Simulblogged @ Digital Passports

This is one blip on the radar to keep your eyes on.  After playing with it for half an hour, I started to get that funny feeling that this one could very well be a winner for many educators.

The site is called Ning.  I first read about it on TechCrunch, and spent some time giving it a whirl today.  The short version is that it’s a site where you can create your own social networks.  For example, you can create your own MySpace based on the theme of your choice.  And right out of the box it’s a pretty decent app.  However, the level of customization available is what really sets Ning apart. 

Let’s start with ideas.  You can choose to make your social networking site private, meaning that it won’t be found via browsing or public search.  You can also set it up to be invitation only.  That means you can set up a nice closed environment for your students to try their hand at social networking in a monitored setting.  Since it can bring in video from a variety of sources, blog posts, RSS feeds and any other embed-able code, it would make a great place for a class homepage.  It also also has a forums feature, which would come in handy for obvious reasons.  Could also be a solid place for group collaborations.  I didn’t see a wiki page, but I’m pretty sure that one could be embedded.

Ning is chock full of the best of Web 2.0.  It’s extremely fluid, with drag and drop functionality and inline updating all over the place.  It also integrates well with sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Google Video, as well as having strong support for cell phone integration.  When you want to invite people to your group, it’ll raid your Yahoo, MSN, AOL or GMail address books.  There’s also RSS support throughout the site, the cornerstone of every proper 2.0 site.  I read somewhere that there’s about 20 themes for you to choose from as well.

And that’s all straight out of the ‘box’.  The social networks you create  are incredibly customizable as well.  You can upload your own CSS file, which in itself will let you tweak just about every piece of the appearance of the site.  But beyond that, developers can actually dig through and tweak the code.  Want functionality that isn’t there yet?  Create it!  Don’t like something they show by default?  Take it out!  Pretty sweet for those that like going a few steps beyond the norm.  If you don’t want to get that fancy, or you’re just a hack like me, you can also just paste in flash objects into a text box.  That’s what I did to create a poll on my demo site.

There are also a few premium add on’s available, such as using your own domain name, customizing Ads (or removing the Ads entirely), and increasing the bandwidth/storage space. 

As enamored with the site as I am, I think I’m still barely scratching the surface of Ning.  I was browsing through other groups that were tagged with Education and came across the Discovery Bookshelf.  It’s a Ning site where people can add books that they want to read, are reading or have finished.  You can browse through other people’s shelves or add books to your own shelf.  It was actually pretty compelling to go through what other people were reading and mark off whether I’d read it already or it was on my "To Read" list.  I’m not sure how the site was powered (or coded), but it looked radically different from just a random ‘stock’ Ning site.  Really demonstrated how flexible the platform could be.

This is clearly far simpler to jump into than Elgg, and you don’t need to worry about hosting.  I highly recommend that any educator looking for alternatives to MySpace and Xanga in order to teach social networking check out Ning.com.