Over the past three weeks I’ve been involved with the launch of a new social network targeted at higher education web professionals. The uwebd (University Web Developers) mailing list has been around for 10 years and has always been an excellent source of information. Recently a discussion was started on the list about whether uwebd should become a Google Group. I advocated for taking it a step further by creating a uwebd social network. On December 13, we created a site on Ning as a companion to the list. The new site can be found at cuwebd.ning.com. As of today ,there are 217 members, numerous groups, several videos, and many discussions in the forum.
For me, this is the next logical step in the evolution of uwebd. While a mailing list is good for information exchange, a niche social network takes this to a whole new level. With features including user profiles, discussion forums, groups, friends, numerous RSS options, search, tagging, blogs, and integrated rich media, a niche social network is an ideal platform to create a community around a shared interest.
Ning.com is an online platform that allows users to create their own niche social networks. One of the co-founders is Marc Andreessen from Mosiac and Netscape fame. Technical skills are not required and it has a long list of features and functionality. Ning also supports the OpenSocial API.
Ning has two primary business models. The first allows you to create a network for free in exchange for the network hosting ads that Ning supplies. The other, known as Ning for Business, has monthly fees which provides premium services including control over ad content, extra storage and bandwidth, and use of your own domain name. I have created many niche social network sites using Ning and have always been impressed.
Many people dismiss social networks as the latest buzzword and/or Internet fad. This is a mistake. The Cluetrain Manifesto was written in 1999 and I still consider the message very timely, especially the value of the social Web. Here’s a quote from the preface:
The Web is not a new medium or a new place to shop or a new way to make a fast million, but instead is a global set of conversations – people talking together, in their own voices, about what they care about.
And another from the introduction:
What if the real attraction of the Internet is not its cutting-edge bells and whistles, its jazzy interface or any of the advanced technology that underlies its pipes and wires. What if, instead, the attraction is an atavistic throwback to the prehistoric human fascination with telling tales. … Millions have flocked to the Net in an incredibly short time, not because it was user friendly – it wasn’t – but because it seemed to offer some intangible quality missing in action from modern life. … The Internet connected people to each other and provided a space in which the human voice would be rapidly rediscovered.
Alan Moore, co-author of the seminal book Communities Dominate Brands, sums it up by saying that human beings are highly social animals and have an innate need to connect, communicate and interact. This is the heart and soul of the Web, what it does best, and why social networks are here to stay.
Metcalfeâ€™s Law states that the value of a communications network grows exponentially as the number of users grows. As networks get larger, they also get smarter. The Cluetrain Corollary states that the level of knowledge on a network increases as the square of the number of users times the volume of conversation. Not only do you need members of a network, you need participation.
The challenge for the new uwebd site will be getting enough participation to hit critical mass. Many sites on Ning have been abandoned due to a limited number of members and the resulting lack of participation. For the site to ultimately be of value, membership will need to continue to grow as well as participation.
Wisdom of Crowds
From my travels, I know first hand the collective intelligence of the higher ed web community. I’m exciting about the possibilities of the new site which has the potential to allow higher ed web professionals to connect and collaborate in new and exciting ways.
I encourage everyone involved with higher ed websites to not only join, but to participate as well. Again, the site is located at cuwebd.ning.com. You can visit my page on the site at cuwebd.ning.com/profile/Mark. Your feedback on the site is welcome.