If the social network is the next message board, the social network has been waiting for its phpBB or vBulletin; the software that would give thousands upon thousands of people the ability to easily set up their own social networks.

Now the social networking market may have that. WordPress, the most popular open-source blogging platform, can now be turned into a fully-fledged social network.

That’s thanks to a sister project called BuddyPress, which was officially released in production release form yesterday. BuddyPress is basically a set of plug-ins that sit on top of WordPress MU, the multi-user version of WordPress.

With BuddyPress installed, a WordPress MU install is transformed into a social network with the standard social networking features, including profile pages, private messaging, friends, groups, an activity stream and forums. Status updates and photo albums are planned for later in the year.

While there are other open-source options for building social networks, such as Elgg, it’s hard to beat WordPress’ robustness, its developer community and its brand.

Does the release of BuddyPress change the social networking game? Sort of. Major social networks have nothing to fear. As Matt Mullenweg points out:

I don’t think BuddyPress will be something you use instead of your
existing social networks, I mean all your friends are already on Myspace, but if
you wanted to start something new maybe with more control, friendlier terms of
service, or just something customized and tweaked to fit exactly into your
existing site, then BuddyPress is a great framework to use.

But BuddyPress does appear to be a real threat to hosted social network providers like Ning, which hasn’t always had a pleasant relationship with some of its users (and developers). It’s also a threat to companies that license social networks, especially the ones that charge hefty licensing fees for the type of functionality that is now free with BuddyPress.

The appeal of BuddyPress is that it’s built on top of a great open-source platform in WordPress and users own and control all of their data. For social network operators with technical resources, setting up on (or migrating to) BuddyPress is probably much more appealing than relying on a third party service.

I expect to see a lot BuddyPress sites in short order and would even go so far to say that BuddyPress has the potential to do for social networks what popular message board systems did for community forums: make them an ubiquitous part of the internet.

Photo credit: josswin via Flickr.