If it exists on the internet, chances are someone has made it easier for you to do the same thing yourself. Social networking is increasingly included in this rule. As it becomes a world onto itself, it’s becoming easier for individual users to create their own islands within it.
If you’re tired of FaceBook, Twitter, and all of the other sites that you can name as well as we can, you always have the option to just go it at yourself, and create your own place to share LOLcats pics and YouTube videos. Like all such endeavors, it comes with its own caveats and warnings ahead of time that should be heeded.
Know why you’re doing it
Perhaps more than most other types of internet endeavors, you need to think clearly about exactly why you are doing this. With so much of the world already taken by existing networks, you’re not going to get people running to your new one just because it exists.
If you want to have any reasonable hope that your network will go anywhere, it needs to be a place that services a type of community that isn’t well-served anywhere else. Here are a few examples:
Business and artistic guilds and communities that need to maintain strong ties to one another.
Social groups that are, if not marginalized, perhaps at least specialized enough that they could benefit from the special attention that someone who understands them can give.
Religious groups that would benefit from the safety of an environment in which they know they wouldn’t be judged.
Know where you’re doing it
If you’ve gotten that far, then your next question is where you are going to setup shop. Included in the question of “where” is “how”. There are two main routes you can go here.
One way you can do this is to find some social networking software, load it onto your web hosting account, fire it up and handle the administrative back-end yourself. There are a number of key advantages to this approach. You will have every customization option at your fingertips, especially since many of the packages that you’ll find are open-source. You’ll have full access to the network’s back-end at all times in case of a problem. All of this means, though, that it could be a lot more work. You may get some help from your web host if you run into technical difficulty, but don’t count on it.
The other method is to setup a network that is a part of larger social networking super-site. There exist web sites where you can create your own social networking home from within their larger community. The advantages of this approach are that their setup tends to be far easier, and you have the support of people who know how to run these specific networks backing you up. The disadvantage is that you are also that their mercy. If they decide they don’t like your topic for whatever reason you could be shut down on a moment’s notice. You are also beholden to their tech support, which in some cases didn’t promise any impressive response times.
If you want it easy
All that said, here are a few places in which you can pursue the latter option and let someone else do the heavy lifting:
Ning – Ning is by far the largest of these services that you will find. Operating since 2005, its servers host more than 90,000 networks. That size though comes with a price … literally. Last year Ning removed all free social networks from their site. Granted, their lowest level account is a mere $2.95 a month. Still, they’re done a lot of other things to send the strong message that they are heavily focused on their bottom line, such as removing all adult sites and removing the search feature until user pressure forced them to reinstate it.
SocialGO – A smaller network, but one with a rich list of features.
WiserEarth – A good home for networks designed around a social issue. Be sure to look at their terms of service: they are very specific about what kinds of groups do and don’t qualify.
If you want to do it yourself
If you are ready to be bold and dive into the nuts and bolts of setting this up yourself, here are some of the software packages most commonly suggested:
Buddypress – This open-source WordPress plug in has a lot of fans. It is free, easily customizable with addons and templates, and some hosts actually support one-click install for it.
Kit Social Platform – Formerly known as “KickApps”, this is one of the more respected of the professional (meaning, not free) solutions. It works off of your own domain, comes with an API and developers kit, and is available for a 14-day-trial from distributing company KIT digital.
Elgg – Elgg has been around for a long time, and has been a popular choice for most of its existence. It is described as being both full of features and simple to use.
I’ve set it up: now what do I do?
First, obviously, you need users. Don’t measure yourself by FaceBook. If you have 100 or so users, that’s a success. Remember, unless you’re trying to run this as a business (not something we would advise given the competition), your goal is to support a community. Every single person that you do this for is one more victory.
Once they are there, you simply need to help keep the community’s blood flowing. One web site suggested that it was akin to a dinner party: you need to provide the space, the atmosphere, and then a few seeds of conversation. From there, you step back and let it happen, nudging it from time to time when necessary.
It’s your baby: nurture it
That last part is mandatory: you have to keep an eye on it at all times. The number of ways that it can devolve into something not worth most of its members’ time because of a few bad apples is countless. Also keep a close ear out for what features you may want to add on to help boost the community’s discussion effectiveness. Finally, make sure that you encourage users to write you about any technical problem they see, no matter how small.
Don’t be too intimidated. This is work, but it’s work others have done, and you can too. Even if all you make is a small home for a few people that need it, the reward