March 31, 2011 -- Are you bold enough to bare your browsing for all the Web to see?
Betting that the trend toward online exhibitionism isn't letting up anytime soon, a few new startups let you publicize your browsing history, while giving you a peek at where your friends click online, too.
As you surf through news stories, video clips and shopping sites, these services, which plug directly into your Web browser, allow you to share your "clickstream" with friends (or everyone, if you so choose), giving them the chance to check out the latest links to catch your eye. They also give you real-time access to your friends' online activity, letting you spot their favorite haunts and surprising finds.
In a world where Web surfers are cautioned to keep their personal data under tight wraps, asking users to willingly give up -– and broadcast -- their precious browsing history might seem like a tall order.
"Click-sharing is the natural next step in terms of what's been happening over the past couple of years," said Demetri Karagas, one of three co-founders of the New York-based Sitesimon.
Click-Sharing Is Next Step in Social Media Sharing, Says Founder
Just as people know they can get place-specific, real-time deals and other helpful information when they share where they are on the location-based social network Foursquare, he said, people will realize that they'll get more out of their browsing if they share what they're looking at online.
"You'll be able to have a richer experience on the Web," Karagas said.
Open to select people on an invitation basis (he expects the site to open up to the public later this year), Sitesimon plugs into a Web browser and then tracks where you click on the Internet. Every news article scanned, video watched or Amazon item purchased ends up in a list of your online activity.
But you have full control of who gets to see your browsing history, and what it is they get to see, he said. You can choose to share your clickstream with specific friends or everyone, and you can "black list" certain websites to prevent them from showing up at all.
Site Tracks Discoveries, Awards Points
As you surf the Web, Sitesimon tracks your discoveries and awards points for sharing the newest, most interesting content. The site lists the top "trailblazers" in general but, Karagas said, will eventually reveal top influencers by category (humor, tech, entertainment, etc.) so that users can follow the people who unearth the information most interesting to them.
The whole point of the service is to help users discover content they wouldn't otherwise encounter and personalize their online experience. Sitesimon, which launched in October, has just a few thousand users and is still in its earliest phases, he said, but in the future, users could potentially get real-time Groupon-like deals based on their online search history.
Adam Leibsohn, founder of Voyurl, said, "[Click-sharing] is a nice way to bring serendipity back to the Web, because we're losing it."
His site, which launched last month to a select audience with the tagline, "It's OK to look," also shares users' clickstreams. But it provides a deeper level of detail to help users get a better handle on their own Web habits while letting them learn from the activity of others.
"Each day, we wrap up every hour of your browsing behavior," he said of the site, which will go public in the next few months. "It's a single-screen snapshot of what you look like based on what you look at."
At a glance, the site lets each user see where they spend their time online so that they can optimize their browsing diet: If you spend too much time watching crazy cat videos or trolling eBay, Voyurl will reflect that right back to you.
Sites Recommend Content Based on Your Browsing History
The service also compares your browsing habits to your friends' and others on the site, and can recommend content to you, based on what it thinks might interest you.
The focus is more on content -– stories, shopping sites, videos, music -– but, ultimately, Liebsohn said, the site could serve as a powerful recommendation engine and direct people to other products online (and potentially take a cut of the deal).
Similar to its rivals, Dscover.me wants to give users a passive way to share their Web interests with friends. But instead of assuming the entire Internet is fair game until users blacklist certain sites, Dscover.me takes a "whitelisting" approach.
"Certainly people don't want to share everything they read and watch," said Paul Jones, a founder of Dscover.me.
To give people even more control of what they share, he said, his site pre-populates a safe list of about 100 mainstream sites from which users would want to share content. As users join the site, they can stick to the list, or delete and add other websites depending on their interests.
But regardless of how these sites work, some wonder whether, for the average Web surfer, they'll work at all.
Alice Marwick, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Mass., said it's possible that a sub-group of Internet users might be interested in sharing their habits for discovery and personal optimization. But the typical user may find that click-sharing services just don't jibe with how she surfs the Web.
Click-Sharing Has 'Chilling Effect' on How People Use Web, Researcher Says
Even the word "surf" implies that people peruse the Web indiscriminately, she said, without the expectation that their viewing habits will ever reflect back on them.
"In order for these sites to catch on, I think it would prompt a pretty significant change in the way people use the Internet, which I don't think will necessarily happen," she said.
While people might flock to Facebook, Foursquare, Flickr and their other social media cousins to share personal information and interests, those sites assume different Web processes from click-sharing services.
"Sites like FriendFeed, where you can aggregate Twitter, Flickr, blog posts; that's all information that you're making an explicit decision to broadcast already," she said.
Click-sharing, on the other hand, requires one upfront decision to join the site but then no other deliberation beyond that.
"I think it could have a chilling effect on the way people use the Internet," Marwick said.
Not only that, but the amount of information gathered about each person through browsing -– especially when paired with information on other social media sites -– could potentially open up users to privacy intrusions that they didn't expect.
"I think that there are some very significant privacy concerns," she said.
But Voyurl's Leibsohn said Web surfers' habits are tracked online everyday and he wants his site to show them exactly what can be uncovered about them to help them make their own decisions.
"I'm really an advocate for data awareness and data control," he said. "There should be room, and I think there is room, for a platform that creates an open dialogue around users' data and gives that back to them."