Blog  |   Puzzles  |   Books  |   About

Grokking Ning

Penn Jillette vs. Mark Andreessen

Mark Andreessen’s new project, Ning, went live today, just in time for the Web 2.0 conference, where it is likely to be a hot topic. If you haven’t yet seen any opinions about , it’s because Ning is a little hard to grok at first glance. I made an attempt to grok it today, and here’s what I came up with:

There are a lot of clusters of social networking apps on the net right now that do very similar things. For example, there are a lot of websites that are similar to Am I Hot or Not. At lunch, my friend Geoff likes to come up with interesting variations on Am I Hot or Not. “I have an idea!” Geoff enthuses, “how about a site called ‘Who’s the bigger asshole?’. We’ll put up two pictures of sportcars, and you get to vote on which one is driven by a bigger asshole!” Geoff has dozens of these ideas.

Now if Geoff had the patience, he can probably find a free collection of PHP scripts somewhere that allows him to set up a clone of Am I Hot or Not, but it may not be exactly what he needs, and it will take him some time to learn the particular idiosyncracies of that particular software. Plus he has to take out a domain name, find a host, install the software, yada yada.

I use Am I Hot or Not as an example, but there are tons of other sites which are also cloned heavily. Craigslist, Zagats guide and so on. Some of these sites are not so much cloned so much as they create subcommunities that people would like to copy or emulate, such as the groups on Flickr. The vast majority of successful “Web 2.0” apps tend to have a social component — they tend to rely on content which is created by a large community of visitors to the site.

So what’s Ning? Ning is an uber-authoring tool that enables people to build these kinds of sites. The Ning folks have built an authoring tool, and built numerous copies and variations of many of the more successful kinds of these sites. They’ve built an “Am I Hot or Not” clone, they’ve built a Craigslist clone, they’ve built a Bookshelf, etc. They’ve captured a large part of the feature set that drives a lot of these apps, including message boards, polls, tags, RSS and so on…

As a Ning developer, you can find a site on Ning which is pretty close to what you’re looking for (and this will get easier as Ning grows), and then you can *clone* it. After you clone it, you get access to the source code, and you can change just the parts you need to change to implement your own crazy idea. So, instead of “Choose the prettiest Cat”, you make “Choose the prettiest Llama”, or whatever. As soon as you clone the site, it immediately goes live, and you can create a URL such as

If Ning is successful, it will end up being a hub for a huge collection of interesting (and not-so-interesting) social sites. The more people that create apps on Ning, the more apps there will be to clone. Successful Ning sites will foster imitation. Ning could very well end up being the “Hypercard of Social Sites”. This has both good and bad connotations. It’s good in that Ning would provide a common, easy-to-learn system for creating new social sites. It’s bad in that if you remember Hypercard, you may also remember that “All Hypercard Apps look like they are made in Hypercard” – Ning may suffer from the same problem in that most early Ning apps will have a “cookie-cutter” approach.

If the system is as flexible as they claim it to be, there should be room for more talented “Ning-artists” to produce more innovative ideas that aren’t just clones of other sites. It is very promising that Ning allows users to author in PHP (how they are managing to give all their users access to PHP authoring without huge security holes is an interesting question, and I imagine we’ll be revisiting this issue soon…). At any rate, the good ideas will get noticed and people will clone the good ideas. So hopefuly, Ning will be a kind of crucible in which good ideas for social sites will float to the top and multiply. Well,
maybe not so much “good” as “successful.” I’d like to think this “survival of the fittest” approach will help cancel the Hypercard-effect, although the 225-pixel sidebar that Ning reserves on each page doesn’t help. The Sidebar is necessary for Ning’s revenue model, no doubt. At any rate, most of the existing Ning templates are pretty boring looking. Let’s hope the visual uniformity changes.

Oh yeah… revenue. So how does Ning make money? In short: ads. It sounds like Ning intends to inject ads and such into Ning sites — probably via the Sidebar, although right now, the Sidebar is free of ads. Ning does not allow users to add their own Google Adsense ads into their templates. I don’t know if they prohibit affiliate links to other sites (such as Amazon affilliate links in “bookshelves”) but I would imagine they may eventually want to control those to. On the other hand, if Ning were to allow user/authors to get a little pocket change from their Ning sites, they will probably attract a far greater number of users. Nonetheless, there are probably lots of potential user/authors who are perfectly happy to build Ning sites for free, and those numbers will go up if Ning becomes a successful online community. Fame/notoriety is it’s own reward.

Ning allows user/authors to set up permanent URLs to their apps, which take the form I imagine there will be a bit of an initial landgrab as cybersquatters grab up some of the more obvious ones. It would be nice if Ning had a policy in place to deal with this, but I imagine, with a project this ambitious, their plates are pretty full — and this leads to what I think is the most flawed aspect of this idea — it’s just too damn big. If successful, Ning has the potential to be a host, provider, authoring tool, and community hub for a huge chunk of web content. The question is, can the company successfully do all these things and do them well? Managing successful communities is a tricky business, and the downside is that when the users get pissed off, you’ve already provided them with an excellent channel for mouthing off about it (for the inevitable whiners, this is an excellent time to reserve “” and “”).

One thing the Ning FAQ doesn’t make mention of is sex, which is a, uh, huge driving force behind (and on top of) many social networking sites. Judging from some of the example Ning sites that are currently being promoted on the Ning Pivot (the inevitable page devoted to “hot” Ning sites), I imagine Ning hopes to profit from the huge amounts of energy people put into sex, without getting their hands dirty by remaining as “content agnostic” as they can. We’ll see how far that takes them. The evolutionary model they are using will certanly cause more sexually explicit sites to rise to the top. The ones that manage to be titillating without getting deleted will certainly be successful.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing the authoring capabilities in greater detail, I’ll post again if/when my developer status gets approved and I’ve had a chance to get my hands dirty in the sandbox, er, playground.

UPDATE: I was granted developer status about an hour ago. It took me about 30 minutes to create three simple apps – pretty impressive! It took me another 10 minutes to figure out how to modify my new bookshelf to use my own affiliate tags instead of the default “24hourlaundry” (Answer: Edit class.AmazonHelper.php).

I am impressed by the degree of control the PHP source provides, and also intrigued by the potential chaos this may create.

Oh, and Geoff – here’s one of your great ideas… Oh, I’m so ashamed…

Comments are closed.