Ayn Rand Would Hate the New Spotify Video Feed
Turning every streaming service into TikTok is bad for the internet. It'll be disastrous for music.
In the opening chapter of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, protagonist Howard Roark tries to explain to the flummoxed dean, who's kicking him out of college for his heterodox views on architecture, why the Parthenon is a badly designed building.
In short, the Greeks didn't appreciate the novel qualities of the new building materials they were working with. And that original sin of architecture was committed again and again.
"Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood," Roark says.
This broadside against architecture's slavish devotion to convention didn't end up moving the dean. Roark's monologue would have also been lost on today's executives of social media and streaming companies, who are all racing to sacrifice the distinctiveness of their platforms for a chance to be an even more successful TikTok clone.
This past week, music streaming service Spotify announced at an industry conference that they'd be revamping their app to include a new vertical video feed that would show users brief, seconds-long snippets of new, algorithmically selected songs and podcasts that they can save for later listening. Spotify executives have explicitly framed the move as an effort to compete with TikTok's vertical feed of short, seconds-long videos, reports The Wall Street Journal.
So now, instead of searching for songs on your own, or maybe listening to a curated playlist, you can flip through 5-second snippets of sound played over truncated video. The ultimate listening experience.
It's the latest, most baffling episode of the "TikTokification" trend sweeping social media. Every company wants to be the lowest common denominator of the attention economy, regardless of how ill-suited the change might be for the media their platform cut its teeth on.
Meta-owned Facebook now prominently features algorithmically selected "Reels" no user opted to see. One's Instagram feed, also a Meta product, has become dominated by suggested video shorts too.
Snapchat—once largely a platform for users to direct message pictures to known acquaintances—has had its Spotlight feature for a few years now. YouTube has had its "Shorts" feed of vertical video since 2019.
To be sure, competitors copying each other in the hopes of siphoning off customers isn't a new phenomenon. For every Armageddon, there's a Deep Impact. It's always a tough balancing act between fleshing out one's distinctive appeal and riding contemporary industry trends.
Nevertheless, there's something especially shameless and self-defeating about the movement toward video shorts across social media and streaming services. Platforms are created around a particular type of media to be shared or enjoyed. They develop a following of ordinary users who want to consume that type of media and content creators that excel at creating it.
Form and function are intertwined, as Roark tells the obstinate dean.
"The Parthenon did not serve the same purpose as its wooden ancestor. An airline terminal does not serve the same purpose as the Parthenon. Every form has its own meaning," he says.
Treating architectural designs as interchangeable meant old ways of the building kept being repurposed for incompatible uses. The loss of individual form meant functionality suffered.
Something similar happens when social media apps and streaming services are treated as medium-neutral content delivery mechanisms. Power users who've invested their time and energies into a particular platform understand the Roarkian critique intuitively.
In response to Instagram heavily promoting video shorts last year, both Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner issued a call to action to "Make Instagram Instagram Again. (stop trying to be tiktok i just want to see cute photos of my friends)."
Mind you, this was the negative counterreaction that happened when a photo-sharing app tried to copy a video-sharing app. Even amongst these relatively close substitutes, the loss of distinctiveness was real and damaging.
With a music-streaming service like Spotify, the shift to a feed of video shorts could be devastating.
Music is an art form all its own. There's a reason that songs are a few minutes long instead of a few seconds (grindcore notwithstanding). Choruses, verses, riffs, solos, breakdowns, and more add up to something that can't be captured in a 30-second clip. Encouraging people to enjoy music that way because that's how TikTok works misses the distinctive appeal of music.
The user's appreciation for any individual song will be even more diminished by Spotify's arrangement of abbreviated songs in a feed that is constantly beckoning one to skip to the next tune. Instead of songs, the listening experience will be dominated by an endless stream of desiccated sound clips.
For someone who would instead be scrolling TikTok, maybe that's preferable. (Although, if that's what they want, why wouldn't they stay on TikTok?). For someone who actually likes music and comes to Spotify for that reason, this is a loss.
One counterargument to these fears is that songs will continue to exist on Spotify. App users need not spend all their time on a TikTok-like feed if they don't want to.
That's perhaps true for the moment. But it ignores the pushiness of apps as well. Once a service decides to pivot from one type of content to another, they generally don't have many compunctions about forcing resistant users into the new world order.
That argument also ignores how this algorithmically driven video feed will change the kind of music that's created. The means of a product's distribution affect what's produced. If musical artists can only stand out to new fans via 30-second video clips, they'll mutilate their art to fit that mold.
That could well be bad for music and music listeners, even if it benefits Spotify by siphoning off a few more TikTok users.
One might think that Rand would largely support the capitalistic logic of Spotify's move. The company exists to make a profit (something they're not doing right now), and if the TikTokification of the platform is the way to do it, so be it.
This would be a wild misreading of Rand's Fountainhead. Roark could well have kept his spot in college and gone on to a successful, stress-free architecture career if he'd been willing to truncate his aesthetic visions to fit pre-established designs favored by his profession. Instead, he blows up his career multiple times (once, literally) because he's unwilling to sacrifice his individuality to the wider world's demand for conformity.
The one cause for optimism is that musical artists will follow his example (hopefully not too literally).
As streaming services of all types become shallow clones of TikTok, people who care about listening to or making music will gravitate toward niche platforms designed for music lovers. The digital Galt's Gulches are coming.
This is why Rand managed to have both extremely particular aesthetic preferences and a general appreciation for artistic and economic freedom. That freedom protected the minority of good taste and values when societal trends were moving in the opposite direction.
Spotify is a private company and can change up its service however it sees fit. But we shouldn't pretend its new video feed is anything other than vandalism.