Chris Anderson: Last week I wrote about Salesforce.com’s new AppExchange and the Long Tail of software. Now comes Ning, aiming to help create the Long Tail of social software, which only sounds the same.
What’s social software? Well, at risk of getting into another Web 2.0 definitional mess, it’s web-based software that builds on communities and peer-produced content. The old examples were social-networking sites like Friendster and LinkedIn, both of which I found annoying and ultimately of little use. The newer examples are far better: Flickr, Craigslist, Bloglines and Wikipedia, for example. They’re not just community for the sake of connection; there’s actually something to do there.
Ning, which is the fruit of Marc Andreessen’s 24 Hour Laundry stealth project, aims to make it easy to create such sites for niche applications. It’s designed for projects that are below the level of a business plan and dreams of an IPO. It’s meant to bring big-community online tools and features to hypernarrow interests and needs.
Examples include a sermon exchange, a babysitting co-op or a college semester abroad community site. You might do it because you needed it yourself, and–who knows–it might snowball into something more. That’s the great thing about community and user-contributed content. Simply providing a catalyst can often be enough.
I haven’t had a chance to spend much time with it yet, but right now it reminds me of Joe Kraus’s JotSpot, which uses the wiki approach to creating niche hosted applications. That is to say that it looks very capable, but it’s too hard to figure out yet. Ning just needs a few more really cool examples to highlight on its front page, and then show people how easy it is copy them and make their own. And some sort of directory of the apps already created.