The beginning of this decade witnessed the Mass Customization trend, of which are prime examples TV shows like Pimp My Ride or marketing campaigns such as Zune Originals, thus trying to embed personal beliefs into mass consumption goods and services.
On the web, this trend was assimilated by popular websites like MySpace or Yahoo allowing customized homepages where registered users could setup their own layouts and snack-sized information blocks. On MySpace, this feature reflected a desire for self expression, even if the features and technology were rather limited. The liberal customization eventually caused the downfall of MySpace’s popularity, a rococo of visual design and high signal/noise ratio not very friendly to ensure loyalty amongst visitors and seduce newcomers to the service.
Personal aggregators become popular around 2005 with the launch of Netvibes, later followed by iGoogle, structured around the key concepts of data syndication and widgets. Similar models emerged such as PopURLs, which led do Guy Kawasaki’s internet newstand AllTop.com, that act more as filters than customizable services.
From 2008 on, with the growth of lifestreaming services (Friendfeed, Twitter and Facebook), social profiles become themselves information filters, both personal (social recommendation) and public (e.g. CNN’s @breakingnews), with users shifting their media consumption habits to where their friends were.
Personal aggregators at the time had almost no social features, targeted for a tech savvy audience, who used them as a start page but choosing to read information on Google Reader or dedicated apps and services (caveat: this is mostly anedoctal evidence gathered from my circle of friends and some web analytics data, being my blog one of the default subscriptions on Netvibes for portuguese users).
Referrals from Netvibes to this blog
Google trends for Netvibes, PageFlakes and PopURLs
With the launch of OpenSocial and skins, iGoogle tried to innovate, but this space reached maturity, and as with most technologies, we’re now witnessing the decay. Users started to choose a different kind of aggregation and knowledge management services, based on different platforms such as Tweetdeck (desktop) or Instapaper (mobile). Social filtering also kicks in with web services like Digg, Reddit or the more recent Paper.li.
If things look harsh for personal aggregators, it doesn’t help that RSS subscription isn’t in a good shape either, not being understood/used by the early and late majority. It should suffice as evidence the shutdown of one of the most popular subscription services, Bloglines. Information consumption shifted from push to pull, and we’re in the real time age.
The biggest challenge facing personal aggregators is to limit themselves to a classic customization and not a true, valuable personalization: focusing on the superficial (colors, layout, widgets) and not the essntial (information filtering, personal recommendation). While customization is easy to achieve with current technology (cookies, personal settings), personalization is a whole different game. Some notable exceptions come from Google: Priority Inbox on Gmail or “More blogs like this” on Google Reader are only possible thanks to network effects, by aggregating behaviors of millions of consumers and learning from daily habits.
Photo by Jinho Jung, under a CC license
The way i see it, for personal aggregators to survive, they need to evolve from classic Lego to Mindstorms.