Xen Gives Consumers Control of Online Personalization with its Launch of the First Ever Interest Exchange

By Michael Carney , written on October 2, 2012

From The News Desk

Online personalization is all the rage from the publisher and entrepreneur point of view, but for many consumers, it seems like just another pretty wrapper around invasion of privacy. Xen, a Los Angeles-based startup launching into public beta today, aims to change that with what it describes as “the world’s first interest exchange.”

Xen was built to turn interests into a portable currency that consumers can take with them as they navigate the Web, dolling out access where and how they see fit. The concept is certainly interesting, and the early interface is slick and likely to continue improving, but neither assure that consumers will be any more apt to flock to personalization technology.

“We’re creating something quite different from a social network,” says Xen co-founder and COO Brooks Martin. “We’ve created an interest exchange. In a world where identity is becoming a commodity, we wanted to give people a chance to own theirs and to interact with brands securely and responsibly.”

Xen gathers online preferences and activity from across the Web, with Facebook and GetGlue integrations available at launch, and others like Twitter, Yelp, and Netflix suggested to be coming soon. By signing into these services, users allow Xen to aggregate interests into its system which the they can then manually add, remove, and modify as they see fit.

Each user’s Xen account becomes an online personalization credential, which he or she will one day be able to use to sign in across the Web and mobile ecosystems, in place of existing sign-ins like Facebook Connect, Google, and OpenID – or at least that’s the company’s big, hairy, audacious goal (aka, BEHAG). For now, the service is just getting its sea legs and partner integrations are thin. Nonetheless, the idea of taking control of online personalization and one’s own interest graph has a lot of merit.

“Most [Web consumers] are surprised to find what their favorite sites actually know about them, says Martin. “They are often surprised that it’s not an accurate reflection of who they really are. We’ve found that only a fraction of the information aggregated from social networks is accurate and ends up being added to a Xen user’s profile.”

The goal of a customizable, portable interest graph is for each consumer to proactively let brands and publishers know their preferences, so that interactions become more targeted, interesting, and meaningful. For these partners, Xen is a source of actionable, but anonymized, data on individual users that can be utilized to enhance user experience, and thus engagement and monetization.

Xen uses semantic analysis to categorize and make sense of a user’s existing interests and preferences. It does not, however, possess the kind of natural language processing and machine learning technology that market leader Gravity uses to tabulate its interest graphs. Instead, the young startup went the route of explicit user input. In addition to choosing which interests to keep within their interest profile, users, can effectively rate their affinity with them on a four point emoticon scale including “Love,” “Like,” “Meh,” and “Bleh.”

Ultimately, users will be able to share customizable portions of their interest graph with publishers, ecommerce sites, and other Web destinations. For example, a user could create and share a category called “Favorite Restaurants,” consisting of data from Facebook Places and Foursquare check-ins, Yelp comments and ratings, and OpenTable reservation history (if, and when integrations with those services become available). The user could then offer this information to a particular site, while in the process, excluding sharing their purchase history, favorite movies, reading habits, and friend graph. The goal is full control on a granular level.

The problem with this degree of control is consumer laziness. Every step and interaction required by the user is another point of friction making mass adoption and ongoing engagement less likely. Many services have failed for this reason, while requiring far less of the user. The Xen team is well aware of this fact and, as a result, has banned use of the word “manage” when describing its product. It instead prefers “curate” or other less burdensome sounding words to describe the way users interact with their profiles.

The reality is that setting up a Xen account is fairly simple, despite how it sounds. I completed the process in under 10 minutes. Once set up, When logging into a third-party site with the credential for the first time, users will be able to select which interest categories they wish to share, and forget about it until they wish to make a change.

Xen has completed development of an API currently available to developers and partners by invitation only. Next month the company plans to open up the platform to third-parties globally and will reveal details of developer and publisher partnerships already underway. According to VP of strategy and mobile Patrick Kearney, it’s through these third party integrations that Xen is likely to first interact with most of its users. They company has yet to finalize its monetization strategy around the API, but Martin suggests that it will likely be based on metered usage.

With its beta launch, Xen is also unveiling a suite of thee iOS apps, “Interesting,” “Meedar,” and “TalkTopic,” designed to demonstrate the flexibility and portability of interest graphs. Interesting is a rapid discovery portal for adding new and trending topics to one’s Xen profile. Meedar combines a user’s Xen account with his smartphone's GPS to discover fellow users in close proximity who share similar interests. TalkTopic is a Nuance powered voice recognition app that used to search the Xen community to gauge its pulse on a particular topic. The three represent just the tip of the iceberg with regard to what can be created to leverage an entire community worth of interest data.

Xen was co-founded nearly two years ago by Martin and serial entrepreneur Nigel Robertson, its now Chairman who previously founded NASDAQ listed Web telephone directory PLC, which achieved a market capitalization of $2.5 billion. The pair’s new startup has 17 employees and has raised undisclosed Series A financing from what its COO describes as European VCs.

With a proliferation of “Do Not Track” bills being signed into law around the globe and a swell of online privacy scandals, there’s no question that user control of digital personas is the the way the Web is evolving. That said, becoming the default personalization platform and a universal login credential are no small objectives.

The Web is becoming personalized with or without explicit consumer participation. The question that remains is whether they care enough to take control of the situation. Xen has announced its existence with a clean UI and fresh take on interest graphs. For the company to come anywhere close to delivering on its lofty promises, it will need to pour rocket fuel on its business development efforts while continuing to prioritize user privacy and experience.