With all of the blogosphere buzz about the re-launch of Ning, I thought I would go ahead and play with the tool and try to set up a new social network on the fly. I timed myself and I was able to create a very basic social networking application for residents of my hometown and it’s available here. It was super simple to use and I was able to create a brand new social network from scratch in under 5 minutes.
I didn’t spend much time or energy customizing the site — I just wanted to see how quickly I could get something up and running. It does everything it advertises – you can add all of the commodity features like photos, video, forums, blogging, etc. very easily.
After setting up this social network, however, I was left with the distinct feeling that Ning doesn’t really solve the problem faced by most new social networking sites. The technology piece is not the hard part anymore. The hard parts these days are acquiring users and building a site that is sufficiently interesting as to keep them coming back. Sadly, I don’t see how Ning would help a newbie person in this space solve or address any of these problems.
In a lot of ways, my initial reactions to playing with Ning are similar to what I felt when using Blogger and TypePad for the first time. Both products greatly lowered the barrier to entry in blogging. The result has been many clear; many more people are blogging today than several years ago and the availability of easy tools has something to do with that. However, the availability of easy-to-use tools does not help the modern blogger get more users or develop a blog that will become more popular or widely read. If anything, this lowering of the bar has also led to a lot of “dead blogs” out there, ones that are rarely updated or were created simply for some time period or purpose (student life, a trip abroad, etc). I don’t know whether these “dead blogs” are a good or bad thing — at least people are engaging the medium.
Social networks are a different beast. While blogging can be useful and/or therapeutic for a writer who has an audience of a just a few readers, most social networks need some critical mass of users to be useful. Will Ning usher in a new generation of “dead networks” or will they really cause a bunch of new interesting networks to bloom? Probably too early to tell.
Update: VentureBeat has a piece with a similar take available here.