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Mashable, tackling info overload, launches a Follow function keyed to user networks and interests

Mashable currently boasts 12 million unique visitors per month — making the social media-focused news site the largest independent tech news site on the web. It churns out huge quantities of stories, every day. And while that’s great for the site — not to mention its 3.4 million followers, spread across the Internet’s social networks — it also creates what you might call a nice problem to have: How do you scale in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your readers? How do you serve tons of users with tons of content — without contributing, at the same time, to information overload?

Today, Mashable is launching, in closed beta, its response to those questions: Mashable Follow, a new social layer intended to help users personalize their experience on the site. “With Mashable Follow,” an explanatory video notes, “you can have a custom tailored experience by only following the topics that interest you and ignoring the ones that don’t.”

Follow has four key features:

— “Follow” buttons on every story that let users subscribe to that story’s topics via a “My Stories” feed;

— A one-button sharing tool that allows readers to add their Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, and Digg accounts (with more options coming soon) to their profile pages and share to all of these services with one click;

— Profile pages that let users promote their social media accounts and connect with other Mashable community members who share their interests; and

— Badges that members can earn for sharing stories, connecting with other Mashable users, commenting on articles, following topics, etc. (“Over time,” Mashable notes, “we’ll create more substantial rewards for our most engaged readers, awarding more influence to our most dedicated community members.”)

The idea for Follow has been in the works for about a year now, Vadim Lavrusik, Mashable’s community manager, told me. And it came from the need for controlling the chaos that is a lively, and constantly updated, website. “When you come to the site, you just see all these new stories, constantly being posted,” he notes. “And all of them have hundreds of shares. It’s just an overwhelming experience, I think.”

Follow, Mashable hopes, will streamline that experience by offering a customized, centralized space for users to consume the kind of information they’re most interested in. (And also: to interact with the users who share those interests.)

To create that space, Mashable is leveraging some key tenets of social curation: that people like customized news experiences; that they like social news experiences; that they like to be rewarded for consuming and sharing information. The Follow features aren’t, on their own, new; the features being rolled out today are similar to the ones you’ll see on HuffPo, Digg, Facebook, and similar sites. What’s intriguing about them, though, is the way they combine extant experiments in the social news field with the aim of creating a truly centralized experience for their users.

“We didn’t want to try to recreate the wheel, necessarily,” Lavrusik says; rather, the point was to combine features users are already familiar with — sharing functionalities, badges, and the like — in a smart, seamless way. “We took ideas and bits and pieces,” Lavrusik says, “and added some of our own that would make the most sense from our readers.” With Follow, “we’ve tried to think, as much as we can, about the user experience.”

In that, the Follow features tackle another problem besides information overload: user fragmentation. The web is, in general, a peripatetic place, an environment and an experience that encourages hopping and moving and exploring. That’s perhaps its key virtue; but it can also be, from a UI perspective, its key vice. All that moving around can become, for the user, exhausting. Mashable’s solution is to offer centralization in place of fragmentation: to provide a one-stop shop where its multi-million-member community can both consume and share information. On most social platforms, from Facebook on down, the content comes from elsewhere; with Follow, the content will be integrated. The content will come from the platform itself.

“This is a place where you can now curate Mashable content as a user and really personalize your news consumption experience,” Lavrusik says. “And I think the potential it has for bringing our community closer together in one place — not just on the outskirts of Twitter and Facebook and all our other social platforms — can really strengthen our community.”

The core logic of Follow is that curation itself is a community function. And that’s a fascinating proposition — one that’s only beginning to be explored and, in the best sense, exploited. As Pete Cashmore, Mashable’s founder and CEO, put it in his announcement today: “Beyond personalization, we believe that curation is the next great wave in news, and empowering our community to choose the news of the day is the ultimate aim of the Follow project.”

                                   
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