Jennifer B. Davis
I am not telling you anything new when I say that online communities are becoming more important than actual communities in some cases. Can you rattle off the names of 5 people whose blog your read? Can you rattle of the names of 5 of your neighbors? This is not to judge (we are horrible at meeting neighbors and I haved bake a "welcome to the neighborhood" batch of cookies in...well, I don't know if I have ever done that, although I have thought of it).

So, online communities are important. You know about LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, etc. I hear about new ones like Damsels in Success (clever name) targeting professional women. What if none of these exactly fits the community that you'd like to be a part of? Why not start your own?

The leader in social network tools is Ning, who boasts 80,000 networks. Whether you are a Phish fan, in the advertising business, addicted to One Tree Hill, or a proud graduate of the Blue Springs High School class of 1987, you can find or create your own community. Like all good things on the web, there is a free option (ad-supported). They have private label options for corporate communities, premium options that include your own domain name, and for $19.95 you can set-up to run your own ads on your social network and create your own media empire.

To broaden your options, you should also check out KickApps, which is a similar thing, but emphasizes "rich media community experience" and all the content gets displayed in a Flash viewer. They have some cool viral elements like widgets that others can embed to help spread the word about your community. Again, it is an ad-support, no-cost-to-you business model.

As an aside, a visit to Ning and KickApps illustrates the yin and yang of website design and voice. One is power-punching and athletic (as in rugby) the other is more ethereal and poised (as in yoga). Just goes to show how different visions and brands can manifest themselves online.

According to TechCrunch there are others that do this as well including CrowdVine, GoingOn, CollectiveX,, PeopleAggregator, Haystack, Onesite. They did a handy comparison chart that you might find interesting.

Now, I bring this up because I wonder if tools like this are being used for more than connecting with classmates and industry professionals? I could see these tools being a very powerful foundation for a church or ministry website, as it could include published content (sermons, songs, articles, announcements about upcoming ministries), as well as forums and places where parishoners could post their own photos of events or discussions about related topics.

I wonder also if any of these sites allow the network administrators to charge for membership to their networks? This could be interesting as an extension of a college course or the like and if there was a way to charge, this would be a very interesting "lab fee" item.
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