The day I last spoke to my ex, I couldn’t listen to music. I opened and closed Spotify over and over again, scrolling through the browse page, my playlists, the trending charts — anything that would offer up a song I could stomach. But every single word, beat, and melody reminded me of my ex-girlfriend, even those in songs I had never heard before. It was like Spotify kept me connected to my ex, no matter how desperately I was trying to forget her.
No music caught my eye, but the Friend Activity panel — which displayed what songs the people I followed were listening to on the side of my screen — did. I didn’t pay the feature much attention until I started talking to Olivia* during college. I quickly learned that music was how she expressed her emotions. I would playfully send her pictures of her name on my activity bar when it popped up, teasing her over whatever she was listening to. Music was her first language, and I tried desperately to assimilate to her tongue.
After our relationship ended, I fled to a coffee shop in hopes a public place would force me to maintain my composure. But sitting in the corner of an empty storefront left me alone with only my thoughts and anxiety-inducing caffeine. I sat staring at the Friends Activity bar and practically jumped when the “listening now” icon appeared next to my ex’s name. As I watched her switch from song to song, it occurred to me that, although we had blocked each other on social media, there was no such feature on Spotify. I could watch her listen to music forever. Through her choices, I could track how she was feeling until I was ready to let her go.
According to Spotify, the official purpose of the Friend Activity panel is to “[show] the listening activity of any friends or public profiles (including brands and celebrities) that you follow.” I didn't think much of it until I started following Olivia's account. It was typical for us to both be in the library doing work between classes, just by nature of our overlapping friend groups, and we would often steal glances while the other typed away. One day, she lingered over my shoulder, watching me queue songs on Spotify to listen to while I worked.
“You should follow me,” she commented after a few minutes, her head tilted as if she had thoroughly contemplated the statement before saying it.
I declined out of nerves. I was too afraid to have someone whose music taste I secretly admired being able to see the early-2000s pop hits and dad rock I listened to when I was alone.
Olivia looked at me for a moment longer than comfortable — a trait I learned to appreciate fondly — before deciding not to accept my answer. “Follow me,” she commanded, reaching down to my keyboard to type in her username instead of whatever track I was in the midst of pulling up. “And I’ll follow you.”
Our “relationship” — or whatever you want to call it — didn’t last very long. We would get drunk with our friends on weekends, or play silly pranks on one another like stealing the other’s shoes, but we would never seriously talk. I told myself it was because she was still getting over a previous bad relationship, but I was also still feeling out what it meant to be in a real one in the first place. We were at conflicting places in our lives and couldn’t really communicate that in the right way, but we shared a lot of passions — like music. We bonded over artists, teased each other when one of us loved a band the other hated, and shared playlists.
After we stopped speaking, seeing Olivia’s name on my Friend Activity bar brought me immense pain — yet I sought it out anyway. I would wake up in the morning wondering what the last thing she had listened to the night before was. Was it a sad song? Was it a song we had talked about once? Was she thinking of me? When I was missing her, I would open Spotify to see if she was missing me, too.
I couldn’t reach out. I couldn’t be the ex-lover who caved on the unspoken pact to disappear. Instead, I relied on deciphering lyrics to songs like Frank Ocean’s “Ivy” and Tegan and Sara’s “Back in Your Head” to figure out how she was feeling. I tried to piece together her thoughts from the tracks I caught on my screen.
It was hard enough trying to just move on from someone I had cared for, and I wasn’t doing myself any favors by continuing to follow her account. But since we had severed all other lines of communication, I had nowhere else to turn for that hit of adrenaline you can only get from seeing your ex's name. I convinced myself this was simply a step in my healing process, that seeing her move along would help me do the same.
When she did move along, though, it blindsided me. Months after we went our separate ways, Olivia began listening to a handful of love songs on near-constant repeat. Considering she had done the same thing while we were talking, it was obvious to me that she had a new crush. It was as if I knew a secret she had most likely only admitted to herself.
Seeing the love songs on-screen was somehow almost worse than seeing her with someone else offline. In person, I could have crafted a series of falsehoods about their relationship to soften the blow — she’s a rebound, she’s not her type, they don’t look happy together. But having a direct line into her musical choices meant I couldn’t do anything but face the truth of her new attachment.
I kept opening Olivia’s account in an effort to unfollow her, but I could never press the button. I watched as her relationship blossomed — and then withered. I was no longer consumed by a compulsive need to check up on her, but even I can admit I have trouble letting go.
I still follow Olivia on Spotify, and ironically, she still follows me. I always have the music streaming service open in the background of my desktop for ease of use, and I see her username slide around my screen sometimes when I switch between windows. I sometimes wonder if she does the same thing, catching notice of my name and stopping to take stock of what I’m listening to. I don’t care so much that she may be watching, but I get nervous when a wave of nostalgia hits and I think of her. In those instances, when I cave and listen to the songs that remind me of her, I switch my account to a private session so that no one — especially Olivia — can see.
I don’t know if I’ll ever unfollow her. We unblocked each other on social media, but Spotify secretly still feels like a private line. I still tend to stare a moment longer than comfortable when I catch her name on the Friends Activity panel, but instead of feeling pain, I smile at her presence, like we’re two acquaintances passing on the street.
*Name has been changed.