Have you ever thought about building your own social network? You can do it in 15 minutes for less than $3 per month. Imagine everything that Facebook offers, tailored to your specific purpose, totally under your control. I’ve built five such networks and will likely build many more. The secret is www.Ning.com.

Q: Why would you want your own social network?

A: Because it’s a more efficient and effective means of connecting and communicating than the methods you’re using now (newsletters, email, website). Unlike a website, a Ning network is fully interactive and requires no programming. Instead, you edit just like you do in Microsoft Word.

Imagine having a Facebook-like service to connect with your key customers? or with your employees (closed membership; tight security)? or with partners or suppliers. I’m talking about membership, blogs, forums, photos, videos, documents, groups, and much, much more.

Q: Who is most responsible for the emergence of the World Wide Web?

A: There are multiple correct answers here and Al Gore? is not one of them. I would give full credit for the answer ?Tim Berners-Lee?, the British engineer and MIT professor who first proposed ?www? in March 1989 and then implemented the first HTTP connection on Christmas Day the following year. I was actually thinking of ?Marc Andreessen? who, as a college student in 1993, co-wrote and launched the Mosaic web browser and who, as a fresh-out grad, cofounded Netscape and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as an IPO billionaire.

Marc Andreessen is one of the folks behind Ning, along with more than $100M in venture capital. Is this getting interesting?

An aside, per Wikipedia: Al Gore (I’m no fan) sponsored legislation (the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, AKA ?the Gore bill?) that helped fund the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, where Marc Andreessen was studying,. ‘If it had been left to private industry, it wouldn’t have happened,’ Andreessen says of Gore’s bill, ‘at least, not until years later.

Ning allows you to collaboratively share information in open or closed groups. Let’s look at some examples:

One of the first Ning networks I built was for home winemakers (I produce about 500 bottles of fabulous red wine per year want to be friends?). In this Ning group (www.CellarDwellers.ning.com), we connect and trade winemaking tips and techniques. We share photos of our cellars. And we discuss acidity level in grapes for hours on end.

At TalkShoe, we built two different Ning networks: One was for the 1% of people who created content using TalkShoe. We provided guidance on how to produce better content and on how to promote it. Win-win! The other was for the smaller percentage of people who wanted to build features on top of TalkShoe. We provided code samples and geeky guidance to help them.

These days, I’m planning my next start-up. Even before I’ve hired the first engineer, I’ve launched a Ning network to share the concept with potential users and solicit their input via a short survey. Check it out at www.GradeNation.com. It’s helping me understand exactly what my prospects want before I start spending the big bucks on building it.

If you like what you see, create your own Ning network for your business. Could it replace your antiquated website? I bet the answer is yes.