As someone that has helped others to create, and has created many networks on the Ning platform, yesterday’s news that the company would be dropping 40% of it’s staff and dropping the free service was incredibly alarming.  The news from Jason Rosenthal, Ning’s CEO, stated:

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.  [Read the full letter here.]

Join the conversation taking place on Manny Hernandez’s blog about keeping the network free for nonprofit and educational use. You can also read the news post on TechCrunch and the comments there.

Please join me in signing this Change.org petition to keep Ning free for nonprofit and education use.

Why this matters to me:

What worries me most about the pay-only option, even if it isn’t a huge $ amount is that ANY $ amount can be enough to mean no access for many. Here are a few examples:

  1. Grassroots groups:  For many of the smaller, grassroots campaigns and groups that use Ning, there isn’t a one-and-only-one leader dynamic where there could be one person that would be paying. We are in the midst of change for community dynamics where people no longer need a director, a secretary and then a bunch of members. We can all be leaders and contributors to a network, a community, a movement. So the administrator on a group, at least groups I’m a part of, is not one person, but a long list of people. Responsibilities are shared and actually change fairly frequently depending on capacity and availability.
  2. Community groups: Very much like the dynamics at play in grassroots cause groups, community groups struggle with the same issues around administration and ownership.  I’ve helped local community groups set up Ning communities online as a way to start building resources, connections, and storytelling in a local geographic community.  And I see it working.  But I also don’t see many of them with the capacity to pay (who pays, how do we decicde, etc.)
  3. Educators: This is not a new issue for this group.  We all know that teachers and other educators use tools and supplies out of their pocket because they are determined to provide the best experience for their students and peers.  That’s why we see things like DonorsChoose emerge.  Making Ning a paid-for service could mean we see thousands of new donor requests asking for a year of service or something – totally not sustainable.

I really, really believe that Ning can deliver on their bottom line and focus on making money, as it sounds like they want to do, and still provide the service to educators and nonprofit groups for free.

I know there are lots of great examples out there like Basecamp and Huddle and many others that balance free and paid successfully.  Please share your ideas, your stories and your examples.  We really want to ensure this tool continues enabling communities, regardless of their budget.

If you haven’t already, please also sign the Change.org pledge here.

Ning saying no to free networks
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  • Doh! Noooot cool.

    I’m one of those reasons why this matters to you – I set up a community for my brand new neighborhood – we don’t have a HOA of homeowners yet so this has been the fastest and easiest way to start making friends.
    I’ll have to find out from the developers if they will pay to keep it going, otherwise it will be my dime.
    Boo.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Brooke! I think it’s a perfect example of the hyper-local communities that people have turned to Ning to help nurture. I really don’t want to see it come down to money.

  • You make some good points here. I’m working with a couple of colleagues regarding developing community related online businesses and have steered both of them toward paid services and tools. Free services are fine to use as long as it’s understood “you get what you pay for.”

    • HI Marty-

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation here. “You get what you pay for,” is always a hard thing to measure, especially before an organization has ever used networking platforms before to have the experience/knowledge. Would love to hear what tools your colleagues have used and even share links to their networks if possible just as examples.

      Thanks again

  • Elgg is an open source alternative to Ning that is growing rapidly. UNESCO uses it for a number of their communities.

    http://mab.unesco-ci.org/
    http://www.wsis-community.org/

    They hire vendors (sometimes my company, Solution Grove) when they want custom work. UNESCO does their own hosting.

    Many people run it on <$10 a month shared hosting services (google for it there are a ton of choices) and never get any custom programming. ELGG has a facebook like interface. It has nice flexibility permissions for shared files etc you upload and thus is sometimes also used for schools as an eportfolio tool. There are many modules that can be added. You can use Facebook for login so people don't have to create a new account.

    The open source project site is elgg.org

    Caroline

    • Thanks, Caroline! Really appreciate you sharing the the links and information about the Elgg communities. Would be most interested in hearing (not sure if you know or are involved) how they made the decision to build on Elgg, what other tools they considered, and so on.

      Appreciate you pitching in here!

  • Pingback: Keeping Ning Free for Nonprofit Use « Chain Reaction Online()

  • Merlina

    I really liked Ning, I’ve been playing around and trying out the network creation tools and was planning to use this platform to create two new networks using the free service, with a view to up-grading to the premium service, if and when the networks became large enough to carry advertising to cover the charges.

    My immediate reaction to Ning’s decision to withdraw the free service is anger and disgust. If it was clear that it was absolutely necessary for Ning to do this in order to be financially sustainable I might be more understanding. But this smacks to me of blatant hard nosed commercialism, driven purely by maximising profits for their shareholders. It makes me question the ethics and ‘corporate values’ of Ning and all other similar ‘social networking’ services.

    The fact is, non-paying network creators, through investing their time and effort into creating and maintaining sites, have been attracting and driving traffic to Ning and promoting the brand. The ‘free’ sites carry Ning’s advertising which generates a revenue for Ning. If, in addition to this, 75% of their network creators pay in any case, I cannot see the justification for this decision. This looks like corporate greed.

    Even if I could afford to pay up-front for Ning’s services I am now unwilling to do so, on principle, and shall now be exploring alternatives. One strong contender is Webs.com which offers a free website creation service with applications for turning it into a social network, and the possibility to up-grade to premium services.

    However, I will now want to question the corporate values and commitment to keeping the free service free before committing a lot of time and energy into creating a network using their service.

    • Merlina

      Up-date:

      On reflection, any provider of social networking tools is always going to be subject to a possible change of regime and so there’s no guarantee that any free service is always going to be there. Having looked in to webs.com they do look like the best alternative at present. In a recent interview, their CEO, Haroon Mokhtarzada, said
      ” We’ve been free for 9 years and will continue to remain a free service (that’s right Ning users, come on over!)”

      For more info see:
      http://blog.webs.com/2010/04/16/webs-welcomes-ning-users-with-open-arms-and-free-accounts-

      Good luck with the petition, but I rather suspect a mass migration to a competitor may turn out to be the most effective in persuading Ning to think again…..

      • Hi Merlina-

        Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience/story here! If you are looking for a community network option that is dedicated to remaining free, one option would be BuddyPress as it’s an open source tool (WordPress). There are, though, always things we “pay” for when using a “free” tool: whether it’s time, energy, training, or anything else. But, it doesn’t sound like you are someone blinded to the idea of “free” – someone instead looking for an “honest” tool!

        I would love to hear what tool you end up going with (webs or otherwise) and how your transition or set up process goes. Please do share back here for other readers trying to navigate similar decisions for the management of their community sites!

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  • I’m using Ning for my research and their decision will add to my increasing tution costs. I understand the decision to do it and will choose to pay the fees they are asking (somehow) but I still feel there should be a more limited free version than the one they are proposing for 3$ a month.

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