The new favorite tool for startups that want to get up and running quickly is Drupal, an open source content management software platfrom on which you can build social networks. It has become popular because it has lots of possibilities and features,and also because it is free.
In my role as strategic advisor/blogger/social media consultant, I am working with two sites that are up and running, and I have just gotten the news that a third initiative, aimed at creating low cost web sites for non-profit organizations under the aegis of NPower Arizona is under way using Drupal.
Let me give you my humble opinion, after I tell you that I am not a developer and not a geek, but I'm a pretty experienced content creator across many platforms, among them Ning, Blogger, Typepad, Utterz, Twitter, Seesmic,UStream,.and Kyte.tv. I am an early adopter of anything anyone will let me try, and I approach everything with a desire to integrate the new tool into my life.
I'm a business person, and I am a writer. As a matter of fact, I blog on FastCompany, which is also built on Drupal. So I have lots of experience with it, especially with creating content beyond just comments.
And here's what I have to say:
1)Unless they are architected really well, which seems to be a matter of trial and error, especially in a startup, these sites are not easy to navigate, and as a result they're not easy to search either;
2)As an example, it's not easy to find my blog on this site
3) My friends at RealSelf.com, which is VERY popular, change the site practically every day to make it easier to find information, but the're not quite at the place where they can have a group blog. Beauty bloggers are not technologists, and it takes me quite a while just to get the formatting right on my own posts after six months so they come out in the right places. Nothing's intuitive. It's still "work" to post. (Disclaimer: they do pay me) And RealSelf.com is far and away the BEST of the sites I use.
4)On this site, it's perhaps easier for the user, but that's because I have no privileges. I can't even change the font size that I compose in, which means I can hardly see my own drafts :-) (Yes, there's a littl ageism here) And I don't have the ability to upload more than one piece of multimedia or photo
5)Both Fast Company and EmpowHer.com, another wonderful social network for women's health information, are hard to grasp when you land on the home page. I just tried to ask a question of the site about the best books for newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients, and if I had not been familiar with Drupal from RealSelf.com, I would have given up. Drupal uses a lot of pull down menus that force you to make choices about the subject of your post, the category, etc.
6)Design. Drupal forces you to make choices between design and usability. In order to make the site better, less is more. Check out both Empowher.com and RealSelf.com to see how Drupal encourages minimalism, but not beauty. And in fact, both of those sites, and this one, use similar colors.
Conclusion: Drupal requires a lot of thought and a team that can constantly fine tune the user experience, both for the casual visitor and the content creator. For a nonprofit or a company without developer support, I don't think it's an option. And even an experienced Drupal development team had best have a good requirements understanding with the marketing team or the client before getting under way with this complex product.
Want to create a social network anyone can use and get it up there quickly to see if the market accepts it? Try Ning. Most other product have too many bells, whistles, and bugs.