Demise of the Free Ning Service
I first heard the news that “Ning’s Bubble Bursts: No More Free Networks, Cuts 40% Of Staff” via my Twitter network on the day of the announcement. And as described in the Ning Update press release “we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning [licensed] product to capture this big opportunity” before going on to announce that “We will phase out our free service“. I have recently described use of the Ning network to support the JISC10 conference. The news for JISc and other users of the free Ning service is that “Existing free networks will have the opportunity to either convert to paying for premium services, or transition off of Ning“.
Should We Look For In-House Alternatives?
What lessons can be learnt from the closure of this free service? Some may argue that it demonstrates that you should never use remotely-hosted services, as potentially are may change their licensing conditions or remove the services with little or no notice. An alternative for those making this argument is that open source solutions should be installed and deployed in-house. This may be an option for the support of undergraduate teaching, but is unlike to be a realistic option for researchers and staff who, like myself,may wish to have significant contact with people outside the host institution. I find this is particularly true of Twitter-like services – although I have an account on the University of Bath’s Yammer network I very seldom make use of it.
What Exactly Do We Want?
But rather than looking for a single replacement for Ning, perhaps we should start by looking at the different ways in which Ning has been used. This might held to identify a number of different requirements which may be provided by a variety of solutions.
In my recent post on use of Ning to support the JISC10 conference, for example, I pointed out that Ning was only being used to any significant extent for people to state that they were attending the event (or participating remotely) and, in many cases, to provide a p[photograph of themselves. Ning was effectively providing a multimedia delegate list. The communications aspect on Ning and sharing of resources seems to have been provided with a combination of Twitter and Flickr.
So maybe for events rather than use of a dedicated social networking service we will see a lightweight centrally-provided service, complemented by services which participants will already be using.
But what of other scenarios? A TechCrunch article on “Ning: Failures, Lessons and Six Alternatives” suggests Grou.ps (which claims to having “a cleaner interface” and “more features” than Ning); Spruz (which claims to provide a migration path for Ning users); SocialGo (another network-building tool that offers a free option); BuddyPress (an extension for WordPress environment); Lovd By Less (an open-source solution written in Ruby on Rails) and Elgg.
Do We Need A National Service?
Solutions such as Elgg (which is used at a number of UK HEIs including Brighton and Leeds) could potentially be used to provide a national service. But if a global service such as Ning has failed to find a sustainable business model,there will be risks in seeking to set up a national equivalent when we are expected significant cuts to the public sector after the election.
We should also ask ourselves whether the HE sector should be looking to set up such a service when there are commercial alternatives (and of course one alternative would be to subscribe to the commercial Ning service, which seems to start from about $10 per month). After all, as I described recently, in the opening plenary talk at the JISC 10 conference Martin Bean did suggest that the UK was behind the US and Australia in taking advantage of privatised providers of HE services.
I have to admit that I argued for the provision of a national social networking/communications environment when I was on the JISCMail advisory group, shortly after the service was established. However the voting systems and chat rooms they set up to support their mailing lists seem to have failed to gain much usage (it would be interesting to see the usage statistics), partly because, I suspect, they have been bolted on to the mailing list archives and fail to have the seamless and well-integrated interfaces which users will nowadays expect. In retrospect I’m pleased that JISCMail haven’t succeeded in establishing any significant services in this environment as I now agree with the sentiments expressed last year at a meeting on JISCMail futures that JISCMail should stick to their core business of providing a large scale email service and their priority should be in making their Web archive of mail messages better integrated with the Web architecture.
I also wonder what the access policies would be to social networking environments hosted within the sector for people who aren’t staff or students. And what would happen if they leave the sector?
Finally I should point out Jack Schofield’s closing sentence in his post on “Ning social network site is going from freemium to paid-for“: “Alternatives to Ning include SocialGo, elgg, and Igloo. Other suggestions are welcome, but most people will probably just use Facebook….“. He has identified a number of solutions which TechCrunch also mentioned – and has also included Facebook. Hmm, that won’t be popular with some, I’m sure. But maybe it will have more of a role to play in the future. After all, as I mentioned recently, Facebook is being used to support the WWW 2010 conference. And looking at the WWW 2010 Facebook page it has attracted over 1,00 members.