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Tutorial with pics: How to create a social network for free - no coding needed

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avatars of people connected in network - how to make your own social network

Yes, you can do this without knowing any coding! Dolphin CMS is a free open-source software that anyone can use to create a social network. Also, it won’t cost you a cent after the cost of your hosting – and to run any website, you’ll need hosting. Here are some reasons you might want to make a social network:

  • Make a better social network than existing alternatives
  • Run a website without having to write articles yourself
  • Proof-of-concept: show potential buyers a working example of what could be done with a domain name that you plan to sell
  • Just to play and experiment with, because you can always delete it or try something else if you change your mind.

I’ll cover how you can get started with this: it’s much faster and easier than you think! I’ve included step-by-step pics.

How to get started with Dolphin

Step 1. You’ll need a hosting plan

I used the cheapest shared hosting plan at A2 Hosting for this, and it worked admirably. You’d want their Startup plan, it's cheapest and that’s what I used for exactly this purpose. I didn’t purchase any of the add-ons, and you won’t need them either. If necessary, you can always upgrade your plan later to the next level as your site grows.

Extra info for those who like to be prepared: Not all hosts can handle Dolphin especially well; I tried a different host initially and it was just way too slow, so I got my money back and switched hosts. I therefore recommend A2 Hosting for Dolphin because I’ve successfully used it for this, and it performs perfectly. But if you’d like a couple of high-performing alternative hosts to pick from, I’d also recommend People's Host (using their Basic plan) and SiteGround (using their StartUp plan). Shared hosting plans from all of those 3 hosts come bundled with cPanel and Softaculous, which make installation and management a breeze, and that’s what you’ll see in the tutorial illustrations below. If you pick a host that’s not one of those three, you’ll want to find one that includes cPanel and Softaculous in the plan.

No matter what host you use, after you purchase your hosting plan, you’ll need remember to log into your domain name registrar and point your domain to your host. It’s a very simple and easy 1-step thing. In the welcome email from your web host, it will tell you the names of the nameservers that you’ll need to type in at your domain name registrar. The exact place to enter these names at your domain name registrar will be different at different registrars, so if unsure, check in your registrar’s knowledgebase for how to update nameservers for a domain.

Step 2: Install Dolphin in 1 click

First, log into your cPanel. You will have your cPanel login address and username and password credentials given to you in your web host’s welcome email. After logging in, it’ll look something like the image below; look for the Softaculous section. You may have to scroll down a bit further to see it.

In the Softaculous Apps Installer section click on “Social Networking” as shown in the image. Note: if you can’t see Social Networking, don’t worry, just click on anything else in that same row e.g. Blogs, it’ll still take you to Softaculous which is your next step.

cPanel with Softaculous highlighted

Great! This will bring you to the Softaculous installer. It’ll look like this:

Softaculous main page

As shown in image above, navigate to “Social Networks” on the left panel, and then click on “Dolphin” in the right panel.

This will take you to the Dolphin install page; if not, just click on the Install tab on the Dolphin page. To install, answer the questions on the install page (the top of it is illustrated below) and let it do the installation process.

If this is your first time, I’ll tell you what to enter for each of the questions below, as there are one or two that could be confusing how to answer. But don’t worry! If you happen to mess something up during or after installing, you can always uninstall with Softaculous and start over again without any problems. And with my guide walking you over each step, you’re unlikely to encounter any problems anyway.

Dolphin installation page

As promised, here are the answers you want to put. Feel free to skip over, or just look at the bits you need help with:

  • Choose protocol: Drop-down menu allows you to pick http or https. If you have A2 Hosting, go with https because they automatically pre-install free SSLs from Let’s Encrypt or Auto SSL (another reason I recommend them). If you're on A2, simply select https and move on to the next point, you can stop reading this bit. If you're on the other hosts I mentioned above, you have free SSL but it's not pre-installed (fill out a support ticket for that), so if you did not do that yet just go with http for now so that you can move on with installing Dolphin and switch later to https. If you know you have an SSL environment installed somehow (e.g. you filled out a support ticket or pressed the button on cPanel to install SSL, you purchased your own SSL cert and it’s been installed, etc), pick https. But if you did not purchase and install SSL, and you are not on A2 Hosting, or you’re unsure how to answer this question, go with http – you can switch your site to https later without having to do a re-install or anything like that.
  • Choose domain: Pick your domain from the drop-down menu.
  • In directory. This one tends to confuse people, so I’ll explain. For a normal default installation, leave this field blank. Don’t type anything in it! This means your Dolphin site will be at examplesite.com, for example. In most cases that is exactly what you’d want. But if you want to your site show up at examplesite.com/mynetwork instead, then you would type in mynetwork into the box.
  • CRON job. Don’t change anything here. Leave the settings to their defaults.
  • Site name: The name of your site.
  • Site description: Site description in just a few words.
  • Admin username: This will later show up as an actual user name in the list of the entire users on the site, so pick something reasonable! Make sure you can remember it. For security reasons, it’s best NOT to name it Admin, Administrator or anything that looks like an admin account. Don’t worry, if you want something official-sounding, you can later create a new user from inside Dolphin and give it moderator privileges and name it something like “Moderator Joe” or something official like that. Do all your public announcements, moderator actions etc through that user instead, and have the real admin do all the other behind-the-scenes administration.
  • Admin password: Use best practices and pick a hard-to-guess password.
  • Admin email, bug email, and no-reply email: These can all be the same email, they don’t have to be different. It doesn’t have to be an email address at your site, it can be your normal email account if you like.
  • Advanced Options: expand these out; you’ll want these.
  • Database name: For security reasons, change this from the default. I usually go with the same total number of characters as the default and use ordinary letters and numbers for this; no special characters.
  • Disable update notification emails: Either way; that’s up to you.
  • Backup Location: Leave as default.
  • Auto back-up: I definitely recommend this. Select how often from the drop-down menu. If something should ever happen, you’ll be able to roll back to an earlier version of your site in just one click via Softaculous.
  • Backup rotation: How many total backups there are in the rotation. Pick the number that suits your needs best. Most hosts put strict limits on this number.
  • Press the Install button, wait a few minutes, and then hey! Congratulations! You now have a social network site.

If you want to see how the basic default site looks before you customize it, open a new browser window and type the url of your site (e.g. examplesite.com ). It will look something like this:

Front office of Dolphin social networking

You’ll need to log in to the site’s admin dashboard to set up the way you want, so let’s move on to that in the next step.

Step 3. Log in to your social network as admin, and set it up the way you want

This is the fun part! Now open a new browser window, and navigate to the admin login page of your social network. This will be your site URL followed by administration e.g. examplesite.com/administration. In the preferences afterward you can change the admin URL from /administration to something less guess-able, if you prefer.

  • Your admin username and password for logging in are the ones that you specified during the installation process.

The software is free; so after you log in, ignore any prompts when it asks if you wish to upgrade via a license purchase. It tries to make it sound like this is just a trial version, but rest assured you can run everything for as long as you like on this free version - even a large network. Simply click the small link “continue trial”. The only real advantage of the paid version is that it removes the “powered by dolphin” logo at the bottom of the page.

OK, once you log into your admin dashboard (illustrated below), go through the settings carefully to be certain you have things set up the way you want it. Not surprisingly, the Basic Settings and the Advanced Settings contain most of the site settings. There is no rush to do this all at once; you can do this bit by bit in your own time.

On the admin dashboard, you’ll also see that they give you suggestions of first steps to get started.

Admin panel for Dolphin social network

You'll want to have a logo and some images; I personally like and recommend the cheap freelancing site Fiverr for this.

Another thing you’ll want to do is to choose and install the modules you want for your site (they’re free!) Before putting modules in, you’ve got an all-purpose general setup. Depending on which modules you install, you’ll be able do specific additional things like:

  • put in ad blocks to earn money
  • allow your users to connect with your network using Facebook
  • allow your users to create groups
  • timeline – allow a Twitter-like experience on the site with a timeline flow
  • accept PayPal payments
  • articles – allow your users to write articles
  • … and so much more!

That’s just a small taste of the modules; there are plenty. Select the ones you like and press “install”. Don’t over-think this: you can always uninstall any module afterward.

If any module installation fails, it will tell you why; in Dolphin this is due to the fact that some modules require other modules to be installed first. It’ll tell you exactly which ones are needed if anything fails. For example, the Store module requires the Files module to be installed first. To set the preferences for any module, click on the left menu “Modules” and then click on the module you want, then at the top right of the page click on the small “settings” link.

You’ll probably want to remove the “BoonEx News” block from your home page, too. Just click on “Builders” in the left menu, then select “Pages builder”, then “Homepage”. It’ll show your current homepage arrangement: just drag the block called “BoonEx News” out and drop it into “Inactive blocks”. You can change other parts of your home page layout here also.

Once you have things set up the way you want, I recommend creating a few fake users (that you are in charge of) and use them to help generate a bit of conversation on the site until you get real users in.

Step 4. Let people know about your new site!

Publicize your site, and wait for users to roll in! Remember, your site won’t have any initial traffic, so let people know about it. Some ways you can publicize your site to get it started:

  • posting about it on existing social media
  • write an article about it on a platform such as Medium
  • YouTube – create a quick video showing some browsing around in your social network. Be sure to include a link back to your domain and a call to action.
  • purchase some Google or Bing ads
  • hire an influencer to spread the word - Fiverr is an affordable place to get started with that

During this time is also an ideal opportunity to finish tinkering with the settings to make sure everything looks and works the way you want – which can be a lot of fun!

You’re not limited to Dolphin. The hosting plan that I mentioned comes with a bunch of different social networking software available for you to use for free through Softaculous. I wrote about Dolphin because that’s what I selected for my project so it’s what I’m familiar with. Other great alternatives are: Oxwall, Elgg, and more, all of which are available to you for free with your basic A2 Hosting plan, and likewise in plans with People's Host and SiteGround.

Remember, unlike home improvement projects, if something doesn’t work out the way you wanted with Dolphin, you can always delete it and start over with it or with something else at the click of a button. It’s quick and easy.

Have fun and enjoy!

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