Get your group online in no time via the free Ning custom social network service.
Dennis O'ReillyFormer CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
I thought the social-network train had left me at the station. Sure, I've had a Facebook page for a couple of years, but I rarely use it. Same with the MySpace page I created back in 2006 as part of a story I was editing on how to get started with the service. I'm more active on LinkedIn because of the business focus of that network, though I usually visit the site only when I get an alert via e-mail about some new connection.
Why was I exhibiting such antisocial tendencies on the Internet? Was I doomed to be a Web wallflower? Just when I thought all hope for an online social life was lost, I found Ning, a do-it-yourself social-network service that has been around since 2004, but that had a major facelift early last year.
Why use Ning rather than one of the big-name social networks? The service lets you start quickly using its prefab tools, or add your own CSS and HTML to customize your network's look and functionality. You have to put up with text ads along the right side of the screen if you sign up for the free service, but $20 a month lets a group or business run its own ads, or go ad-less entirely. If you need more than the 10GB of storage and 100GB of bandwidth available from the free version, pay $10 a month for each additional 10GB/100GB. You can use your own domain name for $5 a month.
There's much you can do with the service besides create a social network, but all I was interested in was making it easy for family members spread across the country to see pictures of our grandson. If I wasn't having so much fun uploading and annotating the pictures, I could've had the network up and running in less than an hour.
Start by creating a profile: You need only provide an e-mail address, a name, and a password. Then you give your network a name, assign a domain that will end in "ning.com" (unless you pay to use your own domain name), and click Create Your Network to open the "About Your Network" page. Choose to make it public or private, enter a tagline and description, assign some keywords, pick a language, and upload an image to serve as the network's icon.
The Features page lets you add RSS feeds, forums, videos, photos, and other components to your network, or you can skip this step and choose one of the service's templates. Since I was looking for the simplest approach, I opted for one of the themes listed on the Appearance page. I could've customized the header, navigation, text, and other elements of the page, and developers can add their own CSS code by clicking the Advanced tab in the Customize section.
You can prompt network members to answer one or more questions to fill out their profile, and you can even make the questions mandatory, though their answers can be kept private from other members. By default, Ning asks their relationship status, "About Me," and a Web site. After you view a summary of your network, click the Launch! button to get started. You're prompted to enter and confirm a personal ID number, and then you're ready to send out your invitations. You can do this singly, or in bulk by importing from your address book in Outlook or another client e-mail app, or from Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, or AOL Mail. You can also send the invitations via a link placed in a message sent from your client mail app.
My initial foray into the world of custom social networks wasn't particularly productivity-enhancing, but it sure was fun. That doesn't mean there's not a place for this type of service in the business world. The most obvious is using Ning to add a social-network component to a small-business or workgroup site. Anyone who's playing catch-up with the social-networking phenomenon (like me) will get a leg up at Ning.
Tomorrow: use Word and Excel to construct simple forms.