On Ning, Social Networking, the unfortunate possibilities (need) of Web 2.0 companies

Richard Close_s Page - Classroom 2.0  So, while I sit here watching 24, Human Target, and In Plain Sight on Hulu, I am replaying the events I have witnessed surrounding TechCrunch's reporting of the announcement leak of an internal Ning memorandum by CEO Jason Rosenthal:

"Team,

When I became CEO 30 days ago, I told you I would take a hard look at our business. This process has brought real clarity to what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do now to make Ning a big success.

My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business. Our Premium Ning Networks like Friends or Enemies, Linkin Park, Shred or Die, Pickens Plan, and tens of thousands of others both drive 75% of our monthly US traffic, and those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us.

So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product to capture this big opportunity. We will phase out our free service. Existing free networks will have the opportunity to either convert to paying for premium services, or transition off of Ning. We will judge ourselves by our ability to enable and power Premium Ning Networks at huge scale. And all of our product development capability will be devoted to making paying Network Creators extremely happy.

As a consequence of this change, I have also made the very tough decision to reduce the size of our team from 167 people to 98 people. As hard as this is to do, I am confident that this is the right decision for our company, our business, and our customers. Marc and I will work diligently with everyone affected by this to help them find great opportunities at other companies.

I’ve never seen a more talented and devoted team, and it has been my privilege to get to know and work with each and every one of you over the last 18 months.

We’ll use today to say goodbye to our friends and teammates who will be leaving the company. Tomorrow, I will take you through, in detail, our plans for the next three months and our new focus.

Thanks,
Jason Rosenthal"

Much like the proverbial “shot heard ‘round the world,” news of the possibility that all free Ning accounts would need to move to a premium pay model or move to another service sent Twitter bowing under the weight of worldwide educators and free Ning users crying out “WHY!”

For a fuller Twitter recap, search the hashtag #ning.

Now, there have been many bloggers who have been posting on this topic tonight:

From Classroom 2.0 (an educational Ning)

Shel Holtz: Ning reneges on its core promise, shatters customer trust

Steve Hargadon: Ning changes and the impact on educational communities

Gigaom: Ning kills free service, wants to get paid now, please…

Digital Beat: Next generation of Ning coming in 90 days after painful restructuring.

Brave New World: What the! Ning isn't free anymore?

Lucy Gray: The Ning Debacle: It's not about the Money (entirely)

Jim Gubbins: Ning News Rocks the EdTech Community

Many are outraged, many are seeking or providing alternatives, many are simply asking why.  Lucy Gray has created a survey which I believe will lead to a petition to "save Ning for the education community." Educator Alec Couros has created a public Google Doc to discover and provide alternatives. This event has sparked amazing thought, creativity, and debate.

I want to start my take on this issue by saying efforts of this community have been amazing; rallying from shocked outrage into collaboratively working to assist each other to find alternatives. this is the absolute power of social networking.  Unfortunately, here is where I begin separating myself from the fray, possibly in a painful way, and for that I apologize in advance. My position on this is in no way to challenge or diminish what all of these educators are working to accomplish.  I wish for the best in their efforts to continue to receive a service(s) for free when others pay quite a bit of money for those same services.  

What's my take? Frankly, we create(d) this issue… The explosion of Web 2.0 resources created a playground for educators that we now crave… take a brief minute to review the public Google Doc (again a free service – if you can be ok with trading off privacy and advertising) to see the amazing assortment of tools that individuals and companies are providing for free… (for now). We flit from one service to another, often landing on ones we feel support our initiatives as well as that may be large enough (google, yahoo, etc.) that we hope they will be around for a while so we feel more confident about using them.

From the financial challenges districts and educators face, we glom on to "free"… I hear that mantra every time I attend a conference, "best of all it's free!" or "we all love free" or "can you believe this is free?" I understand, really I do, but nothing that is "free" can last.  I'm sorry. it just can't. Ning is really only the latest in a long string of organizations who have tried to benefit educators (and others) by providing a semblance of their service at no charge.  Off the top of my head, I can think of services that were forced to sell to a larger company or move to a pay only model to survive… JotSpot, Jott, WetPaint, and more… Ning is just the latest in the in a string of companies that NEED to be paid for the services they provide… While they DO charge businesses to utilize those same services, I fear educators often feel that because of the role we pay in society we should have access to these services without paying for them… FaceBook has had rumors about moving to a pay model, what about wikispaces? What if Google Docs/Apps went pay for play? All could happen. Many of the alternatives folks are tweeting about are not nearly the size and impact of a FB, but this also puts them at risk of turning to a pay model more quickly… 

While watching this entire situation play out on Twitter today, and the rallying cry that went up for "how many people and groups will be impacted by this 'cruel act' of Ning" or "how can we convince Ning to provide educators an outlet to maintain a free service level" or "what are the free alternatives, and how can we help each other find them" or "are they going to give us time to convert our services?… (by the way I am getting wind that the changeover should take about 90 days before the "free" networks need to make a choice) I never heard, "geez… the services they were providing are amazing.  I didn't know they were in trouble.  I am converting my account tomorrow to a premium paid service!" Honestly, I only know one person Gary Anderson, @glanderson who stated that he was going to be paying for his American Studies Ning to continue. I do know a few individuals who already pay for the premium services Ning provides but most of us don't and that is the issue… 

Here is a great game if anyone i
s interested and would like to reply in the comments:

  • List all of the "free" web 2 services you use in a typical week.  Then check on their sites and see what the cost of moving to a subscription based service (if they provide that) would be… 
  • Now, if you actually had to pay for all of those services, which ones would you pare back from? any? Would you find cheaper alternatives and sacrifice some of the functionality to reduce costs?

Just wondering… I think I will take a crack at that tomorrow.

Now, there are a great number of alternatives out there… from hosted solutions to self-hosted solutions. I'd like to ask a question? if you are considering an alternative, are you going to consider a self-hosted solution? If the answer is maybe, I can imagine that you are starting to thing about:

  • How do I do this?
  • I need server space, constant up time, a good bandwidth level to support traffic…
  • I need to be able to support, patch, upgrade, and storage space…
  • I need someone to watch over all of this, or to pay a hosting company…

and that is just a partial list… Kind of makes you think of all of the things that organizations like Ning have been dealing with on a worldwide grand scale and have not been receiving almost any compensation from the educational community they have been trying to support. Hmmm…

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2 thoughts on “On Ning, Social Networking, the unfortunate possibilities (need) of Web 2.0 companies

  1. Bravo and well written!
    I agree 100% with what you are saying. Case in point Sliderocket. I signed up for this incredible FREE online presentation SERVICE when it was in Beta testing. They were kind enough to let me continue to use my free account and hold onto my presentations I had already created. But you know what? This site was providing me a service and the more I used it, the more I craved some of the features in the paid model. I now happily pay $12 a month to be able to have my presentations anywhere and be able to share them online with anyone at anytime!
    You wouldn’t EXPECT to own a house rent free and that’s exactly what Ning had been doing for all this time – providing a house for our content. It’s now up to the user to decide if their data is valuable enough to start paying rent for it!
    The problem that is occuring here is expectations.
    I know you are a fan of the IPad (as are a number of other educators. I don’t think anyone would EXPECT Apple to give away all of their apps? Ning and other Web 2.0 companies are no different. People are creating these wonderful resources and SHOULD deserve to profit from their hard work. I don’t know to many people who are willing to work for free, do you? OK, that was a little longer rant than I expected.
    P.S. Would you be interested in being a member of a edtech panel debate tonight on Stickam?

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