What it is: An easy, drag-and-drop way to create personal social networks around particular interests or topics. At Ning.com you'll find networks around topics as varied as microbrews, Pez dispensers and beach volleyball. Think of it as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups on steroids.
Who's behind it: Netscape founder Marc Andreessen is the chief technology officer; Gina Bianchini is the CEO. The duo launched Ning beta in October 2005, but it was met with early criticism because it tried to do too many things and wasn't easy enough for novices. Ning Version 2 launched Feb. 27 -- and has generated swaths of both positive tech-blog buzz and new users. According to Ms. Bianchini, Ning had 30,000 social networks before the relaunch; the first day the new version was available, that number grew more than 10% to 33,500. Ultimately, she said, "we believe there will be millions of social networks."
The philosophy: The founders strike a comparison between the social-networking space (dominated by giants Facebook and MySpace) and the walled one-size-fits-all model of AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy in the mid '90s. "Then the web came along and let people create whatever they wanted," Ms. Bianchini said. "People want choice and freedom in social networks."
Features: All the usual suspects -- photo sharing, video sharing, RSS, blogs, lists of most popular members. The key is that all these components can be added through dragging and dropping.
Biz model: Ning charges $19.95 a month for a custom network without ads, and marketers can easily create their own. CBS, for example, created one for "CSI" around Liev Schreiber's character, Michael Keppler (keppler.cbs.com). If you choose the free option, Ning will place Google AdSense ads on your network to monetize it.