Social media will become another comms tool – Mashable co-editor

4 Mar 2011

From a bedroom in Aberdeen, Scotland, news blog Mashable has in just six years grown to become the social media world’s chronicle with its headquarters in New York. Co-editor Ben Parr, who will be speaking at next week’s Dublin Web Summit, believes we’re only scratching the surface in terms of what’s coming next.

Parr is taking a well-earned break in Thailand but is gracious enough to brave a patchy internet connection to field a call to my office ahead of his appearance in Dublin on 8 March at the web summit.

Parr is a well-known expert on social media. He is an entrepreneur in his own right, having started his first company while at university and has just completed a science fiction novel called Desel.

Anyone who is attempting to build any business or gain influence through the lens that is social media knows Mashable. It’s their bible. Started in 2005 by Pete Cashmore, the site has grown to have 40m monthly page views, more than 2.2m Twitter followers and almost half a million fans on Facebook. The site has won three Webbys and has global syndication deals with Yahoo!, USA Today and Forbes.

The company has evolved from the bedroom to headquarters in New York, with more than 40 people employed. As co-editor, Parr runs a satellite office in San Francisco with a staff of seven.

I start the conversation with Parr by complementing him and his team on how they’ve succeeded in creating a unified experience across computers, tablets and smartphones. “It was very intentional. We thought pretty hard about how to deliver the Mashable experience across multiple devices. We saw very early on that the web wasn’t just something that you experience on the desktop and social, as well, but something to experience on your phone, your tablet, something you experienced on so many different types of devices. That’s been the philosophy since day one.”

Parr, who is only 26, didn’t initially embark on a journalistic career. But you could say he grew up with Facebook. I asked him how his involvement with Mashable came about. “I was always interested in technology and followed it, even in college I followed entrepreneurship, news websites with Mashable being one of them.

“But my first job out of college was as a product manager for a Facebook application start-up. I was a product manager and I did that for awhile and did product management in the web health space and during that time I decided I wanted to do some writing on the side and started writing for Mashable once a week or every two weeks. Eventually, I decided to leave Chicago and the web health space and Mashable gave me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”

Where will social media end up?

I put it to Parr that as someone whose first job was in social media and with the breath-taking pace of development in terms of the web, smartphones and tablet computers, is there a point that it will all just settle down?

“Here’s how I see it: social media is a fad in the same way the telegraph and the fax machine and the telephone were fads. Each of these technologies changed how we communicate. And all social media really is a new form of communication. It’s the only communication we’ve ever invented that spreads information faster than anything we’ve ever created and to more people and that’s the key to it.

“Think of it this way, there’s a bunch of different conferences taking place, conferences for Facebook, for social media right now, right, but it was the same when you had email or other forms of communication. You don’t see a conference about the fax machine or email now do you, right? Social media is just going to be this underlying layer of all communication that we build upon that isn’t something that we’re talking about constantly but just there. And always there.”

I quip that Facebook, if it had its way, would probably put a ‘Like’ button on every lamppost. “Absolutely, Facebook have done an incredible job of that and it doesn’t seem like anything can stop them right now but then again there’s always that great innovative company that comes along that gives the big company a run for its money.”

Are we facing another dot.bomb?

Speaking of innovative companies, I question Parr about the seemingly insane valuations being put on companies like Facebook (US$75bn) and Twitter (US$4.5bn), for example. Having witnessed the crash in March 2000, would I be right in thinking that a day of reckoning could be due?

“Here’s the difference between the bubble and today – many of the bubble companies didn’t make any money at all. They didn’t have a business model. All these companies today do have business models. Groupon makes billions of dollars from its group buying service.

Zynga basically prints money. Facebook is cashflow positive. All of these companies are leaner so they don’t cost as much per person and they have the ability to generate money. People are much more willing now to spend money on web services than they were 10 years ago and people have found business models.

“Do I think there will be a day of reckoning? No, I don’t. Will there be a time where some of these valuations will go down? Probably, there’s always a cyclical cycle when you talk about markets.”

The next big thing

Moving on from the spectre of economics – and this of course being the week that Apple launched the iPad 2 – I ask Parr about what technologies most excite him and what he can’t wait to get his hands on.

“Well, first of all, I can’t wait to get my hands on the iPad 2.” I interject that perhaps it should be called the iPad 1.5. He laughs: “Everything you expected you got, but you still want to get your hands on it and that’s the beauty of Apple.

“The things that are most exciting about technology today are the things you don’t expect. No one expected something like Quora to come along and now Silicon Valley can’t stop buzzing about that service. Whether that it’s a service for the masses is still to be proven.

“A lot of these services like GroupMe and others still need to be proven in the market. I’m still excited to play with technologies that help me to communicate faster and better, whether it’s a new hardware device like the iPad, I’m a fan of the (HP) WebOS tablet, or whether it’s a technology like GroupMe that lets you text to a group of friends really quickly, or new features in Facebook.”

The future of media

Returning to the subject of Mashable and its remarkable ascent at a time when traditional media like newspapers and radio stations are struggling to keep heads above water, I ask Parr what he thinks is the ‘secret sauce’ for media survival into the future. I draw attention to the fact Mashable is becoming a community in and of itself, especially through new services like Mashable Follow – a social media layer that builds communities around news.

“Mashable is nothing without its community. It’s the community that got Mashable where it is today. They’re the ones that spread Mashable articles to their friends, the ones that give us our different articles and our different scoops. News is all about community now and anyone who doesn’t realise that community is central to creating and curating and delivering news is behind the times.”

With Mashable commanding such a sizeable global audience and with online media giant AOL snapping up contemporaries like TechCrunch (US$35m) and The Huffington Post (US$315m) I ask Parr does he think Mashable is a likely acquisition target any time soon. “Well, unfortunately, for this one I have to give you a ‘no comment’ on that specific subject.”

I take the hint and leave the subject alone and decide to return to Parr himself and ask him his favourite aspects of co-editing Mashable.

“That’s a really good question actually, part of my love of being an editor is I get to have multiple different roles. I’ve done everything from managing, to editing, to writing, to strategy to everything else, but I think the biggest kick is I just love meeting some fantastic entrepreneurs with some brilliant ideas and having a chance to sit with people like Mark Zuckerberg and visionaries like that and a chance to pick their brains. That’s just a rare opportunity and I’m very lucky to have that opportunity in my role at Mashable.

“I’m one of those people that doesn’t get very celebrity awestruck; I don’t get star struck very easily because I know that the vast majority of people are just all the same at heart and so you just have a normal conversation and people appreciate that, no matter whether they’re the person you just met on the bus or the founder of a US$75bn company.”

In conclusion, I ask Parr is there any interview that has so far eluded him? “Another good question – I don’t know – I’d love to interview Steve Jobs someday. I think everyone wants to.”

I guess I couldn’t argue with that.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years