Ethan Tussey


On his book The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime

Cover Interview of February 04, 2018

A close-up

The complexity of the procrastination economy is best displayed by the mobile culture on the commute. In chapter three, I examine this culture by analyzing the creative process behind Spotify’s playlists. From my research, I learned how Spotify develops algorithms to create adaptive playlists (a feature designed to entice subscribers to continue to pay for the premium service) that evolve in response to user clicks and likes; these algorithms, however, do not account for the context in which the users are listening. An individual may play one of Spotify’s commute playlists while riding the train to work in Atlanta and feel disconnected from the songs selected without realizing how the playlist was designed and modified. Subscribers may not realize that their commute playlist is adapting to data from users across the globe without filtering for factors like local taste. Spotify’s mission to provide a personalized and curated music experience to their subscribers contributes to a culture of individualism that has been critiqued by scholars that see mobile devices as antithetical to community.

While these criticisms are not without merit, personal mobile devices can foster community. Indeed, one of the major findings from the surveys was that the commute has become a significant place for socializing during the workweek. The practice of using in-between moments to connect with friends and family is not surprising given the increasing demands of modern life. According to studies published in American Economist and from the Pew Research Center, Americans work more and vacation less than in the past. Mira Moshe has argued that the spread of neoliberalism and the development of digital technology have created a “media time squeeze” in which our devices help us handle the increasing demands of modern life. Consequently, the commute has become a prime location to connect with others via mobile devices.

It is true that commuters rarely use their time in transit to socialize with each other, but they are using that time to connect with others. I wanted to create an opportunity for those on the commute who wanted to socialize with their fellow travelers without disturbing them, so I developed the Atlanta Mobile Music (AMM) project. I surveyed commuters on Atlanta’s mass transit system (MARTA), asking them what music they like to listen to on their mobile devices on their commute. Using this information, I compiled a playlist that reflects the shared music tastes of the city’s commuters. Unlike the commute playlists created by Spotify, AMM’s lists are crowdsourced from actual MARTA riders, not a DJ making and adapting a list for a large disparate region. My hope is that this project will connect people through their shared love of music and pop the audio bubbles that separate us when we listen to our mobile devices.