Thursday, April 15, 2010

short-sighted and socially destructive: thoughts on Ning's decision to cut free services

Lord knows I'm not a huge fan of Ning, the social networking tool that allows users to create and manage online networks. I find the design bulky and fairly counterintuitive, and modifying a network to meet your group's needs is extremely challenging, and Ning has made it extremely difficult or impossible for users to control, modify, or move network content. Despite the popularity of Ning's free, ad-supported social networks among K-16 educators, the ads that go along with the free service have tended toward the racy or age-inappropriate.

But given the Ning trifecta--it's free, getting students signed up is fast and fairly easy, and lots of teachers are using it--I've been working with Ning with researchers and teachers for the last two years. So the recent news that Ning will be switching to paid-only membership is obnoxious for two reasons.

The first reason is the obvious: I don't want to pay--and I don't want the teachers who use Ning to have to pay, either. One of the neat things about Ning is the ability to build multiple social networks--maybe a separate one for each class, or a new one each semester, or even multiple networks for a single group of students. In the future, each network will require a monthly payment, which means that most teachers who do decide to pay will stick to a much smaller number of networks. This means they'll probably erase content and delete members, starting fresh each time. The enormous professional development potential of having persistent networks filled with content, conversations, and student work suddenly disappears.

Which brings me to my second point: That anyone who's currently using Ning's free services will be forced to either pay for an upgrade or move all of their material off of Ning. This is tough for teachers who have layers upon layers of material posted on various Ning sites, and it's incredibly problematic for any researcher who's working with Ning's free resources. If we decide to leave Ning for another free network, we'll have to figure out some systematic way of capturing every single thing that currently lives on Ning, lest it disappear forever.

Ning's decision to phase out free services amounts to a paywall, pure and simple. Instead of putting limits on information, as paywalls for news services do, this paywall puts limits on participation. In many ways, this is potentially far worse, far more disruptive and destructive, far more short-sighted than any information paywall could be.

If Ning was smart, it would think a little more creatively about payment structures. What about offering unlimited access to all members of a school district, for a set fee paid at the district level? What about offering an educator account that provides unlimited network creation for a set (and much lower) fee? What about improving the services Ning provides to make it feel like you'd be getting what you paid for?

More information on Ning's decision to go paid-only will be released tomorrow. For now, I'm working up a list of free social networking tools for use by educators. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Update, 4/15/10, 6:48 p.m.: Never one to sit on the sidelines in the first place, Alec Couros has spearheaded a gigantic, collaborative googledoc called "Alternatives to Ning." As of this update, the doc keeps crashing because of the number of collaborators trying to help build this thing (the last time I got into it, I was one of 303 collaborators), so if it doesn't load right away, keep trying.

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