Privacy Police

My Brand Is Crisis: Kikin the Personal Web

carlos bhola My Brand Is Crisis: Kikin the Personal WebThe web knows me pretty well. It serves me up ads for mixed martial arts and soul jazz. It’s built a profile based on the sites I visit and the things I click on. This architecture can lead to strange situations for web surfers, like that pair of pants that stalks users across the web. And with the help of a little yellow journalism, consumers are becoming increasingly wary of this activity, particularly if the profiles being built on their habits seem a little too detailed. 

But for those who’ve resigned themselves to a post-privacy world, a number of companies are eager to convince users that their data isn’t just a liability to be kept out of prying hands, but a wonderful resource they can tap for their own benefit. One New York company working this angle is Kikin, a Soho based browser extension founded by Carlos Bhola, the serial entrepreneur behind Vonage, among other projects.

“You have a whole shopping history on Amazon and a detailed graph of your taste on Netflix,” Mr. Bhola told BetaBeat. “Why is that data trapped on those sites? It should travel with the user to improve their experience on any site, without them having to change the way they browse at all.” The company, which is self-funded, claims to have 1.5 million active users and to have already achieved profitability—impressive numbers if accurate, especially for a startup that is just exiting development and beginning to push for press.

Putting aside my own privacy concerns, I went ahead and installed Kikin. A toolbar appeared along the right-hand side of my browser. I connected it to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, which gave me pop-up access to my newsfeed and stream. When I did a Google search— “Japan Nuclear”—Kikin grabbed comments and links from my social graph on the topic, which proved to be helpful in sorting through the news.

In that way Kikin resembles RockMelt, another high-profile attempt to bring persistent personalization to the web browsing experience. RockMelt, which debuted to much hype, has finally come out of its invite only period and released a public beta.

The more interesting aspect of Kikin was the way it promised to sync my online self across different machines. Just as various web sites assemble different data sets on users, so too the multiplicity of devices in our lives represent different facets of our personality and habits. I behave differently at work and at home, on my laptop and my tablet. “Typically when we get to this level of personalization, it becomes a sort of pejorative,” Mr. Bhola said. “Users want an experience that seems to understand them intuitively, but they don’t want to feel like their privacy has been violated. It’s a bit of tautology.”

Indeed, maybe I hadn’t exposed myself enough in my weeklong trial, because in my case, the suggestions Kikin had when it came to content were way off. Mr. Bhola said the program learns over time, so the results may well improve, but I couldn’t grasp what contextual clues it was using to target me.

For instance, as I read about the layoffs at AOL, Kikin suggested I try a story on the revolt in Tunisia. While I searched for info on the NFL lockout, Kikin fed me articles about the collapse of Japan’s stock market. Apparently the software had determined I was a crisis junky. A piece on the talent crunch for engineers surfaced a story about seatbelts causing deaths in some roll-over crashes. Was engineering the connection? Who knows.

There isn’t much users can do to control the profile that Kikin builds of them. Linking up more sites to the extension delivered more finely tuned results, but there was no way to simply indicate the kinds of content I was interested in. Maybe that would be too easy.

In any case, Kikin stores users profiles locally, so if and when I decide to uninstall it, I can take my data with me.

The promise of a tool to personalize the web is a tantalizing one. But for now, Kikin seems more like a useful shortcut to certain social information than a tool that can truly deliver a personalized web experience.

For users who decide to share more of their personal information with various web companies, one word of advice: Fasten your seatbelts (but not too tight).

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