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The glum Digital Music News headline reads "Spotify Daylist is Blowing Up—Too Bad the Creator Was Laid Off", and although I haven't specifically talked to the person who came up with Daylist since the layoffs, I don't think they were affected in this round. The explanation in the body of the story is a little more specific:  


This is mostly true in what it actually says. I wasn't the only person working on the Spotify genre-categorization project, but I started it, I ran it, I wrote all of its tools and algorithms, and I worked on many applications of it to internal problems and app features. Without me it probably will not survive. And that genre system is one of the ingredients that feeds into Daylist.  

The DMN piece is derived from an earlier article at TechCrunch, where the assertion is more carefully phrased: "Spotify’s astrology-like Daylists go viral, but the company’s micro-genre mastermind was let go last month". And more carefully reported:  




The "look no further" flourish is misguided, since I didn't curate every individual genre myself, and maybe didn't personally configure any of the ones they cite. We did not make up the name "egg punk", either.  

USA Today, drawing from both of these stories, kept the plot twist out of the headline ("How to find your Spotify Daylist: Changing playlists that capture 'every version of you'") and saved it for a rueful final paragraph:  


The judicious "help" there is fair enough. And as none of these say, in addition to working on genres I was also a prolific source of this kind of internal personalization experiment, and thus part of an environment that encouraged it.  

Daylist itself was absolutely not my doing, though. You'd have to ask its creator about their influences, but so far I haven't seen Spotify give public named credit for the feature, and in a period of sweeping layoffs, in particular, I encourage you to take note of the general corporate reluctance to acknowledge individual work. But while we're at it, I did not have anything to do with Discover Weekly, nor did anybody from the Echo Nest, which was the startup whose acquisition brought me to Spotify and which I did not found. These are not secret details, and a reporter could easily discover them by asking questions. None of three people who wrote those three articles about Daylist talked to me before publishing them.  

And although the Daylist feature itself is charming and viral, and I support its existence, it also demonstrates three recurring biases in music personalization that are worth noting for their wider implications.  

The most obvious one is that Daylist is based explicitly on the premise that listening is organized by, or at least varies according to, weekdays and dayparts. It is not the first Spotify feature to stipulate this idea, and clearly there are listeners for which it is relevant. But I think both schedule-driven and the similar activity-driven models of listening (workout music, study music, dinner music..) tend to encourage a functional disengagement from music itself. Daylist mitigates this by describing its daypart modes in mostly non-functional terms, including sometimes genres and other musical terminology, and of course you aren't required to listen to nothing but Daylist and thus it isn't obliged to provide all important cultural nutrients. But the eager every-few-hours updating does make a more active bid for constant attention than most other personalization features. Discover Weekly and Release Radar are only weekly, and short. Daily Mix is only (roughly) daily, although it's both endless and multiple. I don't think the cultural potential of having all the world's music online is exactly maximized by encouraging you to spend every Tuesday afternoon the same way you supposedly always have.  

The second common personalization bias in Daylist is that it manifestly draws from a large internal catalog of ideas, but you have no control over which subset you are allowed to see, and there is no way to explore the whole idea-space yourself. This parsimonious control-model is not at all unique to Spotify, but it's certainly pervasive in Spotify personalization features, from the type and details of recommendations you see on the Home page to the Mixes you get to the genre and mood filters in your Library. Daylist's decisions about your identity are friendly but unilateral. It's not a conversation. To its credit, Daylist is the first of these features that explains its judgments in interactive form, so you can tap a genre or adjective and see what that individual idea attempts to represent. But this enables only shallow exploration of the local neighborhood of the space. There's still no way to see a complete list of available terms or jump to a particular one even if you somehow know it exists. Obviously everynoise.com demonstrates my strong counterbias towards expansive openness and unrestricted exploration, but one might note that even after 10 years of me working on this genre project at Spotify, there's no place other than my own personal site to see the whole list of genres.  

And the third common personalization bias demonstrated unapologetically by Daylist is the endemic tech-company fondness for unsupervised machine learning over explicit human curation. As you can see for yourself by comparing the "genre" mixes you find through Daylists with the corresponding genre pages on everynoise, the genre system is only one of Daylist's inputs. All the non-genre moods and vibes in Daylist obviously come from a different system, but even the genre terms are also filtered through other influences. I did help with those other systems, too, creditwise, but I didn't invent and wasn't running them.  

Nor, honestly, do I trust them. You will learn to trust or distrust your own Daylists, if you spend time listening to them or even just inspecting them, but if you follow conversations about them online to get a wider sample than just your own, you will quickly find that they do not always make sense. Mine, right now, claims to be giving me japanese metal and visual kei, but much of it is actually idol rock and a mysterious number of <100-listener Russian metalcore bands that I have never played and which have no evident connection to bands I have. The "Japanese Metal" mix is mostly Japanese, but only sporadically metal. The "Visual Kei" mix is mostly Japanese, and does contain some visual kei, but you'd have to already know what visual kei is to pick those songs out. The "Laptop" mix opens with Morbid Angel's "Visions from the Dark Side", a song that not only was not made on a laptop (to put it mildly), but which narrowly predates the commercial availability of laptops entirely.  

The genre system was not error-proof, either. But it was built on intelligible math, it was overseen by humans, and those humans had both the technical tools and moral motivation to fix errors. We did not have a "laptop" genre because "laptop" is not a community of artists or listeners or practice, but if we had, and the system had put Morbid Angel on it, I would have stopped all other work until I was 100% confident I understood why such an egregious error had happened and had taken actions to both prevent that error from recurring and improve the monitoring processes to instill programmatic vigilance against that kind of error.  

But once you commit to machine learning, instead of explicit math, you mostly give up on predictability. This doesn't prevent you from detecting errors, but it means you will generally find it hard to correct errors when you detect them, and even harder to prevent new ones from happening. The more complicated your systems, the weirder their failure modes, and the weirder the failures get, the harder it is to anticipate them or their consequences. If you delegate "learning" to machines, what you really mean is that you have given up on the humans learning. The real peril of LLM AI is not that ChatGPT hallucinates, it's that ChatGPT appears to be generating new ideas in such a way that it's tempting to think you don't need to pay people to do that any more. But people having written is why ChatGPT works at all. If generative AI arrives at human truths, sometimes or ever, it's because humans discovered those truths first, and wrote them down. Every problem you turn over to interpolative machines is a problem that will never thereafter be solved in a new way, that will never produce any new truths.  

The problem with a music service laying off its genre curator is not the pettiness of firing the person responsible for a shiny new brand-moment. I was responsible for some previous shiny new brand-moments, too, as recently as less than a week before the layoff, but not this one and mere ungratefulness is sad but not systemically destabilizing. Daylist was made by other people, and will be maintained by other people. The problem is that I insisted on putting human judgment and obstinate stewardship in the path of demand-generation, and if that isn't enough to keep you from getting laid off from a music-streaming company, it's hard to imagine anybody else having the idiotic courage to keep trying it.
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