Are you a part of a community or network that you want to see using the Internet better to organize events and information? Do you have a real world social network that you want to take online -- with virtually zero cost?

(Not sure what the heck I'm talking about here? Watch this "Social Networking in Plain English" video)


Are you back? Now, here's a short list of sites that can enable you do launch a network -- within a matter of minutes. These online social networking sites enable you to build forums, groups, discussions, photo- and video-sharing, networking and membership -- with frightening ease and speed. And, for a monthly or annual fee, these sites give you more features and more controls over the way you choose to display your content and your members' participation.

Such networking apps are natural tools for all sorts of groups, from volunteer organizations to sports fanatics to news junkies to tech geeks to professional association and organizations. Below is a short list of online networking sites (in alphabetical order) that offer you some potent tools if you wish to build a network. By no means is this a complete and exhaustive list, so feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

* CollectiveX -- Hey, here's a group-building site that's based right here in Maryland. The site allows you to host a group blog, discussion forums, calendars, photos, videos, and member profiles. It operates on the "freemium" model, offering basic functionality for free, and charges for more functionality (more than $2,500 a year, if you want a lot of bells and whistles.)

I first learned about CollectiveX at the Ignite Baltimore event on February 5th, where I met Shaun Callahan, a company employee. (Ignite Baltimore, an event where people give rapid-fire slideshow presentations on topics they're passionate about, has a CollectiveX site, too. It's here.) Another example of a popular Baltimore-area social network is B'more Creatives -- for women who work in graphic design. As of this morning at 9:13 a.m., they had 404 members. More Baltimore-related sites are here.

* Google Groups: Google Groups has been around for awhile, and it seems like Google hasn't invested much into adding the kind of features and functionality that other group sites have. That said, it's free, easy to use, and quick to set up. It may be the ideal site if you're looking to build a group quickly, with an audience of people who may not be very tech-savvy. What Google Groups doesn't do -- and which is becoming more popular among social networks -- is offer an "activity feed" of some sort (a la CollectiveX, Facebook and Ning), so group members can see how other members are interacting with the site.

* NING -- Ning.com is the biggie, the first site that comes to mind for most people who are looking to build a social network with group-building features. They're hosting over 600,000 groups and use the "freemium" model -- where you can set up a basic network for free, and then pay monthly fees to remove ads and gain more functionality. If you look closely, some big companies use Ning to build out their own social networks. For instance, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network uses it for the MyMASN online network. Other Baltimore-area networks on Ning include: Baltimore Slim, Baltimore Club Music, Patterson Park, and B-More Dog.

* Webs.com -- A blog I follow, Beltway Startups, had a short item today that mentioned how Webs.com had introduced a new feature. I had never heard of Webs.com, but lo and behold, they're based in Silver Spring, Md. Webs.com has a lot of similar features compared to the other sites I've mentioned above, with some fairly competitive pricing for premium features. (For $250 a year, you can get a fair amount of bells and whistles.)

If you're looking to sell stuff within your group, Webs.com also allows you to set up an online store that, they say, integrates with Google Checkout and PayPal. I haven't seen that kind of out-of-the-box integration offered yet on the other sites I mention here. (Please correct me if I'm wrong?) That said, the site doesn't seem to offer a way to search through the online networks it hosts -- at least I didn't spot it.

** Looking for more social networking websites? Check out this list on Wikipedia. For more background info on social networking services, check out this Wiki.