Ning, the latest startup of Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, is looking to get a jump ahead of MySpace and Facebook by giving consumers free tools to create and operate specialized online social networks of their own.

The two-year-old Silicon Valley-based company said the new service, to be introduced on Tuesday, allows casual Web users to create, within a matter of minutes, a highly customized social network for one's friends, family or acquaintances.

Social networks have caught fire in recent years among active Web users who use them to connect to people with shared interests. Popular sites range from hangouts for teenagers and their friends to video game fans or business professionals.

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Sites like MySpace offer Web users individual profile pages they can use to connect to friends, but typically keep control of the underlying network, including advertising sales.

By contrast, users within each Ning network can select the latest Web features for watching videos online, creating a photo slideshow, listening to music or publishing a blog.

Members have far greater flexibility over the look of their personal profile pages, buddy lists and site color schemes.

"Other social network sites ask you to join their world. We are about people creating their own worlds," said Ning Chief Executive Gina Bianchini, who co-founded Ning with Andreessen.

Bianchini and Andreessen took part in a joint interview.

Ning sites can be public or private, with the company retaining rights to run targeted advertising on member sites. But users can pay sliding monthly fees for the right to run their own advertising, substitute their own Web address, or add storage or bandwidth for high-traffic Web sites.

SOCIAL NETWORKS IN AN INSTANT

Ning is part of a new class of companies that analysts call the "do-it-yourself" Web.

Startups like Ning, Coghead and Teqlo give online users control not just over individual Web pages or sites, but the ability to create new Web applications for themselves, even if they have little or no software programming experience.

Ning focuses on consumers while the others are more business oriented. Another such company, JotSpot was acquired recently by Google Inc. (GOOG) as part of the Web search leader's push into the software market dominated by Microsoft (MSFT).

Ning made a splash 18 months ago among Web enthusiasts when it introduced its first set of basic online applications like restaurant reviews and celebrity fan sites that it allowed users to clone in order to create Web applications of their own.

"The whole point of providing customization and freedom is that you want to give people something super simple at first but then, as they get more sophisticated, you want to give them the ability to get more creative," Andreessen said.

It's a shift that could take years, but eventually prove as important as the take-off of blog publishing tools five years ago, said Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li.

"People are just getting into this idea of having more control over the environment in which they use the Web," Li said.

Bianchini said her company will begin releasing a steady flow of new features, every two weeks. Functions can be added to established Ning social network sites with a simple drag and drop motion, she demonstrated in the interview. Upcoming features could include a calendar or e-commerce capabilities.

"If we do this right there will be hundreds of thousands of Web sites that look different from each other," said Bianchini, who previously founded a Web marketing firm and sold it to Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Inc. in 2003.

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