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Social Networks: Choosing the Platform

December 13, 2007

The foundation of any social network website is the software the operates the site. Once the goals of the social network are in place, the most important decision to be made is choosing the platform for which will become the building blocks of the site. It’s important because once a platform is chosen, it will likely have to be used for the entirety of the site’s life. That means that any deficiencies and limitations inherint to the platform will permanently be an issue for the site. While it is possible to switch platforms after the site goes live, there are great risked involved in do this. So let’s look broadly at the choices one has to build a social network.

The most expensive, but ultimately best way to start a social network site is to build it from scratch. All of the large sites such as Myspace and Facebook had been built using proprietary software that was internally developed. Creating one’s own software gives the site owners complete control over what features it will have and how it can be implemented. The biggest issue with “building from scratch” is that it must be made by very competent programmers. The architectural decisions early on will end up determining the site’s scalability as well as limitations. Of course, good software architectures come at a premium and the site will take much longer to develop from scratch than from pre-existing platforms so these also are considerations.

One step up from developing from scratch is to use a simple pre-existing system such as a forum and build it out to be a social network. Most forums are already set up similarly to social networking systems but just need additional features such as enhanced profile pages, global messaging systems, and multimedia repositories. There are many forum scripts available such as vBulletin and phpBB which can be adapted to become a social networking platform. One has to evaluate the limitations of such scripts against the desired features of the social network and decide how much work will it take to add such features. Because forums are structured similarly to a social network, building an S/N site by modifying a forum script will likely save about half or more of the time it would have taken to build one from scratch.

A step even higher than using a forum script to to create an S/N platform using a Content Management System (CMS) such as Drupal or Joomla. These CMS’s are designed as platforms to create general websites but because social networking has gained in popularity, many developers have created social networking “add-on” plug-ins such as profile pages, a messaging system, an album gallery, a forum, etc. By combining different plug-ins and customizing features as needed, a full fledged S/N site can be potentially built in less time than it takes to modify a forum system. The caveat here is that the site owner must live with not only the limitation inherent to the CMS, but also live with the limitations of the whichever plug-ins are available. Or one could custom build their own plug-ins.

The platform choice with the least amount of labor involved is the pre-built social network system. Due to the popularity of social networks, many new S/N scripts have been popping up on the web. Popular scripts include phpFox, Handshakes, Buddyzone, and others. These are dedicated S/N scripts that the site owner can upload and use within minutes of purchase. Because S/N scripts are still new to the marketplace, there isn’t any one script that has stood head and shoulders above the rest at this moment. Therefore, the best way to know the scripts is to test them out. Go to their respective websites and use the demos provided. Also, visit webmaster forums and read what people have to say about these scripts. Until a dominant and respected player emerges, it’s difficult to recommend a script at the moment.

Finally, one alternative that might appeal to a limited number of people is the hosted social network. Sites such as Ning.com allow people to set up a social network hosted by Ning. They manage the software and the user simply customizes a few things and starts finding members to join. Unfortunately, there are many limitations to this approach, the main one being Ning is the real owner of “your” site. This really isn’t much different from starting a Yahoo group, actually. It’s a good way to gather a group of like-minded people but not a good way to run a social network.

This is just an overview of the different options available to create a social network. Next time, God willing, we’ll look at the platform we chose and get into some detail about why we chose it and what limitations and work lie ahead in bringing the platform to the level we need it to be to be used on our site.

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One comment

  1. VERY comprehensive!, THANK YOU, its also worth mentioning that there does exist a happy medium between pre-developed solution and “coding from scratch”, which are GOOD strong frameworks that allow you to have full control over your final product YET still cut back your development time in LOTS.

    Such good examples are “symfony”, “ruby on rails”, “phpCake”, “struts two”, and many others.

    Many of these frameworks do have plugins/addons that solve much of your coding trouble. For instance, symfony has a forum plugin, and a blog plugin!, so as a developer who wants to make a social networking site with blogging, I would use symfony with its blog module. CHeck it out

    symfony-project.com

    Thanks for the good read.



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