In the last week I have had two different invitations to join two completely unrelated social networks, but both are hosted on the same service - Ning. Ning offers ordinary mortals - people who wouldn't know where to start if they were told to configure their own webserver - a chance to create their own social networks.
This sounds like a great idea. People can start their own networks for their own interests - vintage cars, stamp-collecting, train-spotting - or their own business needs - customers, distributors or suppliers.
Ning is a clear example of a "Web 2.0" phenomenon - distributed control, open access, and user-generated content. (I am actually a sceptic about whether there is anything new in "Web 2.0". It could just be all marketing hype.) But there are two big dangers inherent in all this. The first is related to quality. The content you are reading might not actually be of any value, and might easily be bogus or deliberately misleading. How can you verify the credentials of the person whose page you are reading? In a commercial environment, a successful Wiki has participants from all levels of the company, not just the geeks. Knowing that the CEO is reading what you write can help keep you on track. And in non-commercial environments, you need to achieve a high level of participation for a user-generated knowledge network to be self-regulating.
The second problem is quantity. I barely have time to read my email, and once I start looking at the networking sites I can lose hours of productive time without noticing it. There aren't enough hours in the day to keep track of everything, which means I constantly need to make decisions about what messages to open, what links to follow and what articles to read. Sometimes, it feels easier just to switch off.
6 hours ago