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Create Your Own Social Network

Create Your Own Social Network

By Elizabeth Wasserman

After he moved to a new neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y., last spring, Neil Bardhan was invited to join an online social network -- not unlike Facebook or MySpace -- dedicated exclusively to his neighborhood called South Wedge. Using the network, Bardhan, 26, connected with friends, learned about a local farmers market and discovered a group called Dog Walkers Against Crime.

“It helps to get to know what kind of people are in the neighborhood and what sort of resources there are,” says Bardhan.

Social networking is one of the most popular services in the cloud. But beyond giant social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter, a new breed of services allows you to create personal social networks -- the equivalent of your very own Facebook with your chosen look and feel. And every group, from book clubs to sports teams, is setting up custom easy-to-use social networks to stay connected.

Should you create your own? Here’s what to consider:

Q. Do I really need a personal social network?
Think about the people you want to connect with in your social network. For example, you may be interested in building a social network because you have trouble coordinating meetings for your fantasy football league. Or maybe you want to share photos, videos and announcements with friends who worked with you on the student newspaper. Whatever your reason for starting a social network, be realistic about what gets people to join and remain involved.

“The goal is not to be the largest social network on the Web but to be the most relevant,” says venture capital consultant Gina Bianchini, former CEO of Ning, a San Francisco company that has one of the most popular for-pay services for creating personalized social networks. “You want to meet a need for friends or family by creating a space to go and connect with one another.”

Q. Which DIY social network services should I consider?
Features and costs vary, but here are the most popular services:

  • Ning  used to be free, but now you have to pay $2.95 (Mini) to $49.95 (Pro) a month to gain access to special features like apps, a custom design for your site site or various benefits like how many people you want to invite. For the Mini option, you miss out on some features including video uploads, music, chat, events and groups. The Pro gives you the most features for your members.
  • ELGG  costs $29.95 for up to 100 users, and $49.95 for unlimited users. Hosting your network at your own domain name (e.g., MyNetwork.com) costs an extra $4.95 a month. Elgg offers customer support along with features like file sharing, Facebook and Twitter login, and the ability for network creators to export all their data.                         
  • SocialGo  offers a free basic network that includes advertising it sells -- but the features are limited, and you can’t control the look and feel. (You must select a template.) For $29.99 a month, you can access the advance layout manager and use your own domain name.

Q. What if I want my network to be invite-only?
You can control the privacy of most networks, and you must make this choice when setting up your network for the first time. On Ning, for instance, when you’re setting up a new network, you’ll need to select from two options: public (anybody can see or join it) or private (only invited people can join and see it). Once you choose private or public, you can’t switch the setting, so make sure you think about the public versus private option ahead of time.

Finally, the key is to be dedicated to keeping your network alive. “I absolutely don’t think you have to be wise to Facebook or MySpace, to create a social network or join a social network,” says Bianchini. “But the same things apply: Are there people who would join, and is there a reason for someone to join?”

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Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer, editor and online media consultant with more than a dozen years’ experience reporting on technology, entertainment and the media. She is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine and writes for a variety of online publications.