Ning Alternatives, Collaboration, & Self Hosting

Ning announced today that it plans to “phase out its free service“. What this means for the educators who use Ning for free (or even pay for some services) is uncertain at the moment although it was stated that a detailed plan of the new services will be released within two weeks.

Right after the announcement, Twitter was buzzing with people wondering about viable build-your-own-network alternatives. A few services were mentioned and retweeted, but I felt that something more proactive should be done. Seeing that Google Docs has gone real-time, I thought it would be great to collaboratively build a document with Ning alternatives, including examples and comments on services other have tried. I created a new Google Document and tweeted a call for collaboration.

Twitter / Alec Couros: OK, with all of this talk ...
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

Within minutes, we had several pages of options for both hosted and self-hosted social networking services. Six hours later (the time at which I write this), there have already been hundreds of collaborators/viewers and hundreds of edits. There is now a good list of alternatives for those that would like to migrate to or use another service. As well, those involved were able to see first-hand the power of real-time collaboration. From my perspective, this process was truly awesome!

I have noticed that Ning’s announcement has made some people angry which has caused others to temper concerns until more is known. No matter what the outcome, or the options within Ning’s new pricing plan, there is a more important issue here. I do not see a future where there are more free (of charge) services available. It is more likely, at least for the short term, that more Web 2.0 companies will focus on premium services. For the many teachers who have benefited from the wealth of free services available over the last few years, this ‘less free’ reality becomes difficult, especially when schools are increasingly budget-conscious.

This is why the F/OSS movement becomes important (again). With all of the free services that have been available, fewer educators have likely felt that the time and expertise needed to install, maintain and host open source software is worth the trouble. However, with this impending shift, I do believe that this is the time for schools & educators to (re)consider and (re)discover the importance of F/OSS and self-hosted software.

Update: Sylvia Curry made a screencast of the “Ning Alternatives” document being edited in the first few minutes. This process really was quite incredible.

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  • And of course, there’s the other issue of how Ning’s decision to move to paid content will affect those who have been using it to hold onto content, conversations, and student work in addition to teacher reflections. There’s a lot of professional development happening in Ning networks right now, and teachers who choose not to pay for the upgrade will be forced to either painstakingly copy and paste materials into a less sharable, less persistent, less searchable format or to lose all of their work. The same is true of researchers who have been working in social networks for the last several years.

    It’s certainly true that Ning’s move should serve as a wakeup call, but to my mind it also highlights another issue: the responsibility that software and network developers have to their users. Ning is notoriously bad at recognizing and living up to its end of the bargain, which is perhaps part of the reason why it’s had to scramble for another model.

  • Way to go! Thanks for setting up the Google Doc. It was so busy it crashed on me as I was adding info – first time I’ve seen a Google Doc do that! I also have blogged about this at http://zenodotus.net and would be interested in your response. Thanks again for your quick call to action! I have faith the EdTech community at large will regroup, heal our wounds and be collaborating somewhere again sometime soon.

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  • @jenna I think that’s a great point, Jenna. I do believe there is a(n ethical?) responsibility that these companies have to their users. I have several Nings. Some I pay for, some I don’t. But still, I pay about (I think) $50/month for what I have. I know others who have many Nings. If people all of a sudden have to pay $10/Ning, I think it will be quite difficult for many individuals/groups who were not expecting that level of cost. Of course, we don’t know what exactly it will be – but, back to your point.

    @james Thanks, I’ll definitely be checking out your post.

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  • MrEdTech

    it is ridiculous! It is time to support FOSS! Ning has to consider so many educators’ time and efforts which they put to build their educational networks. It’s hard to imagine how the great networks will be destroyed soon. I am feeling so sad and depressed. Even those who want to use Ning paid services should start taking actions as soon or later they may have such problems. I think it is better to start stand alone networking using Elgg and have full control over your network! What if Ning cannot provide backups or easily migrate to another place? For the past several years I spent much time creating Ning educational networks. I remember migrating from Yahoo Photos to Flickr. It was easy to download all photos and migrate. Now in order to main good reputation Ning has to solve the problem! It so sad and disappointing…

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  • Great idea.

    Just added BlastGroups to the document – http://www.blastgroups.com

    BlastGroups is another free alternative to Ning. Their free group websites offer a lot of the same functionality as Ning such as: a customizable group website, blogs, events, discussion forums, activity streams, etc.

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  • Alec,

    I applaud your efforts to help people think through looking after their data, which is always important. But I guess I’d ask a question of the folks that are so adamant that Ning has not been responsible in their dealings: What responsibility does a company, offering a free service, have to people who aren’t paying customers? More importantly, why would folks invest such time, energy and effort in creating these spaces and communities without giving thought to how to get that data back out of Ning in the event that the free-ness or the company went away?

    What responsibility do network organizers and creators have for ensuring that they are choosing to build sustainable spaces? Why is that some third-party’s responsibility?

    Shouldn’t folks who are totally reliant on Ning, and angry with them, be upset with themselves, if at least a little?

    I hope that Ning will carryout a responsible transition for folks, assisting with APIs and tools that help folks get their data out. But that wasn’t really Ning’s deal from the start – so why are folks upset with them now?

    Again, I appreciate your positive spin on this problem and the awareness that it creates for teachers and community organizers to think about their exit strategies whenever they create or share important information.

  • What a great project – an authentic example of real-world collaborative problem solving! Thanks, Alec, for seizing the moment! Your quick thinking helped us all make the most of disappointing news.

    After reviewing your Google Doc, I think I can survive without NING. But, I sure will miss it!

  • Great post and initiative. I´ve also read John Mak´s from CCK09, it´s great to see how active some members of the community are in looking for solutions and helping us develop collaborative problem-solving. I also recommend Indian network creator Gaurav Mishra thoughts on the issue, I´ve found it quite an interesting read. http://bit.ly/bfWB7a

    Thanks!

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  • Tried opening the Google Docs document but somehow it’s not properly opening. Will try again later to see if WiserEarth Groups is listed there already.

    I work for WiserEarth, so this is somewhat an advertisement, but WiserEarth Groups offer similar tools (and more, like wiki) to Ning and is free to use and free of ads. More at http://www.wiserearth.org/article/wiserearthgroups

    Hope some of you find it useful for your work. Feel free to contact me at bowo[at]wiserearth.org if you have any question about it.

  • @bud: Hi Bud. You’ve raised really important points, and I totally agree with you. And I think your point about taking responsibility as a user, thinking ahead of data migration/ownership/investment issues is an issue more and more teachers need to think about – for themselves and for their students. We need to pay more attention (not just lip service) to terms of service, and agreements we sign into when we use a service. I guess, that is sort of why I make my final point re: independence through self-hosting. Thanks for your time to comment.

    @elizabeth: It really was great to see that many people involved in providing alternatives. Now, if only we can get people to get that involved in collaborating on other serious issues of our time. :-) Collaboration is sometimes more difficult when the problems are really hard and divisive. Thanks for your time to comment.

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  • I think Bud and Alec are talking about one of the key issues here. There is now a very well written license available that would negate any future problems. It is the AGPL. The license allows client users of software running on a server (e.g. a website) to download their own copy of the source code. Though this type of licensing isn’t hugely popular yet, it’s use is growing. One example is with the software used to run identi.ca which is in sharp contrast to Twitter. Microbloggers who use identi.ca are ensured that if the site makes changes that are unpopular, users can fork the project and take it in the direction they wish.

    What I would love to see is a Free software version of Ning-like services licensed under something like the AGPL. Then headaches like this would be avoided. Though I have to agree with Bud – users who now find themselves shafted have should be mad at no one but themselves.

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  • Launched yesterday in beta, http://www.zonkk.com is an elgg based social network creator. You can sign up for free and there are loads of applications and options to choose from. Zonkk also offers paid upgrades should you wish to choose them.

  • Elgg.com will launch a own hosted version of the popular Elgg social network platform in the Fall. You can register for a Beta invite at Elgg.com. News at http://elgg.com/pressjune.php.

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