The Ning situation
By Ed Mitchell 5th May 2010
This is a post about Ning, who have announced their plans for moving to a solely paid model. There is also a forum topic on it in the new forums. This post offers some alternatives, our perspective on it, and a recommendation or two. You can read the whole thing from top to bottom or click on the these links to go direct to the relevant bits:
(20/12/10 NOTE: Sorry but I’ve had to close this blog post to comments as it’s being repeatedly spammed by nonsense merchants. Email Ed to get in touch)
- The facts about the Ning situation
- So what do we think?
- The value of (any) service
- Some alternatives to Ning that are free
- Answers to our questions to Wiser Earth
- Some other links
Ning is a wonderful thing and we have always thought that for the right purpose and group, it’s an valuable social networking tool for initiatives, regional groups and more. As well as that, they have ploughed a huge amount of money into it (approx $12 Million we heard), so it is unsurprisingly really handy and easy to use (the build of our website cost £14,000, which does not include the ongoing costs of planning, consultation, support, maintenance etc.).
We estimate that there are approximately 30-50 Transition Initiatives using Ning for their website, one national hub, a few regional entities and some special interest groups. So this is primarily for them, but it’s also a post to in the wider issue of how we associate ourselves (Transition Network) with the social networking services out there on the web.
The facts about the Ning situation:
Someone has to pay for things at some point, so it wasn’t a massive surprise when Ning announced their change in tack from ‘freemium’ to ‘to pay for’. Since then, rumours, myths and suspicions abounded around the web which they answered politely.
The critical dates:
We will stop offering free Ning Networks when we launch the three new paid plans in July 2010. When we launch the plans, Network Creators will be given 30 days to transition to one of the three paid plans.
Read their FAQ here
The critical pricing plans: range from $20 per year for a very slim version (the Ning Mini) to the full fat version at $500 per year (the Ning Pro).
Read their pricing plans here
So what do we think?
We’re seeing initiatives using myriad different tools with success; it’s entirely up to you, and what you need/want, what technical expertise you have, how important their website is to you.
We can’t say what will and what won’t work for you. But we can provide a space in which to discuss it, so we have set up a web/comms forum and will keep an eye on it.
We also thought – come on us, what *do* we reckon – let’s put our cards on the table. So we had a good think and thought to ourselves ‘who of all the free social network providers listed below, do we think are the closest to us in culture, style, outlook, connectedness, and dress sense?’ of the free social network providers above. Ie when it came to it, who would we suggest?
Wooo – the clock’s ticking – woo – decision time –
We’d have to go with Wiser Earth. It’s a big, ambitious project, rooted in Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest movement, offering all sorts of organisations free interconnected spaces to live on the web. It isn’t owned by a commercial entity, runs on open source software, is managed by volunteers, and aims to keep the costs as low as possible rather than ‘commercialise the community’ (which any private company has to do). Really quite like us.
There’s a bit more fiddling with the tools than Ning (it cost a lot less than Ning), so it’s not as super-easy to use, but it works, does lots of things to afford good networking, and it’s rooted in the principle of interconnectedness. We are also big fans of Peggy, Angus and Bowo some of the crew behind Wiser Earth, who are transparent, helpful and on a good wavelength.
For example, they just launched a new beta version of the site in French, Portugese and Spanish – the work was done by 43 volunteer translators over 10 months. And they are just about to implement a single-sign-on for Facebook, Twitter and Google users which will make everyone’s lives easier should they switch to Wiser Earth.
So we asked Bowo a few questions that we thought were relevant to any recommendation we might make which he responded to below. First though – ask yourself – what is the value of what you have, and why would you move?
The value of (any) service:
We keenly recommend that you assess the value of a service like Ning in a pragmatic manner, without an instant assumption that it should be free and storming off because they are charging. Not that you would, but just in case.
You can ask yourself these questions about any service you are using:
- What are you doing on your ning site? (blogs, photos, videos, friends, events, sub-groups etc.)
- Does it do what you need?
- Is it easy to use?
- Is it reliable?
- Has it ever broken?
- Have you lost anything?
- Do you feel your data is safe, and can you get at it if you want to?
- How are your users using your ning site? (social networking, commenting, just reading?)
And then ask yourself:
- How much is all that worth?
Many people feel that the web and all the services it supports, should be ‘free’. A big part of me thinks that this would be nice, and I’ve worked with free applications for a long time (and still do – for a local Bristol project I keenly recommend the use of ‘google apps for your domain’).
But these things aren’t really ‘free’ – that’s what the marketing monkey says in your ear to allure you to use the service. There is always a business plan in the background, whether it is selling adverts, harvesting social network data and selling it to advertisers, encouraging adoption of enhanced services (freemium), or going for the traditional software route of innovating a new service, proving it, then selling it to a big company. Leaving aside the membership and subscription routes, of course.
The big media houses have been wrestling with this gigantic elephant in the publishing room for years now – this year Rupert Murdoch is putting up paywalls around all his content (should you be tempted to go there), and it’s likely that the others will follow (The Guardian’s long standing champion of ‘free content’ is off to do some studying), so…
When you think about it, of course it’s not free.
We, and others who are keen advocates of ‘Open Source‘ software are fully aware that Open Source does not mean free – it means shared, nurtured and much better than ‘Proprietorial’ as no-one actually owns it. But you still need developers, web hosts, issue trackers, mailing lists, updates, maintenance etc. etc. And it’s scarey how much the costs add up.
We have a service to provide very basic ‘community microsites’ to initiatives who really need them, but these aren’t ‘free’. They are supported by our funder Tudor Trust (thanks!), need continuous technical support, require ‘customer support’ and ‘training’, and in fact, open a significant risk for us of introducing support requirements that we cannot support – so we are very very careful about this. There are scarey stories from the past of organisations trying to offer sophisticated hosted websites for their ‘members’ and it getting very out of control and ending in tears which we keep close to our heart.
Some alternatives to Ning that are free:
Hosted (ie they do all the work):
- Wiser Earth
- Project Dirt
- Groups US
- Gaia Soft (using social networking rather than being a social network)
- WordPress (not strictly a social network but very handy and easy for website management)
- Google (not strictly a social network, but handy Apps for your domain or Groups)
- Yahoo Groups (again, not strictly a social network, but lots of tools for groups)
Need to host and configure yourself: more software that supports websites and networking:
- Drupal (also note a group formed specifically for Transition Initiatives building their own sites specifically for TIs)
- Doubtless loads more…
Wiser Earth’s answers to our questions:
a. how could WE help initiatives onto the WE platform?
- We can write up a tutorial on transitioning from Ning to WE and provide ongoing support. It may be best to work on this tutorial together with TN folks, so we understand what your needs are.
b. is there any helpful documentation about using the WE platform?
- Yes, they are accessible from:
c. how could initiatives migrate off WE platform if they wanted to move on for any reason?
- There should be ways to migrate data out via the API (don’t think this has been done before though…so will need to explore further)
d. WE’s economic sustainability response
- We have very low funding requirements and are looking to raise a small endowment to fund our bare minimum tech/hosting costs forever. And we plan on putting our code in escrow somewhere in the case that we ever ‘went out of business’ – like Salesforce has done.
e. We’re keen to have up to date information about the TN initiatives correctly presented on partner sites (most of which show out of date or incomplete listings which is misleading for the users). How could we work as organisations together to integrate TN’s initiative directory with WE’s API so that you can re-present the correct data?
- Good point. Yes it’s possible. We’d be happy to work together on the technical end to make this happen. That would be a win-win situation. Less data maintenance work on our end, more visibility for Transition Initiatives.
f. Can the WE groups generate RSS news feeds that we can aggregate and re-publish for our sharing engine?
- It is now possible to have RSS out from groups… with a caveat. It must be done via the search engine, i.e. so long as you ‘tag’ new content (or re-tag old content) with certain keywords, such as #transitionlewes, the search results from that keyword can be turned into RSS (and Email alert soon). More information here.
So there you have it – it’s up to you – we’re all ears and happy to help – and very interested in how this all pans out.
Change is the only constant, so work out what luggage you need, and get with the movement!
A quick note on the Transition Network web project offer
The web project’s strategic priorities on our site are to manage the information about the initiatives, projects and people that make up our amazing movement. Our most important task is to ensure that there is one place where you can find out what you need to know and be in touch with the right person as quickly as possible to help you in Transition. And then converse directly with them.
The web project is not a social network – think of it more as a ‘knowledge network’. We’re more into stewarding knowledge and fostering direct conversations than encouraging people to spend time on our website. We do have a presence in the social networks (Facebook, Ning, Linkedin, Wiser Earth, Twitter, Drupal Groups, School of Everything, and more). So we seek to partner with social network providers rather than be one.
Ben has a note on his wall that says
The Transition Network web project – driving traffic off the website and into the communities
Good work Mr B! We want the social networking to take place in your neighbourhoods, not online, where it burns carbon like crazy and doesn’t (in our opinion, yet, but we’re working on it) afford the absolutely and utterly vital ‘heart and soul’ work that really holds our communities together.
- Profiles: for initiatives, projects, people
- News: from the network and the movement
- Support Information: resources and support materials
- Transition thinking: from our growing (still very experimental) group of ‘voices’ (respected bloggers)
- Community Microsites: news and events service for initiatives (not ready, nor bad for our budget but they don’t have 12 Million behind them and never will)
You can read more about the Community Microsites, but trust us, they are not social networks and they did not have $12 million invested in them
Some other links
- Tech Crunch article
- Wiser Earth announced they will remain free to use and free of ads
- Other Social Networks listed
- Our position on social networks
- Steve Hargadon reviews the Ning situation