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November 08, 2007

Ning: Have Your Own Social Network – It’s Free

Even if you have your own social networking website, you probably won’t get as rich as Mark Zuckerberg who just sold a paltry 1.6% share in Facebook, which he founded in college a few years ago, to Microsoft for a cool $240 million; that’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t even have to be rich or even well-to-do to have a social networking site of your very own. Ning will give you all the tools you need to build your own site “for free in seconds.” They’ll even host your site free-of-charge. What’re you waiting for?

“Why do I want a social networking site of my own?” you ask. If you’ve been reading the wrong blogs and have been hiding from Newsweek and BusinessWeek, you may even ask “what’s a social networking site?”

Social networking sites are cyber-places where people cyber-chat about themselves and their friends, post pictures and videos, and “network” with old friends while often hoping to make some new ones. Think of them as Rotaries online although they don’t usually have the social services aspect of a Rotary and don’t even offer lunch let alone make it mandatory. Not surprisingly, high school kids hang out in certain social networks, college students in others, and people from different cultures hang in different networks. Fashion is a part of network popularity – witness the recent meteoric rise of Facebook.

Part of the success of the big networks is that they are hosts to many subnetworks, groups of people with common interests as well as overlapping networks of friends. In the happy phrase of Dr. David Reed, they are Group Forming Networks. If you want a place to network with the members of your flower club or your former junior varsity swimming team, you can create a group on Facebook, for example. You can even divide this group into friends and not friends and share more information about yourself with some people than with others.

Which brings us back to Ning and forming your own social network. Most of won’t do this on our own – but we may well want to create a social network as part of a real social organization we belong to or in order to create a social organization for people who are too geographically dispersed to meet in person or for simple business reasons to promote a product or a service. It’s worth thinking about – especially since it’s free and not even very hard. Technical skills are not required.

You can create your own group (free) on Facebook if you want to – but you can customize and focus the online experience on the activities of the group on Ning in ways which you can’t do on Facebook. BTW, the downside of such customizing is that the people who join your group will have to learn how it works and how to navigate through it. If it were a subgroup on Facebook, those who already know how to use the larger service would be instantly at home.

You can create an open Ning network which anyone can join; you can reserve approval of those who join; or you can make it invitation only. You can have a network all by yourself if you want. (BTW, I have a network of which I’m the only member. Can anyone think of any reason other than dreadful unpopularity why I’d deliberately set that up?)

Ning hosts your network free as well. That means they run it on their computers, use their storage (up to five gigabytes), and their Internet connection (also with limits) on your behalf. They do messy things like backups and system upgrades. Currently there are over 118,000 social networks hosted by Ning, according to the company, although some, of course, are dormant or very small like mine. Impressive growth since the company was founded in late 2004.

How can they do this? Why do they do this? Easy: like many Internet services, Ning’s free service is supported by ads which Ning sells. All the ads I’ve seen are Google ads which is yet one more illustration of Google’s success in enabling others to get ad revenue without an advertising sales force. Eventually, with enough page views to offer and enough information about the viewers of these pages, Ning may decide to cut out the middleman and sell ads directly; but, meanwhile, they’re part of Google’s growth.

Also like other Internet services, Ning also has a paid version: if you want to run your own ads (and keep the money) or don’t want any ads at all, they’ll host your social network for just $19.95/month. For slight additional monthly fees you can get more storage and bandwidth and you can use your own web address instead of something.ning.com.

If your organization doesn’t yet have an online presence or has just a minimal, non-interactive website, this is an alternative you should consider. It’ll cost you many thousands of dollars (and may be worth it depending on what you’re doing and the professional who helps you) to get a professionally designed website without Ning. Hosting is also not usually free. In theory there’s a risk that Ning could go under financially and take your website with them but that’s a very small risk; they’re both well-funded and well-founded (co-founder is Marc Andreessen, co-author of the Mosaic browser and founder of a few successful companies since).

Previous post about Facebook is here.

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