Free site lets you build your own social network

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

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.”

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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.

If you hadn’t heard of Ning – and most people haven’t – it’s because you’re out of the loop. Out of Ning’s viral loop, that is. The service operates on the exponential principle that anyone who starts a social network will invite friends, family, and associates who, in turn, will bring others on board. In fact, Ning is doubly viral: Some newcomers will also create their own communities.

“We’re not doing any advertising,” says Ning CEO Gina Bianchini, a former investment banker who cofounded the service with Marc Andreessen, one of the creators of the Mosaic browser and cofounder of Netscape. “It’s all being generated virally, which also has the benefit of being – to us – [a way to focus on] product development and R&D, not a big advertising budget.”

Ning’s business plan is mostly based on selling targeted ads to the various niches on its platform. (For $20 per month, individuals can host their own ads.) If there’s a vulnerability it’s this: Some networks are tiny and others are virtual ghost towns. The start-up is leery about releasing data about total numbers of users, but says its largest 250 networks represent around 40 percent of its page views and that 70 percent of its networks have been used in the past 30 days. While Ning’s growth rate is impressive – close to 2,000 new networks per day – it will take more than e-mail invites from each fresh site to attain critical-mass migration.

“Just like a master-plan community of a development of houses, you can build it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a neighborhood,” says Ben McConnell, coauthor of “Citizen Marketers.” “Growing a community is a big investment of time. The care and nurturing of welcoming people, trying to make them feel welcome, making it easy for them to connect with other people – and then the ongoing challenge of interesting content as a springboard for conversation.”

Mr. McConnell, a customer-retention expert who has a large “Society for Word of Mouth” community on Ning, cites his book’s “One Percent Rule”: Most communities rely on 1 percent of its members to create content. If there isn’t fresh activity to encourage frequent repeat visits, the long tail will tail off.

For now, Ning’s relative ease of use has put its “build your own” platform ahead of competitors such as KickApps, Crowdvine, and GoingOn. But it doesn’t permit users to migrate their networks off its platform. That inhibits Ning’s growth, claims Marc Canter, a leading advocate for an “OpenSocial” Web, and CEO of Broadband Mechanics, a quasi-competitor that custom builds social networks for companies.

“It’s a two-way street,” says Mr. Canter. “If I would set up the wires inside my network to allow a Ning network to move into my world, believe me, I would reciprocate and set up wires from my world to allow people to move to their world.”

Mostly, though, regular Ning users seem to have embraced its relative freedom. “It’s a great business,” enthuses Rubin, the multi-user. “It’s Yahoo Groups on rich media. You can do a lot of this stuff in other places, but they tie it all up in a nice ribbon and make it very easy to do.”

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