Interview: Pete Cashmore Hopes Mashable Follow Will Help Give Readers Their Own Voice

Ten minutes after walking out of The Social Network, my girlfriend's 14 year old brother declared he'd start his own social network, make millions and live with his friends in California. Just as long-hair rock bands were to the 70s, the dream of today is to be the indie developer who changes the world through the web. I recently chatted with Mashable founder/CEO Pete Cashmore about his experiences and his newest creation, Mashable Follow.

Ten minutes after walking out of The Social Network, my girlfriend’s 14 year old brother declared he’d start his own social network, make millions and live with his friends in California.  Just as long-hair rock bands were to the 70s, the dream of today is to be the indie developer who changes the world through the web, and kids everywhere are excited and trying.  But what’s it like once you’ve achieved it?  How do you build new dreams? We recently had a chance to chat to ask these questions to Mashable founder/CEO Pete Cashmore while discussing the launch of his newest creation, Mashable Follow.

“I started this thing in Scotland when I had no idea what was going on, and I had no money.  So I needed to find tools that worked for free to make it happen.  I eventually found them and built Mashable using tools given to me by the community.  With Mashable Follow, maybe I can give some of those tools to others.”

As Pete makes clear above, Mashable Follow, in short, is about letting the reader define their own experience and then share that experience with others.  Specifically, users customize their reading list from among Mashable’s list of articles, and that list or ‘stream’ of articles is then public for other users to follow.  It lets you define a profile, earn badges for sharing on various social networks and most importantly, follow your favorite trends and readers. Check out this quick video for a bit more information on the service, but make sure to read on for Pete’s insight into what’s happening in today’s social media world.

As a reader of Mashable, getting into Follow is a pretty simple experience.  I’m reading the blog as usual, and at the top of the page, “My Stories”, “People” and “Activity” buttons remind me that there’s a community of other readers available who are all checking out their own topics.  Click on any of the areas and you’re ‘in’ Mashable Follow, where readers are following one another, sharing stories and more.  The service focuses on content, so as soon as I’m in, Mashable recommends a story to me and explains why they’re recommending it (a certain followed friend is sharing it, most of the time).  It’s a hybrid of a news source and a social network, and Mashable has executed it in such a way that it’s completely optional.

Optional… Hmm.  I asked Pete whether he felt some of his users may be turned off by adding a heap of social features to a blog.  “Our users are always ahead of the curve, I’m pretty confident they will enjoy using a bunch of the social tools that we’re always writing about.”  I feel this is true about Mashable, and is also true for us here at Social Times.  We got into a short discussion about the evolution of blogs themselves, and how Social Times and Mashable are at different points on the curve.  We here at ST just took a big step in redesigning our page to allow us greater control of the content that we highlight to our users, and we’ve seen a great response from readers who now share and comment more than they ever did.  Perhaps the next step on that evolutionary chain is to give our readers even more power, by letting them become their own content curators.  Pete definitely had this as one of his imperatives, as a method of giving free tools back to the web community which has empowered him so much.

So how did Mashable make it happen?

Pete had assigned a sole devoted developer and a few extra hands to work on this as a side project, an experiment to determine whether they could truly develop a “native” social experience into a blog.  The work was pushed out to readers in two stages after the idea was locked down.  First, there was an overall site redesign without any of the functionality, and now they’ve laid in the social features carefully and unobtrusively, to ensure that only people who are interested have the ability.  The goal was really to “make it holistic” and ensure it doesn’t feel like a “bolt on.”

Certainly, the concept feels solid and well thought out, but also fun: I asked Pete about the various collectible badges available on the site.  These are small, colorful ‘achievements’ awarded to readers for sharing and following and generally participating socially.  The badge themes are all lol-worthy memes like “Charlie Bit My Finger” and “Double Rainbow”.  Pete explained they included badges to “reflect our culture here at Mashable.  We can be practical and informative, but there is also a big element of fun here.  Why don’t we make it into a game?”  I asked Pete about his favorite and he loved the OMG Double Rainbow badge as the “cool and bold looking one.”  I found that a bit coincedental, as just a few minutes earlier that’s how one of my coworkers had described Pete.  Interesting.

So how have things been going so far, and how will they evolve?

I asked him about Digg, and their flop when they introduced a similar ‘follow’ model.  Pete pointed out that today, every site is going to try and use social, and it’s how you use it that determines your success.  Digg “removed a lot of stuff”, and that’s pretty much what infuriated their users.  With Follow, Mashable is not removing any content, and is focusing intently on their users to see if they enjoy it.  So far, the beta users have been adopting it faster than they accept it, and even celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Chamilionaire are jumping onboard fast.  Everyone is aware that getting there early is key on new social spaces nowadays, and can mean the difference between a powerful social presence and a “me-too” look.

Pete went on to explain that they’re not too concerned about risk here, and that the biggest evolution will likely be to modify how curation looks to users, how to choose topics, and whether users want a transparent ‘algorithm’ for what stories they’re shown or not.  These are all areas that social networks need to innovate and respect their users, and Mashable is doing just that, it seems.

I went on to ask him about the potential use of Follow for users themselves.  Pete agreed that Follow could be a powerful tool for journalists and aspiring influencers.  “People already use Mashable’s comment page to build their brand and respect and I think Follow will enable them to build themselves even more.”  This seems true, and it was interesting to hear that perspective from here at Social Times.  As we grow, we see regular commenters starting to leave detailed and smart comments all over our site, and it becomes clear that empowering those readers would be smart for us as well.  It’s almost as if in their early stages, blogs empower their own independent writers, but as they evolve, they open up the ability to build businesses on top of their own.  Certainly an ambitious concept and one that Pete is embracing with this new move.  “I bet you didn’t expect to come this far when you started this all in Scotland,” I asked Pete near the end of our conversation.

“It’s gradual, and you’re working hard so you don’t think about it as much, but you have your moments where it all comes into focus.”  Asking him whether those moments have to come in cars to and from the airport, he laughed and quipped: “We’re all connected all the time now, so you don’t even get those moments anymore.”

That’s too true for us in this new, fast-paced social media world, but perhaps what was once a solitary moment of zen is now shared with others, through social technology.  Surely this would make narrative sense for Pete, who is probably in a car right now hoping Mashable Follow will fulfill his newest dream: to empower others.

Check out the quick video introduction above to learn about Mashable Follow below and check out the service by using the new activity feed over at Mashable.