Spotify’s big Rogan mistake
Good morning! Spotify has a Joe Rogan problem, and it looks like it’s taking a page out of Facebook’s playbook to solve it. I’m David Pierce, and I spent most of a snowy weekend listening to the “Mood Booster” playlist on Spotify. It worked pretty well.
The Rogan rules
If you're going to pay Joe Rogan to make podcasts for your platform, you're eventually going to have to answer for what happens on those podcasts. And yesterday, after days of trying to ignore the issue, Spotify finally had to say something.
Here's a quick catch-up on the Rogan controversy: Spotify paid $100 million to make Rogan's podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, a Spotify exclusive. Since then, Rogan has continued to do what he always did, which is relatively frequently veer into deeply problematic content and misinformation, particularly when it comes to COVID-19. An episode from December was particularly controversial, causing a number of scientific and medical groups to accuse Rogan of "provoking distrust in science and medicine" and to urge Spotify to "mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform."
- For a while, Spotify did nothing. This has become classic platform behavior: The first step when folks are upset about your content is to say nothing, do nothing, maybe eventually issue a statement that sort of decries the bad content but mostly says nothing. In many cases, that's enough, and things go away.
- But this issue didn't go away. Neil Young became the first big-name artist to pull his music from Spotify "because Spotify is spreading fake information about the vaccines." Joni Mitchell and a couple of other artists have followed suit. Brené Brown also said she's stopping production on her popular podcast, though she hasn't explicitly tied the decision to the Rogan fiasco.
Spotify published a blog post yesterday that kinda, sorta addressed the issue. Rogan is never mentioned, but Daniel Ek's post did acknowledge that "you've had a lot of questions over the last few days about our platform policies and the lines we have drawn between what is acceptable and what is not."
- Ek's post sounded eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the content moderation issues with Facebook and other platforms. He intimated that Spotify doesn't agree with what Rogan said, without ever explicitly saying so. And he said that "it is important to me that we don't take on the position of being content censor," which is a line straight out of the Mark Zuckerberg canon.
- Spotify did make a few changes in response to the uproar: It published its content guidelines for the first time, and said it's working on adding a "content advisory" to every podcast that includes discussion of COVID-19 that will direct people to accurate information about the subject. That's also what Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and others did in response to misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic.
Spotify is in a tough situation here. Moderating audio — on demand on Spotify or live on Greenroom — is hard, especially at scale. And it's even harder when the offending party is your flagship product, the show you spent a fortune to bring onto your platform. Was Spotify ever really going to take Neil Young's side instead of the most popular podcast on its platform?
Still, Ek's response rang hollow to many critics. Whether Spotify has a responsibility to moderate every podcast on its platform is a genuinely interesting question, and one the company should think deeply about especially as it continues to invest in technology that helps it understand what's happening on those shows. But there's less question as to whether Spotify has a responsibility for the shows it pays to produce and promotes aggressively to its hundreds of millions of users.
- It wants to be seen like Facebook or YouTube: a more or less neutral platform on which people might sometimes post horrible things. But Facebook and YouTube aren't directly funding their most problematic contributors. And they're definitely not writing $100 million checks.
- Spotify's newly published Platform Rules fall short of prescribing much of anything. As far as I can tell, Rogan didn't violate any of them. Even the section titled "What happens to rule breakers?" just says content might be taken down and accounts might be suspended. Even the rules aren't really rules so much as gentle nudgings.
- But Facebook and YouTube do give those creators monetization and growth tools, and recommend their content to users. So ... is it that different for Spotify to just write Rogan a check? That's hard to know.
Spotify is clearly hoping people just move on. This whole thing is reminiscent of the uproar at Netflix over Dave Chappelle's special last year; in that case, Netflix offered similar reassurances, nothing changed and things quieted down. It's certainly clear to Spotify that picking a COVID-19 fight with Rogan and his fans will only make this a bigger story, so it seems to hope that everyone will believe it cares about all this and find something else to worry about.
But the momentum against Spotify seems to still be building. "Delete Spotify" was trending on Twitter for a while, as was #spotifyexodus. Most of all, if other artists join Young in boycotting the service, it could change Spotify's calculus. It definitely needs Rogan more than it needs Young, but what about Ed Sheeran or Drake or Taylor Swift or Adele?
- Rogan posted an Instagram video on Sunday night, saying he was sorry Young and Mitchell felt like they had to leave Spotify and that he could do a better job on "controversial" topics. But he's not taking down any episodes either. He also thanked Spotify for "being so supportive during this time."
The real takeaway is this: Platforms need rules. Those rules need to be clear, they need to be publicly accessible and they need to be enforced equally across all users and creators. Spotify is, of course, entitled to run its platform however it wants. But if you don't create the rules, explain them and enforce them, you're going to find yourself stuck between your business and your users. And that's not a good place to be.
On the calendar
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Join Tom Krazit at 10 a.m. on Feb. 8 as he and a panel of experts explore the next evolution of the CIO within modern enterprises. RSVP here.
A MESSAGE FROM ENVOY
The concept of flex work isn’t new, but its widespread adoption is. Flex work helps all of us find some semblance of control in the middle of an uncontrollable pandemic. Giving options makes people happier and less stressed. This leads to a greater desire to participate, which helps us build our communities and culture.
People are talking
Stripe's Patrick Collison has an idea for content moderation:
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Coming this week
Metro Connect USA starts today. The three-day event is focused on the future of U.S. digital infrastructure.
Coverage of the Winter Olympics kicks off on Wednesday. Peacock will stream all of NBCUniversal’s coverage of the games.
Public comment for broadband programs ends on Friday. The comment will inform officials on distributing broadband as part of Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law.
Geo Week is Sunday. Microsoft and NASA are expected to speak at the event at the Colorado Convention Center.
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WhatsApp wants a chance in the U.S. The platform launched a marketing campaign this weekend with a commercial that emphasizes the privacy offered via WhatsApp’s end-to-encryption.
The FCC is doling out money for broadband in rural areas. The commission said it’s setting aside $1.2 billion to increase broadband access, and it released an accountability plan that will increase the number of audits and verifications this year.
Crisis Text Line sends its data over to a for-profit spinoff. The nonprofit works with Loris.ai, which uses the information to create customer service software, prompting ethical concerns from privacy experts.
Meta is dogfooding the metaverse. Employees can win prizes for wearing AR glasses, meetings are already happening in Horizon Workrooms and the company is deliberately shifting its culture to be more ... meta.
Chris Lehane is officially joining Katie Haun’s crypto fund. Lehane is Airbnb’s outgoing policy chief, known for working closely with his political connections.
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If you know about the Bored Ape Yacht Club, then you should probably know Seneca, the artist who brought the idea for these cartoon apes to life.
The thing about Seneca is that very few people know about her, and she had no clue the characters had become a hit until she looked up the collection herself, she told Rolling Stone. Seneca wasn’t entirely familiar with NFTs at the time she designed the apes, but her vision for the art is now hanging on a museum wall, Steph Curry’s profile picture on Twitter, an everyday purchase for celebrities like Paris Hilton and much more.
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