Create your own social network 7 steps

Social networking is one of the key concepts that is driving Web 2.0 these days. With the opportunities social networks offer for collaboration and communication, this is certainly something we as educators should be thinking about being involved in.

In this tutorial I'd like to show you how to create your own social network on Ning, just by following 7 steps. I've published these as a downloadable PDF with screen shots, so that you can print them up and follow them / share them.
Perhaps though, more importantly it's worth thinking about some of the issues, and pros and cons surrounding the use of social networks.

Some advantages of creating your own network.
  • Control over the content
    You can make sure nobody posts anything inappropriate or irrelevant.
  • Control of who joins and the ability to block or ban people
    You can protect your members, ban anyone who doesn't behave or just limit membership to people you want to invite.
  • Increased reach
    You can increase the reach of your F2F activities and get more people involved in the collaborative / collective development of your project.
  • Good for your personal / career development
    You can learn a lot through being an administrator and develop some useful skills and knowledge.
Things to consider before you launch your network
  • Closed (just people you invite) or Open (anyone who wants to join)
    I would advise starting off with just people you invite first to see how things take off. Deciding to make the network open could take a lot of consideration and demand much more 'policing' moderation from you.
  • Do you have the time to manage the network?
    This is always a key question for teachers. Keeping the network active and up to date is going to take time. If you don't have the time / resources to put into it, best not to start.
  • Do you have or can you find content to input to the network?
    Content is still the main motivation for teachers / students to get involved, even if it's just as stimulation for communication / collaborative work, you need to have something to offer and your members are going to need to 'get something' from visiting your network, or they won't be coming back.
  • How / Will you be able to nurture collaboration between the members?
    Bit like the point above. Just providing a network isn't going to create collaboration. Ning is just a platform, you have to provide reasons, tasks, activities for members to collaborate on, or it just won't happen.
  • What functionality (groups, forums, video and photo sharing) do you want to make available?
    Providing all of these on Ning is easy, but don't provide anything you can't use. If you provide the ability to share photos / videos, make sure you have something to share and reasons for sharing those things. You'll also need to think about who can share add and create. Are you going to keep complete control or share it with your members?
  • Will you want to include advertising or ask it to be removed?
    If you are using Ning for educational purposes you can contact them and ask for advertising to be removed. You can also pay for a Ning platform and generate some money from the advertising yourself. I wouldn't recommend this as the amount may well not justify what you have to put up with from the advertisers. It's also better to get the advertising removed before you invite people to join, as some of the links can be inappropriate.
  • What information will you want members to add when joining?
    You can decide what information members need to submit when they join and decide who sees the information. You find out a lot about them this way, but people can be put off by having to give away their information, so it could be best just to let them decide.
  • How long will you want to keep the network live? (limited period or indefinitely)
    If you only intend to use the network for a specific time limited project it might be good to make this clear to your members, so they keep records of anything they develop within the network. Then when the project ends you can delete it with a clear conscience and keep the web tidy.
Looking at other networks
Before you start your own social network it's a good idea to have a look round at what others are doing. You might get some good ideas, see some potential pitfalls you want to avoid, or even decide someone already has your area covered and just decide to join them instead of recreating the wheel. Here a four networks for teachers that are well worth checking out.
Evaluation criteria
Deciding whether you want to join or recommend a network can be a tricky process, but as I've been looking around for ones I want to be part of I've built up a list of criteria that I find quite useful to have in the back of my mind.

  • What features / functionality does the network offer? (Groups forums etc.)
    If there's no interaction, is it worth being a part of this network?
  • Are the groups / forums active with a number of members exchanging information?
    Just because it has them doesn't mean they are being used. Have a look and make sure there is something there to learn and somebody there to learn with.
  • Are these features being used? (If the network offers the use of photo or video sharing is this being used?)
    This is a good place to look to see what members are really sharing. Is there original content or is it all grabbed from YouTube / Flickr?
  • Can you find out when the network was last active?
    Some networks are still online, but have died. Either the members or creator has lost interest. No point joining an inactive network.
  • How many members does it have?
    Open networks that only have a small number of members, may be less worthwhile. Most networks need a critical mass to keep them moving, unless the members are very committed.
  • Are any of the members’ photographs inappropriate?
    Many people join networks to pull traffic to their / unsuitable sites. A quick look at their avatar image could well give you a clue to which these are.
  • Check out some of the member profiles. Does the profile disclose the member’s email address or other personal info that you wouldn't want to share?
    Make sure that the network isn't forcing you to disclose more information than you would feel happy with.
  • Are there any ‘Google Ads’ on the site? Are these suitable or potentially offensive?
    Especially when recommending networks to others, it's good to check this first.
  • Is there any interesting content on the site?
    Again, I still believe that content is king. Content + collaboration = learning! No content, don't join.
  • Who is behind the network?
    Always wise to know who you are dealing with and sharing your information / knowledge with. Is it a group of like minded individuals, or a faceless company with dubious motivations?
Why create your own network for teachers?
Some suggestions:
  • To support particular dispersed groups doing specific projects / training courses
  • To record and share examples of practice and expertise specific to their context
  • To help train and develop teachers in the use of ICT / Learning Technology
Why create your own network for students?
Some suggestions:
  • Class research projects – create a network for your students based around a particular theme that they need to research.
  • Inter-class project – create a network for sharing information with students in another school / country.
  • Create a fan site with your students dedicated to a particular celebrity they like.
  • Create a site to inform visitors about Morocco / your town or city, your culture etc.
  • Create an online classroom and add links to materials, activities and tasks the students should do.
  • Create a network to showcase students work and keep in contact with and involve parents.
  • You should not use Ning with students below the age of 13.
  • Always protect your members’ privacy and make sure their email isn’t displayed and they don’t share addresses or telephone numbers with people.
Well if after all this you are still interested in creating your own network, here are the 7 steps again:
I've created one myself for a training course for teachers that I'm involved with. Personally I've found it really valuable so far.
For more opinions and to find out about alternative platforms, visit Larry Ferlazzo's blog post on Social Networks for the Classroom

Good luck with your networking and please do use the comments below to share your experience of using social networks.