When we first reported on Adam Leibsohn's online startup Voyurl, we were a bit flummoxed by its pitch: The service asked users to install a browser extension that tracks their web-surfing activity and broadcasts it to the outside world in a live-updated feed, sort of like a mashup of Twitter, Google Reader, and the browser's "history" tab. But Leibsohn did say that Voyurl 1.0 was very experimental and that things were changing — and sure enough, the company has now "pivoted" (in Silicon Valley parlance) its entire model and user experience toward something less radical, but perhaps much more useful. Voyurl still asks users to install a browser extension that tracks their surfing activity, but instead of exposing this "clickstream" in an RSS-style firehose, Voyurl now uses it to power a dashboard full of nerdtacular infographics about your browsing habits — and a content-recommendation engine that is smart enough to send you new stuff without requiring you to constantly "Like," rate, favorite, or "+1" anything.
What Leibsohn and his team learned from Voyurl's previous incarnation, he tells Co.Design, was that "it's not that people don't want to share [their clickstream] — it's more about, how do we make it useful? We bolted all the bells and whistles on that we wanted, but it wasn't necessarily intuitive to use. So we went back to zero, took it all apart and put it back together." Now, says Leibsohn, Voyurl does "two things amazingly well": personal analytics — that is, those deep-dive infographics about how and where you consume content on the web — and content recommendations.
"Whether people know it or not, the 'quantified self' is becoming mainstream."
The personal-analytics function may seem like it's only interesting to lifehacking power dorks, but Leibsohn disagrees. "Whether people know it or not, the 'quantified self' is becoming a mainstream object," he says, citing examples like Nike+ and FitBit. "Voyurl will show you visuals about yourself you never seen before, and later, let you compare yourself to your friends." The goal is to show you what you really do (and who you really are) on the web. "Actions speak louder than words, so let's use that to define ourselves online," Leibsohn says.
Voyurl's new personal-infographics dashboard looks almost like a Feltron Annual Report, displaying pie charts, bar graphs, and other intriguing visualizations like "streamgraphs" (which look like Technicolor EKG patterns of your browsing activity) and "digital DNA" (blocky, sparkline-esque graphics that offer a quick overview of daily habits). There's even a section near the top called "Did You Know?" which imparts fun factoids (based on your browsing activity) about your favorite subject: yourself.
The second part of Voyurl's new user experience sounds more directly practical: the content recommendation engine. Because the Voyurl browser extension is tracking and analyzing your web surfing activity, Leibsohn says, it can provide intelligent recommendations for new sites to visit and new content to consume without the user having to "train" the system a la Netflix. "The trouble with content recommendation services is that we have to rate and star and tag and 'Like' and 'Plus' things before anything works," he says. "And we have to continue doing it. It's active maintenance. But because Voyurl uses your browsing behavior to power its recommendations, you don't have to do anything. You don't have to train it. And it'll get smarter the longer you use it."
Leibsohn also notes that the public "clickstream," which was such a big part of the original Voyurl experience, has now been "demoted": users can still see it in their profile page, and even make it publicly viewable if they choose, but it's not a major part of the user experience. "Your clickstream is never exposed in some central place in aggregate, so there's no need to think that your clicks are going to get pushed to all our users," Leibsohn explains. "We're kind of becoming the antisocial social network: We don't care who you are, just how you behave. That means we don't need you to sign in with Facebook or Twitter or friend or follow anyone. We don't think those social connections are reliable [for recommending content]. Looking at people who behave like you makes more sense."
When I asked Leibsohn to describe a use case for the new Voyurl, he described two intriguingly opposite users: power-browsers like himself, who consume so much in so many different places that they may need help finding new interesting content; and "my mom and dad — people who don't browse very extensively, because they're uncertain or inexperienced or just nervous." Both of these types of web users "don't want to be overwhelmed," says Leibsohn. "I have a Google Reader with 3,000 blogs in it. I don't go there anymore, it's too much. So what do I do at lunch when I've read my five 'go-to' sites already, and just want to spin the wheel? That's where Voyurl fits in."
"You don't have to train it. And it'll get smarter the longer you use it."
But in the end, isn't Voyurl still just another tracking service, sucking up your personal data for obscure or potentially nefarious purposes? "Yes, Voyurl is powered by tracking your activity online," Leibsohn says. "But the difference with us is that we're transparent: We expose all that data back to you, for you to see and use." That's the underlying philosophy with those deep-dive personal infographics, Leibsohn says. Even if you don't use it, or don't care, it's important to "give it back" to the user in an understandable way. "It's data porn to some extent, sure," he continues. "But we have this thought that people are beginning to mistrust online services — and if services continue to abuse that trust and people hesitate to try new things and browse the web freely, we suffer on the other side because we don't get the information we need to make our products and services as good as they could be. This is the data we have to crunch anyway to make the web work, so why not package it and give it back?"