Two of Britain’s most successful Internet pioneers today launched a new website that they hope will challenge the supremacy of Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Twitter.
The founders of the Last FM music recommendation site believe that their new creation, a London-based service called Lumi, can change the way Internet users exploit their own online browsing data.
Felix Miller and Martin Stiksel, who sold Last FM for £140m to the American media company CBS in 2007, hope that Internet users will place their trust in Lumi at a time when faith in the American web giants has been shaken by the spying revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
But the success of Lumi will depend on users being prepared to allow the service to interpret their browsing histories in order to provide them with recommended news stories, reviews and blogs. “The browsing history is owned by the user and securely put onto our platform, only the user has access to it,” Martin insisted. “We are not interested in the data from a commercial point of view.”
He acknowledged that, in the past, Internet users have felt that their privacy has been compromised by companies that have looked to use their personal information to sell them goods and services. “It’s time to re-evaluate the relationship between companies that collect a lot of data and users,” he said. “We are saying to the user you own the data but there’s a lot of stuff you can do with it, we are trying to give you a platform where you can put this data to use.”
The pair, Martin is German and Stiksel is Austrian but they live in England, claim their aggregated site will be easier to use and more personalised than social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. “We want to create effortless discovery where the user comes whenever they feel like it and every time they do they have a great experience which is responsive to their tastes, rather than them having to tweak it all the time and make sure everything is up to date,” said Martin.
Stiksel claimed that many users were not interested in being “bombarded” with details of what their friends were doing but wanted recommendations based on their own interests, reflected in their past browsing. “Following Twitter and Facebook which used to be a great distraction but is now too noisy,” he said. “Lumi allows me to go quicker to the things that are relevant to me.”
Last FM, which was founded in 2002 as an Internet website, but it has struggled to maintain its cachet under CBS, reporting a pre-tax loss of £4.4m at the end of last year.
The two claimed that by basing themselves in Hackney, east London, they were able to offer a real alternative to the “soup of technology start-ups” in California. “It allowed us to come up with a new spin,” said Martin.
Ian Burrell tries out Lumi for the first time:
It’s a strange feeling watching Lumi whirring into action and sifting through everything you’ve Googled.
“Processing your browsing history,” the site tells you as boxes of colour flicker on and off. Submitting to the process is something akin to agreeing to be frisked at a concert, given a full body scan at the airport – or even taking a medical. It feels a bit invasive but – at least in the other examples - there are clear rewards.
“Finding your interests,” Lumi says next, which sounds a little less intrusive and more beneficial. After eight seconds I get my first interest thrown back at me: “Censorship”. In the next 16 seconds, eight more follow: “TV”, “News International”, “Scotland Yard”, “Cannes Film Festival”, “Edinburgh Festival”, “Southbank Centre”, “Woolwich” (which I surely can’t have searched on for weeks) and, strangely, “Vladimir Putin”.
“Your personal suggestions are ready,” says Lumi. “Continue.” So I click through to a very colourful world of attractively-presented stories from diverse news sources.
Some seem more bespoke than others. There’s something from the BBC site about a cat found on the tube, which appears to have surfaced because of my interest in the suburb of Woolwich, rather than for felines. I have lots of stories about Wimbledon (we’re all tennis fans now but it’s not an obsession for me) and sexism in various walks of life. I was researching an article this week on commentator John Inverdale’s chauvinist gaffe, but the subject is not a hobby horse.
In that sense, a journalist – using search engines to research a range of issues – is not the best guinea pig for Lumi. Basing the service on the browsing history of a laptop used for personal, rather than work, interests would provide a more tailored offering.
That said, there’s much content I’m drawn to. And there are many blogs and sites – from hypebot.com to themarysue.com – that I wouldn’t normally look at. And you can confine your feed to a single subject area, such as business, sport or tech. For British news sites it is both a threat and a platform.
There is a social element to Lumi – gathering followers or giving a “star” to articles you recommend. If this is to succeed it will need recommendations of its own. “Lumi is powered by people,” it reminds users. “The more interesting people there are – the better it gets for all of us.”