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Free site lets you build your own social network

Feel constricted by Facebook or MySpace? Ning may be your next thing.

By Stephen HumphriesStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 2008

Of late, Michael Rubin’s life has been transformed by a website that lets anyone create their own online social network within minutes free of charge. The site, called Ning, allows the mild-mannered family man from Santa Cruz, Calif., to inhabit more personas than a superhero as he dashes heroically between several of his social networks.

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Mr. Rubin used Ning to start a loyal customer base for his chain of “paint your own ceramics” studios and foster a community around a book he’s written about digital filmmaking. During a past job as a product manager for Netflix, Rubin created a Netflix fan community on Ning where he still interacts with fellow film aficionados. Outside of work, he has a private Ning network for his extended family – though he rues that his older relatives aren’t up to speed on Ning features such as photo uploads, video-sharing, forums, personal profiles, and blogs. Rubin even developed a Ning site for a babysitting co-op in his neighborhood.

“Once you know about Ning, [you wonder], ‘how many places can you apply this?,’ ”
says Rubin. “Over the spring of this year, I experimented: I must have made six or seven different communities of different sizes.”

Ning is at the vanguard of a coming shift in the online world. Before, social networking has mostly been contained within sites that are nations unto themselves. You have to sign up to the likes of MySpace, Facebook, and Hi5 to get a passport to fully roam those territories. Once inside those borders, each citizen is confronted with a one-size-fits-all “horizontal” landscape that covers all sectors of society and every demographic, and where each page follows the same basic template. But Ning offers an alternative: It’s an open platform for thousands of individual-looking niche “vertical” networks.

“Ning will continue to gain interest as more and more people get involved in social media and social networking,” says Robb Hecht, an expert on social networking who operates IMC Strategy Lab, a media consultancy in New York. “Previously it was LinkedIn and Facebook and MySpace where the container – if you could call it that – was something that you could become a part of, but you couldn’t actually own, or run, or direct.”

Launched in 2005, Ning, which means “peace” in Chinese, now hosts 358,000 networks. Among them: A gathering point for rock-band roadies, a group to assist Iraqi refugees, a hub for enthusiasts of unmanned aerial drones, and the official David Hasselhoff fan site. Some Ning pages caters to pornography – this is the Web, after all.