Computer technology moves quickly, and particularly so in the case of the internet. Eight years ago, Facebook didn’t exist. Today, more than a quarter of web users have an account with the social network – around 600 million in total – and the site’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is a billionaire.

Facebook wasn’t the first social-networking website to launch, but it popularised online interaction like no other. Here, we show you how you can host your own social network with many of the same features as Facebook.

A number of platforms provide social-networking functionality. Jcow perhaps most closely emulates Facebook. It even offers a theme that makes the site look uncannily like the popular network.

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Up until its latest iteration, version 5.0, Jcow has been offered for free. It is now a paid-for product. However, you can still get hold of the final dot release of version 4.x, which is very powerful and entirely free to use.

To participate in this tutorial, you’ll need a web server capable of running PHP scripting and SQL databases. The majority of ISPs offer this functionality with even the most basic hosting package. Alternatively, you could run these services locally to test ideas or customise themes.

A Jcow site is very lightweight – the basic code for all the scripting and themes requires a few megabytes. Note, though, that once the site becomes active and users post comments and media the content database is likely to grow significantly.

Here, we’ll guide you through how to download and install Jcow, either by using your ISP’s control panel or manually. We’ll then explain which settings can help you tailor the site to your needs.

Jcow won’t make you a billionaire like Zuckerberg overnight (if, indeed, at all), but it will provide something a little different to a forum or simple blog comments stream and give your website a modern, networked approach to communication.

Create a social network with Jcow

Step 1. If your ISP has a control panel that incorporates the Softaculous script installer or equivalent, setting up Jcow will require only a few clicks. Choose the domain and directory, give your site a name and description, then add an Admin username, password and email address. Click Install.

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Step 2. If your ISP doesn’t provide this functionality, your first job will be to set up an SQL database. The control panel for your web space should provide a wizard for this, which enables you to create a database name, then a username and password to administrate it. Be sure to afford this account all privileges.

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Step 3. Download Jcow. If you don’t want to pay for version 5.0, get 4.2.1 for free at Unzip the file, then launch your FTP client, create a folder on your site to house the social network and copy across all the files. You’re now one step away from having the basic social-network platform installed.

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Step 4. Assuming you copied the files into a folder called ‘jcow’, point your browser to http://your website/jcow/install.php.

You’ll be prompted to fill in your details and confirm the licence agreement.

Once installed, your social network will be live. Delete or rename the install.php file before accessing the site, however.

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Step 5. Head to http://your website/jcow to view your social network. With the default theme, you can log in or sign up on the left, and recent activity scrolls in the centre. Log in with your email and password. A menu will appear on the left, with the Admin control panel option below. This calls up the configuration settings.

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Step 6. The Admin Panel presents icons for various options. You can configure general aspects of the site, choose which modules to enable, and alter the structure for the top bar and side menu. It’s also possible to switch the theme, suspend registered members and even translate the site into a foreign language.

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Step 7. Your first port of call should be the ‘Site configuration’ settings. Here, you can give your social network a name and slogan, as well as entering some keywords. These will be included in the metatags for the site, improving its categorisation with search engines. You can also add a webmaster email address and more.

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Step 8. The Modules section is key to customising your site’s functionality, and extending it with plug-ins. Not all modules will be enabled by default. You can enable or disable optional modules, and activate any additional ones you have installed. Click ‘Update modules’ to save your changes.

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Step 9. A key part of a social network’s character comes from how users can present themselves within their profiles; central to this are profile questions. You can add any number of questions. They can be optional or compulsory. Questions can provide a preset list of answers, or offer freeform single and multi-line text boxes.

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Step 10. The ‘System Texts’ section is useful for welcoming new users. You can create a welcome message that will appear in their Jcow inbox following their initial login, and a different message that they receive via email when they sign up. You should also create a list of rules for how they should use the site.

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Step 11. The menu structure is configurable via the Menu section. You can enable or disable items using the tick boxes, specify a weighting number to reorder them, and edit the text tags for each. It’s also possible to add an item that points to an external site. Consider using a style to suit your site, such as ‘Vidz’ for ‘Videos’.

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Step 12. The Members section lets you assign roles to users, giving them a custom position or administrator privileges, for example. You can also suspend the account of a user who is causing trouble. It’s also possible to permanently delete a user and all their postings, but this action is not reversible.

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Step 13. A number of free alternative themes are available from the Jcow store. These can be downloaded, unzipped and the folders uploaded via FTP to the ‘Themes’ directory in your Jcow folder. Once you’ve uploaded a theme, activate it within the Themes section of the Admin Panel.

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Step 14. Your Jcow site is now ready to accept visitors. Even without plug-ins, members will be able to create events to which they can invite their friends and publicise on other social networks. They can upload MP3 audio and Jpeg images, and share YouTube video links. There’s a simple blogging tool as well.

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