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Ning’s service is free, as long as network creators and members can tolerate the Google text ads taking up the right margin of every Ning page. For a subscription fee of $19.95 per month, creators can have an ad-free network or substitute their own ads. They can also buy storage space and bandwidth if their network grows beyond Ning’s free 5 gigabytes of storage and 100 gigabytes of monthly upload and download traffic.

Ning won’t necessarily appeal to everyone who wants to lead or participate in an online social community. While the service allows many customization options, most Ning pages have a boxy familiarity; giving a Ning network a cutting-edge aesthetic still requires advanced Web design and PHP programming skills. And advanced developers accustomed to the open-source ethic may be frustrated by the fact that they can’t modify or build upon the central platform or “operating system” for Ning’s social networks, which is controlled by Ning itself. “Ning is neither simple enough for beginners to master nor powerful enough for experienced developers,” writes Pete Cashmore in his leading social-networking blog, Mashable.

And one side effect of customization is fragmentation. There is a rudimentary listing of Ning networks at Ning.com, along with a search engine to help users find particular communities of interest, but there is no “Ning community” analogous to the populations of MySpace, Yahoo 360, and LiveJournal. And without this larger community to draw upon, Ning networks may not grow as quickly or bubble with as much fervor as the online groups at those older destinations.

For now, though, Ning is on a swift upswing, with more than 13,000 new networks created just since the platform’s launch on Tuesday, February 27, according to Bianchini.

Big business is also waking up to the popularity and potential of online social networking. Around the time of Ning’s launch last week, networking giant Cisco announced that it had acquired both Five Across, which provides a standard software platform that other companies can use to build custom social networks for their employees or target markets, and the technology and operations behind Tribe.net, one of the most popular online communities to emerge from the social-networking boom of 2003-2004. Cisco plans to provide customers of its traditional telecommunications networking gear and services with outsourced support for social-networking applications, according to Scott Brown, a marketing manager in Cisco’s Media Solutions Group who helped engineer the acquisitions.

“You’re going to see aspects of community and socialization on pretty much every corporate website going forward,” says Brown. “Enterprises want to interact with consumers because research is showing that customers behave differently and offer more types of information in a social setting. We’re getting into this because there’s a demand for prepackaged technologies that are scalable and that fit into an enterprise’s existing Web or IT infrastructure.”

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Credit: Wade Roush/Ning

Tagged: Communications, social networks, social networking, MySpace

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