Marc Andreessen may not have actually been knighted for his contributions towards making the web what it is today, but if he were British then I am sure Helen Mirren would have bestowed that honor upon him alongside Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Not that a lack of a knighthood is stopping the graphical web browser pioneer who co-founded Netscape from continuing to innovate.
Always up for a challenge, this time it isn’t Microsoft that Andreessen pits himself against, but rather MySpace and Facebook. You see his company, Ning, is promising to provide the necessary tools required to enable users to create social networking sites of their own. Let me go over that again, Ning is providing free tools for the creation and operation of social networking services.
With the ‘official’ launch of Ning 2.0 today you can expect the Andreessen trademarks of ‘pick up and play’ along with ‘web for everyone’ to be very much present. Indeed, Andreessen promises that anyone, even the most causal of web users, will be able to pick up these tools and create a totally personalized social Ning network within a few minutes.
So, big deal, you may be thinking. Heck, anyone can create a MySpace space within minutes, and pretty much anyone and everyone has. That’s the secret to its success after all. Well yes, but the difference is that MySpace and its News Corp owners keep a very tight grip on the commercial network behind those space. It is they, not you that reap the benefits of all advertising sales for example. Ning promises to be very different, but I am not convinced this is really the case.
The idea is that for the free service targeted advertising from the Ning Network is part of the deal, however if users cough up some cash then they get to run their own advertising. Right. Let’s get this straight; I can pay for the right to run adverts which might earn me some money, maybe even enough to cover the cost of being able to run them? I am not so sure that’s a groundbreaking innovation, to be honest. Still, the sliding scale subscription fees will, I am informed, also cover web address substitution, additional storage facilities and high traffic space bandwidth.
Andreessen is quoted as saying that "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." That might be the Ning point, but is it missing the social networking point which is that all people really want to do is hang out? If a lack of customization was such a big deal then MySpace and Facebook would be floundering, and they are not.
Instead it is Ning that is going nowhere slowly. You see, despite the big hoo hah today and the blogosphere buzz surrounding the ‘official launch of Ning 2.0’ the truth is that the original Ning was actually launched way back in October 2004 and in two and a half years has managed to attract around 30,000 users. Not exactly taking the online world by storm then, is it?
The problem being, and it is one that I am surprised Andreessen has not seen coming, is that the likes of MySpace were built not on the back of clever technology but grew organically out of the communities they created. He is also gambling that the same people who enjoy MySpace for free, will pay for the privilege of having no ads or running their own ads at Ning, and pay $20 a month. This is something I just cannot see happening in this space, at least not to the degree that would ensure the kind of momentum and volume required to thrust Ning 2.0 into the big time.
Ning is approaching the whole business from the wrong end; it is walking backwards into social networking and assuming that because the technology is sound then not only ‘they will come’ but ‘they will pay.’
The more I hear about Ning, the more I keep going back to Monty Python and the Knights that say Ni sketch. It’s all very well demanding a shrubbery, or a community for that matter, but just shouting Ning at us isn’t to going to make it happen. It will probably have lots of 15 to 25 year olds rolling on the floor with laughter though…