LifeStream’s Personalized News Empowers Users, Protects Their Privacy

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What if users could be served up local and other news and an array of additional information that was exactly tailored to their interests, covering hundreds of categories? What if the super-detailed profiles making such personalization possible didn’t wind up in unprotected “cookie” files on the Web to be picked over by zealous marketers?

Two longtime news media content experts, Graf Mouen and Bill Densmore, whose careers span TV broadcasting and print and digital newspapers, with an emphasis on the role of technology, propose to achieve both goals with a new service called LifeStream that they plan to launch in coming weeks.

In this Q & A, Mouen and Densmore talk about how LifeStream will deliver highly personalized news and other information to users while giving them privacy they don’t now have on the Web:

What will LifeStream do that’s new and significant?
LifeStream will create daily collections of online content, news, entertainment and information that are personalized for each user to whatever degree they desire.

LifeStream’s content will reflect users’ personalities, not just their Web behavior, putting them fully in charge of their “interest profile,” and giving them the ability to block potential exploitation by unknown entities. It will replace the darkness and opacity of algorithms working out of sight (and out of control!) with totally transparent, totally private personalization.

What drove you to create LifeStream?
It was impatience and frustration with the well-known content presenters of today: the search engines, news publishers and aggregators and social media platforms, none of which has a charter to provide content that matches users’ interests and their passions.

Spell out how LifeStream will benefit news consumers.
They’ll have complete control over the personalization process, actively selecting interests (we currently identify 275) by viewing samples already in our system from thousands of sources. (examples: “Spirituality”, “Video Gaming” “Local School News,” “Somalian News”). They’ll be able to choose at four levels of granularity – Life Views, Identities, Interests and Keywords.

They’ll receive a daily email newsletter (“The Daily Splash”) of 30 items personalized for them and selected from among thousands of sources.

They’ll be able to block any of their personal data points that would go into the anonymized and aggregated “interest” profile information that will be made available to advertisers.

What do publishers get from LifeStream?
LifeStream is offered to publishers as a white-labeled technology intended to be branded and configured by them. Publishers, who are likely to contribute content to LifeStream, will email to users a personalized Daily Briefing  — the “Daily Splash” — that will include content from the publishers, their contract news source, such as AP or Reuters, as well as other sources, such as regional news publishers and magazines, newsletters and institutional and government sources.

All of this is put together without any technical investment required from the publishers.

LifeStream gives publishers access to a highly sophisticated view of users’ interests (“Interest Snapshots”), positioning them to make informed editorial and ad marketing choices to better compete with the present, broken system, where advertisers, marketers and ad-tech firms gather user data – which is often inaccurate and incomplete – from third-party cookies.

The publisher will be able to better compete with Facebook and other big news aggregators by presenting users with a full basket of satisfying personalized choices – choices which today they have to try and put together from a variety of providers.

How do advertisers benefit?
Two ways:

  1. LifeStream interest profiles are generated by user behavior outside of cookies, which are becoming a major privacy issue because they allow untraceable third-party tracking without accountability.
  2.  LifeStream interest profiles assign a weighted strength – a level of passion – to Life Views, Identities, Interests and Keywords. Because interests discovered by the system are always presented to the user for confirmation, this means the advertiser will get accurate aggregated profiles so they can much more effectively target their advertising messages.

Do you have outside financing for LifeStream?
Not yet.

Where are you operationally right now?
Using Microsoft Azure cloud technology we have an affordable, infinitely scalable platform for both site hosting and data processing. LifeStream can support 1) real-time refresh of unique-to-the-user web pages and 2) the semantic analysis and topic categorization of thousands of content items ingested into the system on a one-hour refresh cycle.

Can you show our audience the test sites?
They can go to Worcester Sun, The Rutland Herald, Lewiston Sun and Journal and The Berkshire Eagle.

Graf Mouen

You’ll be launching with only four publishers and 3,000 users. Is that enough?
We can scale up to hundreds of thousands of users in under two years. But by starting with 3,000 enthusiastic users, we believe we’ll be on our ways to 100 times that number in a relatively short period of time.

LifeStream delivers personalized content based on an individual’s “news personality.” What exactly is that?
Present personalization systems based on algorithms fall into what might be called a word-frequency big-data trap. But most people have a limited number of interests and can easily specify them. It’s not hard for any of us to come up with a list:  “I’m interested in poker and sailplaning and getting my kids into college,” for example.

We have compiled an index of about 275 interests. Assigning content to this finite number of interests is vastly more efficient than a general word analysis done by algorithm.

These interests flow from what we call “Life Views” and “Identities.” Life Views are the five basics of “Finding Meaning,” “Getting Ahead,” “Enjoying Life,” “Being Informed” and “being Your Best.” The 24 Identities are here.

Here are examples of our 275 Interests.

Bill Densmore

Can advertisers and marketers tap into news personalities the way they now acquire personal information through “cookies”?
Yes, and without cookies, which, under the present system, systematically violate user privacy. Third parties can go directly to aggregated, privacy-protected user profiles. Under LifeStream, the present hit-and-miss targeting of programmatic advertising is entirely eliminated because advertisers and other third parties have much more accurate (and aggregated) profiles of users.

Meanwhile, LifeStream users are fully empowered. They can at any time view and modify their profile and exclude any parts of it from outside distribution while still enjoying the benefits of receiving content tailored to their interests.

To attract news consumers as customers for LifeStream, you’ll need a rich source of news providers. How many do you have at this time?
While we are pursuing relationships with a very large news provider and an equally large magazine consortium, we are taking in all of their content from their RSS feeds. We are doing what Google has done for years without successful legal challenge. Any publisher that does not want its content to be abstracted by LifeStream merely needs to tell us.

What will LifeStream cost a news consumer on a monthly basis?
We believe that receiving a month of daily briefings, each guaranteed to have a minimum of 30 abstracts with links is worth $2 to $3 a month, probably more, but we leave it up to our publishers to determine a price point. We would take a percentage of that fee that would be determined by negotiation with publishers.

You presented some prototypical community-based LifeStream sites. But I didn’t see government news and some other categories of information offered in the menus. Do you plan to add more content in these cases?
Yes, it’s possible, but we believe that government information tends to be a one-off, not an ongoing interest. We have done this for one publisher who wanted Somalian news (from The Guardian), because they serve a refugee community. We expect many, many more such opportunities to arise.

The New York Times recently announced a personalization service. Does LifeStream provide any features that the Times doesn’t?
The Times’ approach seems to be part of the familiar “Keep visiting us and you will see articles of interest increasingly appear around the edges of our standard keep-up-with-the news product.” This kind of magic-algorithm, trust-the-smart-guys approach is out of alignment with the growing sense that users want their power back. LifeStream does what the Times’ personalization feature doesn’t – it empowers the user.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.