How Spotify, Foursquare and Facebook shape our behavior: the sharing bias, playlistism and social guilt.

We are what we share. And we tinker with that. A bit. Andrew Phelps reminded me again of that when he introduced the concept of social guilt, “the idea that you might make changes to your media diet — consciously or subconsciously — if you know people are watching”.

The concept is in no way new. Already in 2003, Wired ran an article on playlistism, discrimination based not on race, sex or religion, but on someone’s terrible taste in music, as revealed by their iTunes music library. They noticed that …

Students are starting to realize they must manage their music collections, or at least prune them, to maintain their image, (…)
As well as trimming their music collections, some students are enhancing them, but not always subtly. Aubrey said the campus’ resident jazz expert complains that any jazz he talks about instantly shows up on his fellow students’ playlists.
“(…) “A lot of people try to be cooler than they are through their playlist. I think people are trying to figure out what is trendy and popular by looking at what’s on playlists of people who are cool, and then emulate that.”

And that is exactly what is happening with Spotify now. With Spotify being introduced in Belgium and running a huge awareness campaign in The Netherlands, more and more of my friends start using Spotify and start sharing their playlists and plays via Facebook. Research assistant J. Nathan Matias is quoted by Andrew Phelps:

A man in the group said he listens to more Kelly Clarkson than any other artist. Worried about his reputation, he now streams a bunch of Bon Jovi tracks to restore faith in his manhood to his social network. His example shows how peer pressure can shape our media consumption. We can easily imagine that a teenage girl might more eagerly share her Kelly Clarkson listening habits to approving friends.

Most Foursquare users don’t share every location with their friends. Restaurants, bars and travel destinations are unevenly represented over supermarkets, schools and boring jobs.

And maybe the most mainstream example: everyone of us is conscious of the photos he or she is sharing via Facebook and/or Twitter. We’ve all been on an un-tagging spree after a pretty wild party. And profile pictures evolved into a photo genre with specific styles, where we’re all to conscious of the reaction of our peers to specific kinds of photos.

And there’s our sharing bias.
Sharing bias

  • When things are openly shared, we tend to shape our media consumption towards our peers
  • When we’re conscious of what we share, we tend to shape our sharing behavior towards what others expect us to share or the image we want

Like @boris said before, “may your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook”.
With frictionless sharing, we start sharing more and more, which makes the problem of the sharing bias even more imminent. We are still relatively limited in what we share, go figure what happens when frictionless sharing really becomes the default.

The consequences are interesting

  • Monitoring and research. Especially when we’re interpreting data from social media where people are sharing openly and consciously, that information is merely a derivation of what people really feel and think (besides the fact that the population isn’t always evenly represented on social networks).
  • The untapped value of unconsciously shared information. The truly valuable information is in what people share unconsciously (google search results, cell phone location data), data that is still largely unused. Companies like Sense networks build location data not from consciously shared sources like Foursquare, but from raw mobile data, “the first mobile application to take millions of data points to analyze aggregate human behavior and to develop a live map of city activity”.
  • Consumer behavior. But also, the fact that we seem to shape our behavior towards others is interesting. With more and more content but also product we buy being shared online, will more and more of our behavior be driven by peer pressure?

Especially that last one is powerful. Should brands be more cautious in the by-effects of frictionless sharing on buying behavior?


  1. I think this kind of bias also involves sharing links (like this blogpost) on twitter. My followers for i.e. expect me to share these type of blogposts and not engadget/geeky stuff instead 🙂

    1. True. The more conscious you are of sharing and the opener it is, the more biased you will be. Well, as far as I can see now. 

  2. So will this in the end result in, the same as how conglomerates eventually dominate an industry, a convergence towards similar media consumption? Revival, or the future of, of the blockbuster :)?  Just pondering.

    1. Interesting thought, that’s almost a philosophical consequence. Maybe it filters out towards different personas? Say … blockbuster, niche, rebels, privacy-fetisjists … ?

        1. Absolutely. This IS the filter bubble. I guess we need more qualitative raw data. We need to be more conscious of what we share, and even more important, how and why we mine data and how we interpret that. 

  3. Yep, it’s true. An individual micro social media strategy. Not sharing each 4sq checkin, no posts copied to other networks unless relevant, sharing those links you find interesting.

    1. But are you also conscious of what you are sharing? Are you sharing different things, influenced by your peers?

      1. Yes, in certain cases I am (not) sharing stuff with my peers in mind. At the highest level: business versus fun items. I do try to filter what I share, depending on platform, users, groups.

  4. Sharing can also be influenced by whether or not you want to attract feedback. I’m aware which kind of content will receive comments for each network I am on. Sometimes that’s good, but not everything I share is determined by it. I will also share items that I’m pretty sure no one else is interested in, just to keep that archive for myself. I guess there is a nuance if you’re seeking approval/comments or just do what you want.

  5. The Google search results are made up from the amount of links shared around and the social sharing. Both are done by a group that isn’t representative for the population. The sharing bias you mention further messes with the results.

    More frictionless sharing could be a solution, but I’m not sure if that is the way forward.

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