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Ning closes in on 500,000 social networks

CEO Gina Bianchini says that her company is gaining traction, minting a new social network every 30 seconds.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Ning co-founder and CEO Gina Bianchini started off her keynote speech at the MIT Emerging Technology Conference by describing Ning as the social network you've never heard of.

Unlike Facebook, which is more of a beehive with 100 million members buzzing around, Ning allows individuals and groups to create their own social networks.

Bianchini said here Wednesday that Ning is gaining traction, minting a new social network every 30 seconds. That's more than 86,000 per month on top of the nearly 500,000 social networks (65 percent actively used) already on Ning. Among those half a million sites, 3 percent are paying for premium services ($19.95 per month), which allow people to run their own ads and have their own domain. The company reserves the right to run ads on pages of the free service. Ning is launching an iPhone application this week, and also plans to support Android phones.

In her speech, which was devoted to showing off Ning, Bianchini compared her company's social networks to "hosting a fabulous party." These hot "parties" range from a social network for the music artist 50 Cent to one dubbed Twitter Moms.

She tried to make the case that Ning is a "platform" that provides creative freedom, whereas Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and LinkedIn are "walled gardens" that limit freedom. In this context, freedom is the ability to have more control over the user experience and data.

Ning CEO Gina Bianchini compares Ning social networks to hosting a great party. Dan Farber

Her "open" social network argument is not a very convincing to me, though. Ning users can move components around on the screen and choose from 50 design templates. Ning also has APIs that allow for data portability and access to member data. However, the primary code that runs Ning is proprietary. Ning does allow some modification of templates and code, such as the photo component, under an Apache 2.0 license. Programmers can change the way a photo is displayed or sorted, for example.

"Platforms win because they enable people to do things because they are programmable and give people control," Bianchini said. Ning and other more open platforms will make walled gardens obsolete, she contended. "It's not the case today, but this is what happens throughout history when people have choice." Facebook, MySpace, Google, and others would argue that they are platforms, which are defined by having a robust ecosystem and developer/user community. And they are open to the extent that they have APIs allowing access to their social graphs and other data. In addition, supporting open standards, such as OpenID, should be part of an open platform. But Bianchini said that OpenID is not user-friendly enough at this point and still has some security issues.

Overall, Ning is more "open" than other social networks in terms of the flexibility it gives users, but it serves a different purpose than Facebook and other social networks. Facebook's growing membership seems to appreciate the consistency of the user experience, the growing feature set, and the APIs, such as Facebook Connect.

Bianchini expects that there will be millions of social networks and that people will express themselves "for every conceivable niche, need, location, and language, with an infinite choice of features."

"If we do this right," she added, "it will happen on the Ning platform."

Clearly, something is happening on Ning. Whether it will become the next Facebook or MySpace in terms of growth and user activity remains to be seen.