Personalizing the Public Sphere: From Personal Start Pages to Personal Webtops

On: September 22, 2008
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About Heleen Kerkman
After finishing my BA in Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam I recently started the Ma New Media.


Your personalized Internet. You can add what you like and remove what you don’t like and it’s totally simple. – Pageflakes* –

Pageflakes is only one of the dozen sites that offer to personalize your internet experience by creating a personal start page for you. The amount of websites offering this personalization of these start pages reflects the need for a more personal, or even a more private part in the online public sphere. While every site tries to win over the user by stating that they are not just another personalized start page, they all claim that via this personal start page the user will be able to personalize their part in the private sphere.

One way in which these sites try to make the feel of the start page more personal is by stating that the user will be able to customize not only the content of the page, but also its form. Most sites offer the possibility to chose a specific lay-out or theme for the page. When trying to make a start page in IGoogle, the first thing that needs to be picked is the theme of the page. The site Mygetgo has even got three examples of these themes online and with that is trying to connect to three different user groups.** Apart from this theme, the form of the pages is also made more personal by the option of giving one’s pictures a prominent place on the website. The content of the personal start pages is said to be totally up to the user. Personal widgets, links to personal sites, email, favorite blogs and so on can all be implemented on the start page. When looking at some reviews, these options are considered to be an important factor in choosing where to start the personal start page. For example, the review of Favoor reads:

‘It’s three main competitors are probably PageFlakes, ProptoPage and NetVibes, all of which offer considerably more widgets (components) as well as better functionality from those components, plus the now obligatory customization options (e.g. colour themes, etc.).’***

These personal start pages can be thought of as a way to give the subject a personal place online. The start page becomes more than just an application, it becomes a home from which the user can enter the online public sphere. One site even calls itself iGlobeCityiHome: indeed being a home for the user in this so called global city. This private part in the public sphere is created through the personalization of the content as well as the form of the start page. Pictures can be hung up and notes to oneself can be left on the start page – almost as leaving a quick note at the table. The user uses the self-chosen links to read its favorite blogs, go to its online communities such as Facebook or read its email. The most interesting option one site offers is to keep some links private. In this Virtual Home one can shield of specific links from public users. The amount of websites offering these personal start pages clearly reflects the need to claim back a part of this current public sphere and customize it so it feels familiar again- like being home.

While some sites just offer the option to personalize one’s start page, more and more sites are trying to recreate the desktop on these start pages. Creating the feel of your own desktop online enhances the idea of a Virtual Home by letting your -personal- computer be accessible from multiple places. The transition from personalized start pages to online personal desktops is clearly noticeable on websites such as Goowy and Schmedley that use widgets to create the feel of an web desktop/webtop. Goowy actually offers some of the same options that the start pages offer – such as having calculator or calendar widgets – but also creates the look of a web-based desktop by the design and the possibility to upload and create files. The development of these site into offering a true webtop is still in process. At this moment, Goowy is no longer accepting new accounts and Schmedley is ten days away from being public as again as Schmedley Beta. Looking at some other web-based desktops it is interesting to see that some popular ones such as G.H.O.S.T are under construction too. In one review 21 of these webtops were analyzed and the number one – ajaxWindows– is noted to be ‘…the closest to being a usable web-based desktop at the moment.’****

One interesting feature of these online desktops is that they are able to store up to 3G of files online. Using ajaxWindows the user can browse through these files by using ‘my computer’ and old files can be thrown into the recycling bin. The feel of actually being on your desktop is enhanced by the option of opening a search engine that opens in another window as if you were just going online. The feature of customizing the personal start pages by letting the user pick certain themes for the look of the personal page can also be found at ajaxWindows which lets the user pick between different background themes. Even though this development is still ongoing it is an interesting to see this transformation from the online personal start page into the online personal desktop. These personal pages can again be thought of as the private gateway to the online public sphere. As much as the physical personal computer now serves as a ‘home’ from where to the user goes online, the development of the webtop is transforming the use of the personal computer into the use of the Virtual Computer. This personal Virtual Computer will be able to reached from every computer and make this private place online even more visible. Right now the personal start page is the beginning of the creation of online private places that is interestingly transforming into the use of the Virtual Computer as a home base in this online public sphere.


** 3 examples:






For this blog post I’ve analyzed the following sites:

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