I’d been remiss about checking out Ning and finally took the time after seeing it mentioned in Mike Tanji’s Think Tank 2.0 discussions and reading about it in the book Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good.

Ning lets users create their own social networks based on their particular community of interest and then provides the underlying tools to manage and operate the social network.  Features include social networking (profiles, friend relationships, etc), discussion forums, photo sharing, video sharing, blogging, sub-group establishment with a subset of features for the group, and a handful of other social media capabilities.

Users are able to configure their own site, but I found it to be quite limiting and included only the ability to add some custom CSS code, not rewrite headers, footers and other elements of the site that I was used to having control over. That said, I was able to piece together a decent site in one evening (or about 3 hours).  The only real coding required some fancy javascript to insert some of my own menu items in the Ning menu bar.

Page layouts are reasonably configurable with drag and drop sectional items to add new components to the social network.  It has a basic text box component and an RSS widget which allows you to pull external content into the site.  In my case, I used an aggregate of the members blogs to display on the main page.  I did run into issues trying to insert some Google Adsense code, which I think was a result of Ning actually rewriting their own adsense scripts and the two instances barfing on each other.  Ning does offer the option to remove ads from your network for $19.95 a month.  Given my experience with ads, I think I’ll keep the $20 and let them run ads to offset the costs.  I did pay to use a custom domain name and to remove some of the annoying Ning promotional blocks.

Ning is a very viable option for communities of interest looking to create a social network.  I had a mailing list of folks that were supposed to link up at the state and local level for information sharing and networking and in one night I was able to fulfill that promise and 25 people have signed up in the first 24 hours.  If you are an intelligence professional, you can find the network at network.groupintel.com