I want to make a social network. Where do I begin? I’m asked this question often, probably because I am an experienced community builder. At the time I’m writing this, Wikipedia will tell you that LockerGnome, Inc. is a network of blogs, Web forums, mailing lists, and online communities. All of this is true, and when taken as a whole, what we have here is a gathering of people bound by a mutual interest in technology, though it’s not really a social network.

What is a Social Network?

Emperor Palpatine, Community Builder
Palpatine, Community Builder (Image by G4TV)

Most of us immediately think of Facebook whenever the terms social and network are put together. Though tens of thousands of communities existed on the Web during the dozen or so years before Mark Zuckerberg first served up the website Thefacebook in February of 2004 (wow, has it already been nine years?), it wasn’t until the blue and white letter “f” (and years later, the Like button) became a household brand that the term social network began to be used in ordinary conversation.

LockerGnome is not a social networking service, as connecting everyone from popes to criminals to crimefighters has never been my aim. Though I’ve always worked to grow LockerGnome to reach as many people who are interested in the types of interactions we engage in here, we’ve always been a more directed community than those that aim to be one-size-fits-all groups. Here we are focused on educating, entertaining, and engaging anyone interested in technology. We try to keep discussions of divisive issues such as politics and religion out of our interactions. We want everyone to feel welcome here, and as part of our maintenance of a sense of mutual respect for each other, we keep our debates within the realm of operating systems and hardware. Let the arguments over war and the economy remain where they belong: Facebook and Twitter.

Size and topical considerations aside, we are a community that continues to grow and strives to connect as many people as we can who find technology important, essential — or simply fun! Over the years I’ve experimented with a variety of ways to reach out and connect those people, and you who find yourself reading this are those people. You are now within the community we have here, either as a visitor or as a member of our family. (No, we’re not a cult. Though that could be fun… oops, I drifted into my recurring Emperor Palpatine fantasy for a moment there. Don’t worry; we’ll continue being a more egalitarian operation here.)

Anyway, since I’m asked the social network question often enough, I know that some of you will benefit from my sharing a few of my observations on community building. Through my development and nurturing of online communities for nearly two decades, through my interactions with members of our mastermind group and from contributors to our Q&A community, I’ve gathered together and now present you with some suggestions for making a social network.

Social Network Suggestion #1: Aim Big by Aiming Small

Anyone (or any group) setting out to build a community, online or off, knows the endeavor is going to start out with a few people, and those few may simply be you and your friends or family or business partners. Yet those few people could quickly multiply, as Facebook did, into thousands of people swimming around in a pool made only for a few thousand. If you don’t have the infrastructure in place or the resources to accommodate a rapidly expanding network, your community may quickly paddle on to a group that has deeper waters. So before you dive into any online undertaking, know how deep you intend to plunge and anticipate how many participants you intend to be able to accommodate.

There are already several social network services attempting to build vast oceans of interacting people; Twitter, Google+, and the aforementioned Facebook immediately come to mind. Lesser-known services such as Diaspora have achieved minor success (up to this point in time, at least) in providing alternatives to these larger communities (and as I mentioned in 2011, I’d be far more interested in joining Diaspora if more of my friends were there). Then there are many smaller pools of people who are happily communing with others in smaller social seas.

In my opinion, aiming to serve a niche community is the best way to go. I’m not saying it’s impossible for ambitious social network developers to create the next big social network. If you have the resources to meet the demands of a rapidly growing community such as Pinterest or Instagram or YouTube, then go for it. What I am saying, however, is that it would be far more satisfying to watch the slow and steady growth of a small network of members into a large community than it would be to put a great deal of time, energy, and other resources into building out a space that either explodes faster than you can keep up with it or that hardly anyone uses.

At one time, Facebook was a niche community. It simply connected the students of one campus. A community that isn’t being served (or served well) by any existing social network provides a great opportunity for the creative or entrepreneurial-minded person. Begin by thoroughly researching the Web and mobile landscape for existing websites and apps that already connect the people you wish to connect. Are the existing social networks already connecting those people? Are they doing it well? If not, how can it be improved? The team behind Instagram had to try various approaches before it finally settled on building a social network of people sharing photos from their iPhones (and didn’t even have an app available on Android devices until April of last year, shortly before being acquired by Facebook).

That said, definitely choose tools that will accommodate a larger-than-expected community (plenty of free and open source social network software is available to help you begin building this), even if your mutual interest is something you feel only a small minority of people will be interested in interacting over. You may be surprised at how many people have a lust for Chia Pets; just don’t count on your social network growing like the seeds in the terracotta planters (overnight). Twitter, for example, started out as the project of a very small team of developers, built out of tools that allowed for rapid growth (though it still felt it necessary to switch platforms a few years after its initial launch, a point to which I’ll turn some attention in a few paragraphs). Yet Twitter could just as easily have remained a niche community, or as short-lived as a similar effort based on RIM devices had turned out to be.

Social Network Suggestion #2: Know Your Own Boundaries

A Social Network Home
A Social Network Home (Image by The Joy of Tech)

Thefacebook may’ve not exploded into the Facebook we know it as today if its founder hadn’t engaged in some unscrupulous activities in order to discourage others from using competing services. (Smearing the name of Facebook’s founder is not my intention here. Most of us have seen the movie, and the actual facts are fairly well known. So anything I have to relate about Mark Zuckerberg is public knowledge, at least for those of us who pay attention to technology-related business news.) If you aim to take on competitors in your field, however, you will inevitably be faced with some opportunities that will test the boundaries of your sense of integrity. Are you willing to destroy the competition if you have information that will potentially damage your competitor(s)?

My suggestion is to keep the fight clean. Your social network may not explode overnight, but you’ll sleep better knowing you’re an honest competitor, rather than one who is willing to hack a rival’s systems in order to take a shortcut to success. Sometimes pushing the boundaries is good; many of those suspicious of Google’s activities have also appreciated being able to find their way around an unfamiliar city using Google Maps, for example. Facebook is constantly making headlines with its privacy breaches, a trend that seems to go all the way back to the company’s founding. Weigh how far you’re willing to go with innovation against your legal resources. Are you willing to pay a legal team to defend your product’s features if they are determined by others to be outside the realm of propriety?

Feature creep is another thing to watch out for. Some successful social networks are constantly delivering new features in the hopes of both retaining existing users and attracting new ones. Without fail, every new feature introduced by Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ is thoroughly scrutinized and then either praised or criticized. Facebook Beacon is one example of this, a feature introduced in 2007 that enough users found disturbing enough to compel the company to remove. Mark Zuckerberg eventually admitted that Beacon was a mistake.

Map out your boundaries before you begin your social network, and you’ll find the ride to success far more satisfactory. Though I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg is quite satisfied with the status of his bank account, one wonders how much his well-being is disrupted by the wake of his ambition. (See the final scene of The Social Network for a simple image that captures this.) Is personal fortune worth losing friends over? Carefully consider how far you’re willing to go before setting out to build the biggest social network on the planet. If you’re more inclined to be less brutal, settle on a smaller network.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to reach the level of success of Google or Facebook without being a bit evil, but it takes a certain type of personality to be able to make the tough decisions that will inevitably result in losing a few friends. Steve Jobs is considered by many to be a visionary and perhaps one of the greatest marketing geniuses the world has ever seen. Jobs left a legacy of great products, but he also made a few enemies throughout his tenure at Apple.

Social Network Suggestion #3: Start off with the Right Tools

A Ready-to-use Social Network
A Ready-to-use Social Network

If you wish to go big, you’ve got quite a challenge ahead of you. Even established social networks such as MySpace are having difficulty staying in the game (though I know people who expect it to make a comeback). If you wish to develop the level of community that will attract hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of participants, you’re gonna need a bigger boat than whatever free content management system (CMS) you’re already looking at.

Even though free and open source tools are perfectly fine for building communities, projects that attempt to approach even a fraction of the size of Facebook’s community usually require a level of constant customizing that is simply not built in to free software. Drupal is one open source platform that has over 20,000 free community-contributed modules aimed at extending the functionality of the CMS. Yet you can only add so much to a CMS before discovering you’ll need someone skilled at programming to customize your project to perform the way you really want it to. (Anyone who has been a bit too overzealous with their installation of WordPress plugins understands some of the hurdles one might face when adding features to a CMS, such as your website slowing to a crawl due to too many extensions trying to do too many things at the same time.)

That said, open source content management systems are still great tools to use in various stages in the development of a social networking project. Joomla, Drupal, and Django have each proven their ability to scale as communities grow. If you’re not prepared to start from scratch, any of these platforms will provide a great foundation. Instagram, for example, used Django for its application servers prior to its acquisition by Facebook. I’ve heard developers say time and again that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so it’s a good idea to pick one of these frameworks or content management systems, find out as much as you can about it (such as what programming language and database it was built with), and develop from it (or hire developers that know how to).

If your project is successful, it may eventually outgrow its foundation. Perhaps you’ll find yourself switching frameworks, as Twitter famously did when it switched its front-end from Ruby-on-Rails to Java and its back-end from MySQL to Lucene, resulting in a search engine the company claims is triple the speed of its previous one. You may also need to change the technology you’re using if the project you’re working on changes its fundamental purpose, as the team behind Instagram discovered as it was trying to create its own social network application.

If you’re already a programmer, your selection of a framework may depend, in part, on your preferred programming language. If you’re not a programmer, you can spend a great deal of time trying to decide on the best platform for Web development or for writing apps. In the meantime, you may wish to familiarize yourself with a ready-to-use platform such as Ning, which doesn’t require you to know a lick of programming.

I don’t recommend using Ning, however, as I’ve had issues with it in the past and continue to find the platform lacking. There are plenty of similar services out there, though, but I haven’t found a suitable one. They are simply too template-y, with many of the resulting social networks looking like clones of one another, as do many forums. (You may argue that forums look the same because the format works, and that’s a valid argument. Personally, I would prefer to build a social network that stands out both visually as well as functionally.)

When it comes down to it, making your own social network is not difficult, but making one that will be successful is. Of course, success is relative, depending on your measure of the concept. What level of profitability would you accept as the mark of a successful venture? Would you accept breaking even financially the first year or two? Would you even measure success as simply building a network that connects people, even if it turns out to be a hobby rather than a moneymaking project? Chime in below with your own views on the subject!