Safety should be the default

August 24, 2021

I've been a Spotify customer since 2015, right after Rdio shut down. Since then, I've been always pleasantly surprised by Spotify's recommendation algorithm. I've always gotten a lot of value from their personalized recommendations and discovery features.

In general, I like the service and overall UX. So much that I recently upgraded to a family plan so my family can also enjoy the service. I guess you can say that I've been a happy customer. Up until recently.

Designed for engagement

By now it shouldn't be news how recommendation algorithms on online platforms, such as social media sites, work. These algorithms are designed first and foremost for engagement. The more time users spend on the platform, the better.

This is what drives the numbers up and makes stakeholders happy. And in most cases, the user is only a means to and end. The algorithm is successful if we are kept coming back for more.

These algorithms can be very efficient and smart, segmenting users based on a bunch of criteria. Age, gender, location, preferences, interests, etc. All of these feed a profile the platform creates about us.

For example, when creating an account for an additional member of my family, we had to specify their birthday and gender. So right from the start Spotify knows that this new member is 13 years old (the minimum age they allow), and that he is male.

And this is when things got disturbing. The first thing we saw when opening the app for the first time is a list of a few podcast recommendations: "Podcasts we think you'll get hooked on". At this point my mouth is on the floor.

You’ll notice on the image above, and I assume you will agree, that the first and fourth shows suggested are really not appropriate for a 13-year-old. Clicking into them reveals even more unsettling content that I won't show here.

What I find very disturbing is that these were automatically suggested by the app. The algorithm decided to present a 13-year-old male these horror and sexually suggestive shows as soon as they experienced the service for the first time. I guess the algorithm knows that horror and boobs drive engagement in male teens.

I immediately check the users settings and make sure that the option to block explicit content is turned on. But alas, according to Spotify's support documentation:

"Our explicit content tags are applied based on information we receive from rights-holders. We can’t guarantee all explicit content is marked as such."

So this explicit content control really only works for blocking songs with swear words. That's it. Everything else is fair game according to Spotify. Hiding under the excuse of “we rely on right holders to specify explicit content” is simply lame and coward. Spotify can and should protect its customers, specially those underage.

I honestly have no problem with these podcasts existing in the platform, really. What I have a problem with is that the platform is suggesting these shows to a 13-year-old, and that there is no way for users to block or filter out content like this.

Maybe this was a terrible coincidence

So at this point I had to test if this was truly intentional or just a terrible coincidence. I created a new account and this time I told Spotify I was a 40-year-old woman from Mexico.

I think the algorithm worked as intended. These podcast recommendations feel intentionally targeted to such an audience, and at this point I'm certain that Spotify did intentionally suggest horror and boobs to a 13-year-old male teen.

These are enough reasons for me to consider Spotify not a safe environment for families, or anyone who is sensible to this type of content, because users cannot control the content they are being exposed to, and instead their attention is being exploited and abused.

I naturally attempted to close the newly created account (that's a whole ordeal for another post) and will look at alternatives for my family. I also did reach out to Spotify's customer support both via email and through Twitter to report the issue. Sadly, I have little hopes of anything coming out of those interactions, but at least I made my voice heard.

Spotify also offers Spotify Kids, a service targeted to younger audiences (kids 12 and below). Unfortunately the music catalog is extremely limited for a teenager, and in my case not a viable option.

I'm very disappointed. Spotify can and should do better to keep customers safe. Safety should be the default, and then let users tailor the experience to whatever our needs are.

Engagement cannot come before safety, it's really not that hard to put your customers first.