Voyurl is a startup social thingy with a weird pitch: you sign up with the service and install a tool in your browser that takes your "clickstream" -- i.e., everything you look at in your browser -- and streams it live, in real-time, in public. In return, you get to look over the shoulders of other people who have elected to share their clickstreams in the same way. And Voyurl gets all that yummy data to "monetize." Sound creepy as all hell? Founder Adam Leibsohn gets that. (The homepage even has an "It's OK" tab that addresses the whole creepiness issue.) He just doesn't see things that way.
In fact, he says he started Voyurl as a reaction against the kind of "grey market" data-pimping that makes certain people run screaming from the "social web." "I saw a lot of white-label apps that were gathering and selling personal data in this really irresponsible way -- people would tell me that they literally do nothing for their users, while collecting all their information behind the scenes," Leibsohn says. With Voyurl, "we take that data and turn it around and give it back to you, to improve the user experience."
But what is the user experience, exactly? Voyurl is in private beta, so that's still being worked out -- but basically it works like a mashup of Twitter and the "history" function in your web browser. The Voyurl browser extension broadcasts your "clickstream" (which can be linked to your identity, left anonymous, or switched off at will) into a dashboard displaying every site you visit, as well as every site that someone you "follow" visits. By clicking "Live," you can also watch all this information (including the clickstreams of every other Voyurl user) cascade down your screen in real-time, complete with "Play" and "Pause" buttons and a list of powerful filtering categories:
And that's pretty much it, for now. So why should you sign up -- what's it all for" Even Leibsohn wasn't able to answer that question very clearly. Which makes Voyurl a kind of digital Rorschach blot for its own users (or "members", as Leibsohn prefers to call them): you see what you want to see in it. My editor saw a potentially powerful replacement for social bookmarking and newsreading tools. (Why wait for someone to decide to tweet or post a link, when you can just scan what they're actually paying attention to, right from the source?) Meanwhile, Leibsohn -- a former branding strategist -- waxed ecstatic about "verticals" and "personal analytics." (Voyurl's filtering tools offer endless ways of slicing and dicing content-consumption and browsing habits -- catnip to any professional trendspotter.) Yet another colleague wondered what would happen if celebrities got involved: would you be interested in watching over Justin Bieber's shoulder as he surfed the web" (Maybe not, but zillions of "Beliebers" probably would.)
As for all that data that Voyurl collects, Leibsohn first plans to use it to power a recommendation engine (which isn't working yet in the beta site it actually is working, I just didn't have enough friends/followers on my account yet to make it functional), and, later, possibly sell-slash-share it with partner sites. But isn't that what those "grey market" apps he hates are already doing? "I'm not interested in just selling the data to anyone and then walking away, which is what usually happens," Leibsohn says. "Maybe our data can help improve other services that our members already love and use, like movie recommendations or music sites." So far no such partners are lined up yet, since Voyurl is still gathering its own user base and refining its features.
But if people can get over the creepiness hurdle, Voyurl's weird vagueness of purpose (combined with its cute-but-functional design) seems tailor-made to encourage the kind of emergent innovation that other seemingly "pointless" social networks have come to enjoy. Which Leibsohn would be thrilled with, of course. "It could go a lot of different ways," he says. "The purpose is to make data friendly and useful for people, but the way that gets realized can change any given day." I've tried Voyurl, and I can't see myself using it regularly -- but then again, I was one of the rubes who thought Twitter was stupid in the beginning, too.