Here at e.politics, we may cling to our victrolas, our morse code and our Windows XP, but some people in the online world look a little farther ahead. For instance, along with co-founder Marc Andreessen, Gina Bianchini at Ning has been working since the company’s 2005 launch to put the ability to create online social networks into the hands of people and organizations around the world. The results? You too can build a MySpace or Facebook, my friend.
Unlike general social networking sites, which create a common river of profiles in which everyone swims (think our individual networks of social connections as groups of rafters floating on the current), Ning has built a platform on which anyone can build a defined online community of people interacting around any issue or interest. A MyBarackObama.com in every garage! Of course, as with blogs and so much else online, many of these erstwhile communities will fade for every one that thrives.
Why set up a custom social network? For political or advocacy communicators, Gina sees it as a chance to start and facilitate a conversation among supporters or advocates (and for commercial marketers, among customers). In classic social media fashion, a successful online community tends to strengthen your relationship with your audience. To be mercenary-minded, it can lead more donations and more advocacy actions down the road, but it can also create unexpected opportunities for your grassroots allies to work together on their own. Go far enough, and it might just upend the usual top-driven listen-to-us attitude that nonprofits still frequently exhibit toward their activists (and companies toward their customers).
As Gina describes it, what makes a Ning-based social network “custom” is that it’s functionally yours, since you generate the members and you control the community features. You can also control the appearance and branding of the site — it’ll be hosted on Ning, but it can appear to be a part of your normal advocacy or membership site (if you upgrade for a small monthly fee, you can also remove advertising and have the site’s address be your own domain). You also have full access to the member data and can periodically dump it to your regular member database, perhaps using questions asked at member set-up to identify interest areas and assign database tags to individual members, for instance.
[Nerd sidenote: since the Ning API allows CRM systems to pull from it, it seems a natural for integration into something like DemocracyInAction (hey Chris and April, has anyone built that yet?). When I asked Gina about exporting transactional data from Ning, which could help groups identify their "super-activists," she said that it was on its way, and I recall her mentioning that commercial marketers seemed particularly interested in tracking user behavior (you have been warned).]
Though custom social networks are by definition their own isolated ponds, Gina described how you can connect them to the broader waters of Facebook and MySpace, first by fishing for members through a Facebook Fan Page/Group or a MySpace profile. Also, content can pass FROM a Ning network directly to the wider web via the kind of “post this to Facebook, my blog, etc.” buttons that are becoming ubiquitous — once someone’s posted a video, photo or link on a Ning network, everyone in the network can then pass it along. And since each content piece is branded and links back to the network on which it’s hosted, everything posted becomes a potential recruiting poster. In turn, your members are all potential recruiters, and you can think of your custom social network as a place to get them fired up and organized before you turn them loose on the wider world.
To do that, though, first you’ll need to have those members. What makes a custom social network succeed? Okay, let’s define “success” — which will of course depend on your actual communications goals, though a good start will be a self-sustaining community (note that you may need to nurture it extensively at first to make it feel “alive”). I was surprised to hear that networks tend to reach critical threshold for success at around 150 members, since Gina said that they usually grow on their own once they reach that magic point, something that holds true across all interest areas on Ning. For nonprofits with a large member list, a couple of mass emails could build that critical core within days or hours.
What other considerations should political activists keep in mind when looking at Ning or other custom social networking platforms? Once you start a community, remember that it could take on a life of its own (indeed, that’s part of the point). Just as with negative comments on a nonprofit blog and flame wars on a discussion board, organizations will want to set out clear policies about what kind of behavior will be allowed, and they should also be prepared to handle a little unruliness (again, a common issue with all kinds of social media adoption).
Another cautionary note: once you start a community, you’ve also made a commitment. If you pull the plug on the network, significantly change its emphasis or even just let it drift, you may alienate the people who’ve put their time and energy into building it — and who are likely to be your most committed and valuable activists. That brings us to what Gina described as the common characteristics of successful networks on Ning: that they’re authentic, that they revolve around something that people are passionate about, and that they’re made up of people committed to that network’s purpse and to connecting with others around that purpose.
Again, we’re on familiar social media ground — if your network is transparently insincere or lacks focus, people will run for the doors. But base it on real interests and real connections, and you might just be well on your way to building that robot kung fu army for world domination. Want to see some sample political communities on Ning? Here’s a good start. Let me know what you come up with.