Six years ago I had an idea for a social network for lawyers and so set about researching the best way to go about realising my concept. The assumption I had was that it would take many £s to get it off the ground but was instantly surprised that even back then there were several hosted and self-hosted options available to me where I could simply sign up and start my own social network. Eventually, I plumped for Ning, which had been around since 2004 under the stewardship of Marc Andreeson, and seemed to have the best options, price plans and, crucially, white-labelling that I required.
Fast forward to today and my legal social network is now hosted on WordPress/BuddyPress (I migrated from Ning a while back) but it got me thinking what path I might take today if i was starting afresh. Here are the four best build your own social platforms, according to yours truly:
1. Ning – best for flexibility.
Despite some upheaval at Ning HQ since it was acquired by Glam Media (now renamed Mode Media) and a new version of the platform (Ning 3.0) that has seen no serious updates since July 2014, Ning is still one of the easiest to use ‘create your own social network’ solutions out there.
It has all the functionality you’d expect from a social platform (activity feed, friendships, connection to other social channels, user bios, groups etc) but its power comes from its content options and flexibility. If you run a Ning 3.0 site then you have unlimited blogs, forums and photo instances that you can deploy across the site for various purposes. Want a blog that only editors can post to and a separate blog area that certain member categories can post to? Knock yourself out! Better still, with the frankly awesome Group flexibility you can pretty much create micro sites within your community.
Pros: Flexible, cheap, easy to use, and a brilliant customer-led forum.
Cons: No longer truly white-label, no updates in a while, data ownership a grey area.
2. WordPress/BuddyPress – best for scaleability.
By leveraging the power of the WordPress CMS, the BuddyPress plugin, which has come on leaps and bounds since its launch back in 2008, offers community builders a wealth of options for creating not only a community but also a publishing platform supported by thousands of developers around the world.
The core BuddyPress functionality includes activity streams, friendships, private messaging, groups and user profiles, but it will be the ability to test out and implement third-party plugins that will probably take your community to the next level. But that’s the beauty of WordPress! If you have a particular need for your social network then chances are someone else has built a plugin that caters for it.
Pros: One of the World’s most popular CMSs, great developer community, white-label, ownership of data, open-source.
Cons: Can be a steep learning curve to set up, find the right hosting plan at the appropriate cost might be an issue if your community gets real big (a good problem to have?).
3. SocialEngine PHP – best for data ownership
Social Engine allows you to create your own social network through its easy-to-use interface that is not too dissimilar to Pinterest. There are two SocialEngine options: PHP and Cloud. My recommendation here is for the open source, downloadable SocialEngine PHP version. If you want a hosted, cloud-based solution use Ning 🙂
Social Engine PHP comes fully loaded with close to 100% of the features needed to run a social network and unlike WordPress/BuddyPress, will do pretty much what you need out of the box, rather than having to rely on other plugins (that said, there is a modular add-on store for additional functionality).
Pros: Open source, white-label, ownership of data, mature product with good support.
Cons: Speed can be an issue on some SocialEngine installs, and of course you have to host yourself so have the same considerations as with BuddyPress.
4. PHP Fox – simplicity
Of all the community building software packages I’ve used on a self-hosting basis, PHP Fox is probably the simplest, or should I say simplest and slickest. PHPFox installation is a quick and easy process as it uses an installation wizard and once unbundled and installed you’ll find a wealth of features: activity streams, friendships, private messaging, groups, videos, music uploads, as well as a marketplace feature where members can sell, well, whatever they want. Think listings! Something it’s hard to replicate on sites like Ning. There’s also a similar member categorisation to Ning’s, allowing for certain access to parts of your site for certain member types.
Pros: Very affordable, efficient code framework, feature-rich, frequent updates, no paying extra for modules, Facebook-like interface, scalability, good technical support. Free trial.
Cons: Priced technical support after a few days of launch.
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