Pete Cashmore has just been crowned the most influential Twitter user. The 24-year-old founder of social media blog Mashable has more than 1.8 million followers on the microblogging site, and is considered a key tastemaker in the technology industry.
Since setting up Mashable in 2005, while working as a web technology consultant, Cashmore has divided his time between his home town of Aberdeen and the bright lights of Silicon Valley. He’s been in Scotland since October, and won’t return to the US until January, relying on his team of 15 full-time bloggers and 50 regular contributors to help him keep on top of the key stories.
“Social media is becoming the web, and social media is becoming the media,” he says. “It’s been a nice area to be covering these last few years, and we’ve been able to grow as a blog alongside it. There’s very little on the web that hasn’t had this social element built in to it. It’s integrated in to every site you use now.”
Things have come a long way since 2006 and 2007, he says, when companies scrambled to build their own platforms to leverage web users’ appetite for user-generated content, social interaction and sharing.
“You were just left with lots of sites that asked you to join their new social network, meaning people had to keep creating new profiles, creating new networks. It wasn’t ideal,” he recalls.
He says services such as Facebook Connect – which allows web users to take their Facebook identity with them when they sign up to new sites – has made the whole process “incredibly simple” for those companies trying to build social features in to their web presence.
“That kind of thing has been key. We’re now in a really good period for integrating social features in to the website.”
He cites the huge success enjoyed by Twitter over the last two years as a case in point, but says their recent real-time search deals with Google and Microsoft came at a crucial moment.
“It did look a bit hairy for Twitter this year,” says Cashmore. “They’ve had this flat period over the last few months. Twitter just isn’t good at user retention. But the Google deal has come along, and I think that is pretty much their salvation.
“It’s given them a revenue stream of what is rumoured to be millions of dollars a month. And it gives them a traffic ‘hosepipe’ that means every time you search for something that’s very ‘now’ on Google, you’re getting results from Twitter. Google’s real-time search is essentially Twitter.”
The halo effect of Twitter’s success has been felt across the blogosphere, he says. “It’s changed the attitude of the readership on blogs. Before Twitter, blogs had a bit of an engagement issue; people didn’t really get comments, readers were consuming things in a more passive way, reading an article and then clicking off to another site.
“One thing that Twitter – and Facebook too, to a degree – have managed is to increase engagement. That’s made blogs like ours much more ‘sticky’ – there’s more activity going on, more comments, and people are becoming used to having feedback.”
But Cashmore senses that there may be trouble brewing. The endless debate about how best to balance web users’ desire for privacy against the growing demand for personalised search and location-sensitive social interaction, will be causing lots of companies plenty of headaches in 2010.
“It’s going to be a mess next year. As a society, we’re really pushing towards the inevitable of making more and more information available on the web,” he says. “You can’t put that information back in the bottle once it’s out there. The internet just prefers information to be free.
“Some good things will come out of that, some benefits from people being ‘searchable’. It will bring opportunities for connecting and networking and finding other people like you. But you’re going to lose a certain amount of control [over personal information] along the way.”
Cashmore envisages a growing demand for location-based services and “real-time everything” next year. “Location is definitely going to be the next wave,” he predicts. “Especially now there’s GPS and the full web on so many phones.”
While 2009 may have been dominated by Facebook and Twitter, he thinks some smaller social media platforms could enjoy big success in 2010. Among his top picks are Square, the mobile payment start-up founded by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, which lets people take physical payments from credit cards on their mobile phone. “There’s a lot lined up to make that a success,” says Cashmore, referring in part to the $10 million raised by the company in its first round of funding.
He also thinks FourSquare, which combines location awareness with social gaming, could be the next must-use social tool. “I think it will be big next year, especially after South by Southwest [a digital and interactive festival in Texas]. It should see a huge pickup at the gathering of the geeks.”