Apple, Amazon or Google at any significant rate (Perez, 2022). Other than the addition of a “Learn about COVID-19” content warning podcast episodes, which Kat Rosenfield (2022) has described as being about as effective as a PARENTAL ADVISORY sticker, and the allocation of $100 million to artists from “historically marginalized groups” (Al-Arshani, 2022), which constitutes a drop in the bucket for a company that has dedicated ten-times that amount over the past two years to podcast acquisition alone (Culliford, 2022), Spotify has come through the other end of the #CancelSpotify campaign relatively unscathed, unfazed and unchanged.
In 1958, Martin Luther King wrote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (King, 1958: 14). On Twitter, the arcs are so short, the affective publics are so fleeting and flighty, that there is often nothing to bend. “They are like smart mobs,” writes philosopher Byung-Chul Han. “They lack the stability, constancy, and continuity that are indispensable for civil exchange. Accordingly, they defy integration into a stable discursive context” (Han, 2017: 7). With regard to collective action, one could argue that affective publics often lead to the worst of both worlds: overachieving at the time, yet underachieving over time. It is a scorched-earth, slash-and-burn style of politics, which leaves no positive remainder. For despite the lack of political consequence, #CancelSpotify took quite a personal toll, affectively and reputationally—not only to Joe Rogan and his supporters, but to his critics: the likes of Neil Young, Howard Stern, Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, whose past indiscretions were likewise repurposed as ammunition for what quickly descended into a culture war. Indeed, according to sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America first entered the phrase into the zeitgeist, neither affective publics nor personal politics were and never will be ethically sustainable—a lesson that billion-dollar corporations are beginning to learn to ignore.
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Dylan O’Sullivan is a Research Masters student in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, with a BA in English Studies from Trinity College Dublin. The focus of his writing and research is centred around datafication, machine learning and algorithmic culture. He is currently researching the cognitive, behavioural and sociocultural effects of recommendation systems (RS) and agents (RAs), with a particular focus on Amazon. Outside of academia, Dylan is a contributing writer to Areo Magazine.