A Cookie for Your Thoughts
By Amro El-Adle ’13, Editor-in-Chief
“We were migrating from Planworld to Facebook when I was in school, and that was basically my experience with tech at Amherst.”

In the years since Adam Leibsohn ’03 graduated (with a French and Interdisciplinary double major), the advent of social media has accelerated the demand for, and analysis of, online browsing data. How that data is collected -- and just how valuable it is -- has been the subject of fierce privacy firestorms surrounding technology juggernauts like Google, Facebook and now Apple in the U.S. and abroad. But Leibsohn’s new tech startup, voyurl, is trying to encourage users to take a closer look at those questions by taking a closer look at their screens.

“Everything we do online creates data, and all this data isn’t really given to us; it’s actually taken advantage of by other people,” he explained. Germany, for example, has a retail bonus card system called Payback, under which consumers allow companies to send them offers in exchange for discounts at retail chains. A plethora of U.S. online retailers, including Amazon, Netflix and eBay, all track their consumers’ viewing patterns and suggest products (both on their websites and via email) based on those patterns -- but without the added benefit of the discounts for consumers.

According to Liebsohn, marketing ploys have grown more devious with the growing popularity of social media. He described marketing agencies that design Facebook applications for events that barnacle onto users’ walls long after the event has ended, collecting invaluable, and personal, information all the while.

“This type of behavior is not uncommon,” he said.

The problem, however, isn’t just retailers. Countless online services touted as free, including immensely popular sites like Gmail, Twitter and Facebook, actually involve the “implicit exchange” of personal data, which, as it turns out, does have a price.

“The cost is actually your data, your thoughts, your trends,” Leibsohn said.

Leibsohn, who found a marketing job in New York after graduation by using an MTV ID card he had retained from an internship the previous summer to hand deliver his resume to marketing executives, got the idea for voyurl “from doing [his] due diligence on all the digital stuff for clients and researching digital culture, media behaviors and media distribution. A big part of it also came from [his] experience at the ad agency.”

It was while working at that agency that he became aware of the unfettered underbelly of the data-collection world. According to Liebsohn, “There are at least a dozen companies that traffic and deal in this grey area of what personal data is and what the value is -- how do you get it, and when do you sell it?” Everything from the time of day at which you access certain websites to the time you spend on each page tells a piece of the story about your internet browsing habits. And because college students represent one of the most scintillating age groups for marketers and retailers alike -- significant amount of spare time, a large amount of disposable income and easily swayed tastes -- that story is immensely valuable.

“Cookies were actually invented for purposes like Amazon’s: to keep track of you. The more they know about what you buy and what you look at, the better they can serve you products that are related to you.”

Voyurl, which has been featured in Wired, The New York Times and TechCrunch while still in a private beta phase, hopes to make its users more aware of their data. After downloading a plug-in compatible with Safari, Firefox and Chrome, that plug-in registers the user’s clickstream in real-time back at voyurl’s servers. Your entire browsing history makes its way back to voyurl, where it can be viewed by other users, or in the aggregate. Just as important, the site also offers “personal analytics”: the trends that emerge from that data, which can explain past web usage, with the data grouped by category, website and geography. Injecting that clickstream into search engines, online marketplaces and entertainment sites to ensure optimized results would capitalize on the power of social media -- a convoluted process at the moment.

For users who feel uncomfortable attaching their name to a publicly-available browsing history, the plug-in allows you to send back an anonymous clickstream, or to completely stop broadcasting for “those, ahem, unmentionable sites,” according to the voyurl homepage.

“There’s not been a service out there that says ‘We want you to contribute your data, and what we’ll do first, foremost and directly is take that data, spin it around and give it to you in a valuable way.’ And that’s really my ambition,” said Leibsohn.

Ultimately, voyurl’s power is exposing the value in its users’ data -- and making them aware of that value along the way.

“If you go down the rabbit hole…we want that whole journey,” Leibsohn said. “Then we’re able to learn, and recommend you other content based on that.”

Readers can register for the private beta at www.voyurl.com/amherst.

Issue 24, Submitted 2011-04-27 05:02:06