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.

Jun
01
Filed Under (e-learning, New Media, Science publishing) by Mark A.-W. on 01-06-2009

Through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies, American taxpayers invest billions of dollars every year into research to improve health, safety, the environment, scientific understanding, etc.opencourseware

The accountability of whether these investments have real impact for Americans is tied to the education and communication of research findings.

It is the education/communication set of activities that “maximizes the return on the research investment; it provides value to the research product, which is intrinsically worthless” (Charles Wallace in Transportation Research Circular 488).

Everett Rogers’s famous “diffusion of innovations” theory describes the process of new discoveries moving into practice through a sequence of adopters: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Rogers emphasized the importance of communications in implementation.

Cuts to public education funding present a challenge to the ability to broadly communicate research discoveries. While increased tuition may be justified by the private benefits that result from a college diploma, will the benefits of publicly funded research be associated disproportionately with those who can afford higher education?

Or can we figure out a way to utilize technology to provide open access educational materials for the benefit of the population as a whole?

The cultural movement for open (free) educational resources continues to grow.

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