Networking via online publishing communities is a great concept, but in very popular sites like MySpace sometimes it feels a little too public for its own good - a little like having a party in a public restroom. It's doable, but is it wise? Yet being able to choose your own crowds and conversations has great appeal, especially when there are multiple tools available with which to do so. The new social media portal Ning picks up where others have left off and creates an environment in which anyone can create their own private social media network. As with walk-up-and-publish tools like Blogger, TypePad and pbwiki Ning enables anyone to create a privately branded social network into which one can invite others to publish content such as weblog entries, videos, photos, forum discussions and live chats.
Each Ning community has its own levels of creator-defined security, so the community can be private or public or tailored to respond to a mass market of contributors or just a few select contributors. As with the Near-Time network of privately maintained weblogs, wikis and file sharing communities Ning provides a common login and top-level navigation that allows one to define and join multiple communities without having to re-enter information. This creates both a top layer of commonality and overview without giving up the unique flavor of each individual group. Features are fairly robust and very easy to use, although lacking Near-Time's Wikis, premium subscription capabilities and more professional-oriented features such as calendaring, task management and file storage.
I think that we're going to see products like Ning and Near-Time become highly successful this year in much the same way that Blogger and TypePad soared in popularity as weblogging became a popular pursuit. There is also that chicken-and-egg factor that well-designed tools can engender: will people's interest in social media beyond weblogs explode once tools that combine various social media features begin to make it easier for groups of people to express themselves to one another more effectively in private and public settings? I think so. The 57 million or so weblogs that Technorati reports being out there on the Web are just the tip of the social media iceberg. Toss in everyone that's posted a MySpace, Facebook or Orkut profile along with the explosion of Wikis and the growth social media encompasses far more rapidly expanding demographics.
In the meantime most publishers are just beginning to get comfortable with the idea that weblogs are an acceptable publishing tool for serious content. As more and more social media outlets make it easy to create highly targeted public and private audiences via professional-grade content technologies more and more page inventory that is outside the reach of their potential advertisers and subscribers is being generated. The good news is that there's nothing to stop a smart publisher from grabbing their own space in this growing mix of content technology platforms for social media - or to make a smart acquisition. Ning is still in its very early days, as are many other more sophisticated self-service publishing technologies, but expect it to begin to make waves as digital natives tire of the same-old same-old from large-scale communities and Johnny-one-note technologies and begin to define communities that are both more under their control and more interesting to their members.