Spotify: Stop assuming I'm a Christian, please.

This morning, I do what I do every Sunday morning. I got out of bed, made fresh coffee, and turned on my computer to start writing something in my journal. I opened Spotify to play some music, and realized immediately what I’d be writing about — proselytizing algorithms intruding into my daily life. If God made man, and men made machines, I find it curious that we’ve figured out how to put God in them, too.

Before knowing I would be writing about this for around an hour, the day was wide and mostly empty before me; some tasks to do, some emails to write, a concert to go to in the early afternoon. I’m excited about that last one; a chance to hear Beethoven’s 18th in a church.

It’ll be my first time in a church in months. I stopped visiting them as a tourist years ago, after going into Catholic cathedrals in Malta and the Vatican and feeling depressed by the opulence of the ceilings, something I didn’t see reflected in the poor cities outside. I haven’t been inside a Protestant church for over a year, since we needed a room for a conference in Svalbard and the church was the only option.

It wasn’t always this way. I was raised going to church every Sunday. But, when I was sixteen, my parents found out I wasn’t a Christian when someone googled my mother’s name and found my LiveJournal. For the next two years, I was told I had to go to our local church twice a week — youth group on Wednesdays, and every Sunday with the family — regardless of whether I believed in God or not. When I finally escaped to Scotland for college, a local minister emailed me, saying my mother had reached out mentioning that I was having difficulties finding a good congregation to join. Wouldn’t I be so kind as to come join his? I told him that he was sadly misinformed. 
 
I haven’t been to a church service on a Sunday morning in over a decade, now.

Which is why, this morning, I was disturbed to find Spotify had four playlist suggestions for me, when I opened it to play some music while I wrote. “Praise & Worship Songs”, “Spread the Gospel”, “Top Christian Tracks”, and “Blessings.” I stopped and stared at the listings, somewhat amazed.

Spotify doesn’t know I am not a Christian. It knows I listen to the Mountain Goats, who occasionally have Christian lyrics. Yesterday I looked up 1 Corinthians 13 to double check my memory of a verse, but my ad blocker would have stopped analytics from knowing that. I listen to 15th century monks fairly often, but I’ve never listened to Christian Starbucks’s music that I can remember. I don’t sync to Facebook, which I normally keep on the Deleted setting, but I would have said I am Agnostic there, anyway.

Why would it assume I am one? I reached out to a friend of mine on Twitter who works there; he said that the Browse isn’t personalized yet. Which explains that, at least: it doesn’t know I am not a Christian, because it assumes that everyone is a Christian.

According to one study, roughly 70% of Spotify’s traffic is by millenials. That’s the same number as American adults who identify themselves as Christian. But roughly 30% of millenials identify themselves as not religiously affiliated, and only 20% of those who say they are Christian are under 30 according to age demographic studies. I can’t reliably come up with a good statistic here — “roughly a third of Spotify’s users won’t be Christian” would be very poor napkin math — but it is clear that a huge swath of Spotify’s users won’t identify as Christian.

What’s worse, in a world where the older are more Christian and the young are less, you’re going to get a significant portion of the population who consciously chose to leave the church. Some of them, like me, may have done so painfully.

Seeing a reminder of that on what was going to be an otherwise delightful day is less than kind. Did I deal with it? Sure: I took a few breaths, and played a Slipknot song in retaliation (admittedly, before switching to calming Icelandic music). I started writing about it. But I would rather have not had to do that.

Spotify, putting up a banner that is going to alienate half of your users by suggesting that we listen to Christian music because of the day of the week is crass and unnecessary. There are solutions to this. You can fetch religious identity from Facebook; or, you could add a configuration option in settings, where I could write “No swears in my songs, please” if I am Mormon, or “No God in my songs, please”, if I am a humanist. Or, finally, you could prioritize personalizing the Browse option.

Whatever you do, I hope it gets done sooner, not later. I’ve had enough preaching from humans; you don’t have to do that, too.