Cram Tokyo, Seoul, New York City, Mexico City, and Mumbai together into a single megalopolis, and its population would still be smaller than that of MySpace, the online social-networking juggernaut. And for a newbie, joining MySpace can feel much like being lost in a city with 120 million inhabitants. There are thousands of people around you who share your interests and could become your friends–but how to connect with them?
For Internet users who want to network with like-minded people without being subsumed into the madding crowd, there is now an alternative. Last week Ning, a Palo Alto, CA, startup cofounded in 2004 by online marketing executive Gina Bianchini and Netscape founder Marc Andreesen, launched a free Web application for creating and customizing boutique social networks–in effect, mini-MySpaces, or “social niche-works,” as some are calling this new genre.For example, I used Ning to create a social network especially for devotees of digital macrophotography. People who join my network have the ability to create their own personal profiles, upload photos, connect with friends, send instant messages, write their own blogs, contribute to forums, and the like. I created my Ning network in minutes using a simple Web interface reminiscent of the blog-building tools from sites such as Blogger, LiveJournal, TypePad, and WordPress. (Now, of course, I just have to recruit a few members.)In fact, Ning makes setting up a custom social network as easy as starting a personal blog, possibly laying the groundwork for a new generation of Web destinations catering to the planet’s endless variety of subcultures. During the yearlong beta-testing phase preceding last week’s official launch, Ning users created more than 30,000 social networks, including groups for microbrew enthusiasts, Pez candy-dispenser collectors, natives of the tiny Caribbean nation of Curacao, and PhillipsAndoverAcademy’s class of 1972.
Mainstream social-networking sites such as MySpace and LiveJournal have long given users the ability to create and join specialized groups. More than 5,000 people belong to the black-and-white photography group on MySpace, for example. But Ning’s custom social networks come with communications tools such as live chat rooms that aren’t available on LiveJournal and other platforms. And Ning’s networks seem to occupy a previously unfilled niche in the social-computing ecosystem: they provide an outlet for expression and communication that’s more social than a solo blog yet less cacophonous than the forums afforded by the giant social-networking sites.
“It’s a continual evolution,” argues Bianchini, Ning’s CEO. “The Web pages of the 1990s became the blogs of the 2000s. Now blogs are becoming social networks and communities.”To start a social network on Ning, users must first sign up for a free account. Ning’s software then walks them through the design process step by step, allowing them to choose a name and description for the network, pick the features (such as blogs, photos, chat windows, and forums) that will appear on the network’s main page, and arrange these features however they’d like. Networkers can go with one of a few dozen themes and color schemes provided by Ning, or, if they’d prefer, substitute their own HTML code and style sheets. “Everything is customizable,” says Bianchini.
Members of social networks on Ning can even override the network’s design, choosing their own themes or writing their own HTML for their personal pages. Control, in other words, is in the hands of the users. “People are doing really interesting things with their MySpace pages, but fundamentally, MySpace is still a walled garden much like the original AOL or Compuserve or Prodigy,” Bianchini says. “There is a narrow and fixed view of what people can do, and you can see people pushing up against the limits.”
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 infrastructu