Ning… where to go when the public square charges an entrance fee?

Ning announced today that it will soon convert existing customers to a fee-for-service subscription or cut them loose. Jason Rosenthal, CEO of Ning, announced the shift in the company’s business model while downsizing his company by more than 40%. The first question for most Ning community owners not willing to pay up is “where do I take my online community of practice now”?  Some suggestions follow.

First, what does all this mean for the middle school teacher, educator or e-learning professional whose Ning community has amassed months of content and a band of faithful members? It depends. In terms of the platform, open source options abound and here are a few posts from Blackweb20 and Readwriteweb that offer some ideas:

Buddypress (http://www.buddypress.org)
Pligg (http://www.pligg.com/)
Elgg (http://www.elgg.org/)
LovdbyLess (http://lovdbyless.com/)
Mixxt (http://www.mixxt.com/)
Insoshi ( http://github.com/insoshi/insoshi)
Xoops (http://www.xoops.org/)
Community Engine (http://www.communityengine.org/)
Astrospaces (http://sourceforge.net/projects/astrospaces/)

If you were truly smitten by the Ning interface and have a blossoming community of practice, you might have been on the cusp of going with the premium option anyway. It could very well be that Ning’s move benefits you the most as they will hopefully be better positioned to grow revenue in a manner more proportionate to their bottom line.

Now the implications…Is this the end of third-party, non-open source solutions or simply the fruition of an unsustainable business model? It’s neither and to some degree both. First of all, Ning is simply a blip in the larger unfolding narrative that is open source versus proprietary software. Ning, like many 3rd party, closed-code platforms or tools doesn’t allow one to peak under the hood or customize beyond surface level aesthetics and basic features. This frustrates some and is perfectly OK with  others. However, like many in the proprietary software camp, Ning has tried to make nice with developers by providing more API (application programming interface) access—think viewing your Netflix queue on a 3rd party Web site or phone app.

In all honesty, I’m not surprised by Ning’s decision. I wrote about the challenge of the unsustainable social media business model awhile back when discussing the Facebook phenomenon—Ning is not the first to be forced to make this transition and will not be the last…Twitter alert! Matt Freeman at the Vatornews blog sums it up well with his blog title, “Ning exposes freemium’s underbelly”—indeed.

That Ning is neither the end of proprietary platforms nor the poster child of an unsustainable business model is apparent when you realize they will still host sites; their community administrators will simply have to verify the viability of their site against their pocketbook—and this could be a good thing for Ning and everyone else.

The perceived failing or success of a single platform can often encourage those on either side of the open versus closed curtain to proclaim victory as Matt Asay at the End of the Road Blog suggests already happened back in September 2009. While Matt’s thoughts on this topic are both sharp and informative, his prediction preceded iTunes’ domination of the digital content world (exaggerated, but do look at the Flurry analytics)—accomplished to a large extent in the wake of seemingly worthy open-source opponents that aren’t putting up much of a fight. Of course, prediction could become prophecy and end-users could stop using proprietary software systems altogether, but many closed software (free and for fee) platforms are landing volleys with progressively more velocity and direction, even in light of ever tightening gatekeeping systems tied to their distribution method, i.e. iTunes, Amazon, etc.

The only significant loss (beyond some possible migration time) for those leaving Ning will be if the time spent facilitating the community did not result in a greater understanding around what constitutes and effective virtual community of practice. Anthony Bradley lists six principles of social media collaboration that help unpack the characteristics of healthy virtual communities and works by Etienne Wenger and other pioneers on this topic are a helpful aid in winnowing out the principles from the tools that instantiate virtual communities.

Ironically, a colleague and I just presented at a conference on the topic of virtual communities of practice and in an attempt to more clearly understand organizing principles of such communities, we administered a poll to the 433 members of the Ning community. The results from the 88 respondents can be found in the middle of the SlideShare presentation below and are interesting.

So, once you’ve done some evaluation on whether to convert to premium or migrate your community elsewhere, hopefully you’ll take some time to reflect on the underlying principles that have resulted in intended outcomes or positive participant behavior and especially those that did not. As Warren Wiersbe once said (albeit in the context of theology and not software), “Methods are many, principles are few, methods always change, principles never do.” Hopefully, regardless of platform, we’ll continue to be more concerned about the underlying principles related to transparency, persistence and other factors that boost community participation, digital or otherwise. Otherwise, we’ll truly be beholden to the upgrade treadmill and software migration paths that are necessary in the open and closed code context.

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13 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Mark Anderson-Wilk on 16 April, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

This should give organizations good reason to pause and carefully consider in which baskets to distribute their eggs and in what proportions.

Chris LaBelle on 16 April, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

Agree Mark. However, for the record, Ning is still offering its services and its associated subscription fee will be another variable when comparing TCO (cost of ownership), training, and ROI. So, “free” is really a relative term until all these variables are factored in. I think the reality is that Ning will still have its place on the spectrum of tools that enable CoPs.

Karen Zimmermann on 16 April, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

Re: Mark’s comment
No, no more pausing and considering! We advance way too slowly by pausing and considering. Jump in and give things a try. O.k, I agree that proportion of time and money can be considered, but no pausing, please.

Thanks, Chris, for jumping in with the Master Gardener Ning site AND for surveying the users. This information will be so valuable when moving forward.

Alternatives to Ning « 4R x T on 17 April, 2010 at 11:22 am #

[…] “Ning… where to go when the public square charges an entrance fee?“ […]

public works environmen on 19 April, 2010 at 7:16 am #

It could very well be that public works environment benefits you the most as they will hopefully be better positioned to grow revenue in a manner more proportionate to their bottom line.

Jericho on 28 April, 2010 at 7:39 am #

Its a big change for a lot of people to consider, but its smart to point out that there are other options out there without the premium fees.

Joanna @BOCOCreative on 5 May, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

It’s always better to invest resources/time into our own domain then concentrate on platforms you have no control over.

Cara on 30 September, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

I agree. Spend time on what you can control and then explore the other options. Change can be difficult, but just do what works for you.

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