Ning is a website designed to help us to build our own social networks. It launches officially next week. It’s the work of Marc Andreessen (pictured) and Gina Bianchini.
Ning looks promising on three dimensions:
1) the business model
Ning allows for "revenue access," let’s call it. If we have basic membership, Ning will place ads on our sites and keep the revenue. For a fee, we can run ads of our own and keep their revenue. (MySpace has no revenue access opportunity.)
Revenue access and revenue sharing are pressing issues, and this is the clearest leverage point that will supplant first generation social networks with subsequent ones.
YouTube makes clear that consumers are happy to supply content for nothing. They consider themselves well paid by the opportunity for exposure and the intrinsic pleasure of content creation.
But this will not endure. Eventually, the internet mediators are going to have to pay the content provider just as surely as the old mediators now do.
Ning may eventually be obliged to compensate even those who use the basic package, but that remains to be seen. We shall see where the YouTube experiment ends up on this one.
The anthropological angle: when content providers have access to revenue, how will they use it? There’s a good chance that some providers will hew to the middle of the market, in order to increase their revenues. This will narrow the world that the internet represents. But it is also true that some content providers will use the revenue to free themselves from their "day jobs" and pursue their innovations with new enthusiasm. As a result, the internet will become more innovative and more various.
2) the user model
The user model looks right as well. Ning will allow user customization and control. (And there is of course a powerful anthropological impulse at work here. The DIY movement is one of the great transformative trends of our times.)
Other social network sites ask you to join their world. We are about people creating their own worlds. (Gina Bianchini, Ning CEO)
But Ning doesn’t merely allow customization and control, it has the good sense to allow us to scale up into this customization and control. True there are some internet users like Steve Rubel who are just all over the technology and the opportunities this technology opens up. But most of us are more like me, poor schlups who are just one new feature away from a terrible headache and long term memory loss.
For these people, "keeping it simple, stupid" is the order of the day. Google gets this. Marissa Mayer is the high priestess of simplicity and one of the reasons the Google search engine is a thing of beauty while Yahoo and eBay websites leave me with the strong feeling that a bomb must have just exploded in my dog’s breakfast.
Ning has taken a page from the Google handbook:
The whole point of providing customization and freedom is that you want to give people something super simple at first but then, as they get more sophisticated, you want to give them the ability to get more creative. (Andreessen)
There is another way to put this. All of us want all of the expressive and pragmatic advantages that come with all of the new technologies, but none of us has an additional ounce of intellectual processing power to spend on them. It’s not actually that we’re stupid. We’re overextended.
Starting simple removes every piece of extraneous intellectual effort. Small investments create returns. And scaling up allows us to recoup that investment over and over. Now we may use what we know to acquire new knowledge. Most of the wayfaring, the pondering, the "how does this work, again?" has been removed. The "fog of technology" has been made to lift.
And once schlubs like me have access to the expressive potentialities of the new technology, we may expand the internet and the worlds now suspended from this internet to expand extraordinarily. Once civilians can be as inventive as the experts…wow. And this is what the the new technology does so well. It creates solutions for one generation which it then learns to automate for the next generation. Second Life has yet to make it easier for the novice to build on line. Once it does so, that little world, already so stuffed with design experiment, will expand remarkably.
So there is an anthropological angle here too. Once Ning and other sites help to empower the ordinary user, the web will become still more fecund. Andreessen has contemplated this future.
To get philosophical for a minute, I believe (as Milton Friedman says) that human wants and needs are infinite. There are no limits to the things and services that people want or need, so there are no limits to the number of new technologies, companies, and industries we can create. The questions are: how many people worldwide are able to contribute, how much capital is available to them, and how free are they to pursue new ideas?
3) the cultural model
As it stands, social networking doesn’t actually sort very well. And this means social networks on the web don’t make social connections very well. (I have met lots of people through the web. Some of them are now my friends. But I have yet to make a friend thanks to a social network site. How bout you?)
This has got to be a temporary problem. If there is something that the web should be good at, it is helping me to find all but only the people I find really interesting. But really good networks, networks with very high "friend potential," are small networks, and small networks have hitherto failed to attract the resources to make them go. Ning appears to change all that and we may now expect to see online networking take on new significance. .
There is one further anthropological note to offer here. When there is a network for each of my enthusiasms, what happens to those enthusiasms? I think it is probably true that each of them will broaden and deepen, and I think this tells us that each enthusiasm will make an even greater claim upon the self.
Or, let’s put this another way. Let’s say my self now consists of several quite distinct creatures. At a minimum, there’s a blogger, the ethnographer, the consultant, the person interested in Elizabethan England, the anthropologist, movie buff, and so on. Once there is a network for each of these selves, and once each of these selves becomes as a result more robust, I think the diversity of my selfhood multiplies and the absolute space of this selfhood expands. We may expect better social networks to create cloudier selves.
Anonymous Reuters. 2007. Ning allows DIY social networks. PC Magazine. February 27, 2007. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2006. France after France. This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. March 28, 2006. here.
Tischler, Linda. 2005. The beauty of simplicity. Fast Company.com. Issue 100. here.
Steve Rubel here.
Webb, Cynthia. An interview with Marc Andreessen. Washington Post. June 10, 2004. here.