Ning's Phase-Out of Free Services - Smart Business Move? Or Utter Betrayal?

ning.jpgMuch has been made in the social media part of the blogosphere about Ning's recent decision to end their free services. In a post to their Ning Creators Forum titled "NING UPDATE: PHASING OUT FREE SERVICES", the company posted an email from their CEO that said most importantly this:
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.

The post outlined why they need to make the move - and disclosed the fact that they were laying off 69 people.

Some 700 comments later, they closed off comments to the post. The comments seemed to be a great number of very upset users of the free Ning service mixed in with a few folks defending Ning along with Ning employees who seemed to be trying to be genuinely helpful.

The comments across the blogosphere and Twittersphere raged quite strongly. ReadWriteWeb had a post listing alternatives, as did Mashable. TechCrunch reported on sites "welcoming Ning refugees".

While the news sites may have reported it matter-of-factly, many other sites were full of passion. Many nonprofits and educational institutions wrote about how the were going to have to find some other home because they couldn't afford fees. My friend Shel Holtz wrote a blistering post called "Ning reneges on its core promise, shatters customer trust", which included this line:

But the word that keeps repeating in my mind is “betrayal.”

Strong stuff.

Betrayal? Or sound business decision? I understand the arguments on both sides.

IN THE BEGINNING

If you go back in time, Ning was launched with great fanfare in October 2005, a new startup by Marc Andresson of Netscape fame. Per the RWW article I just linked to, Ning's FAQ (now gone) was:

"Our goal with Ning is to see what happens when you open things up and make it easy to create, share, and discover new social apps."

I remember the launch... many of us tried it out. I think I even created a Ning network... although I can't find any email or evidence that I really did. I know I joined a couple. The idea was cool... now anyone can create their own social network!

Over the years Ning raised over $120 million from investors and at one point was valued at over a half billion dollars. Mashable reported one year ago that there were over 1,000,000 networks created on Ning. Ning was one of the early supporters of OpenSocial and rolled out "Ning Apps" to Ning's 1.5 million networks at that time. I know of many folks in the social media/marketing space who recommended Ning as a platform for people to build communities. I did to several groups. I was even considering using Ning as a platform for a community around my upcoming book like Steve Garfield did for his Get Seen book. (I opted for a blog and a Facebook page instead.)

IN THE END

It now seems rather clear that something was broken with the business model. $120 million dollars and 1.5 million networks later... they chopped 40% of the staff and dropped the free service that brought them so much attention and undoubtedly investment.

It sounds like from a company perspective they had little choice. As a recent Mashable post said (my emphasis added):

We’re not sure how pricing will change over the next few weeks, but what we do know is that the dotcom-era free-for-all of apps, services and content for end users is not-so-gradually coming to a halt. In the light of economic reality, nothing is free. Someone — be it an advertiser, an administrator, an investor or an entrepreneur — is footing the bill for every one and zero that’s electronically transmitted across this great Internet of ours. And at some point, most of those folks expect to see a return on their investment.

"And at some point, most of those folks expect to see a return on their investment."... indeed. And $120 million of investment is a lot to seek a return on. I can understand that they didn't have many great choices... and were undoubtedly running out of time.

TRUST AND BETRAYAL

On the other hand, I completely understand the anger, sadness, frustration and passion of all of those who built communities on Ning. Ning offered a great service ... all you had to do was bear with seeing the ads that were displayed. In return you had powerful tools to build your own community.

You put your trust in Ning that they would provide this service for free - and now Ning has betrayed that trust.

I don't envy all the nonprofits, schools, churches and other groups that used Ning as their community and built their communication infrastructure around that site. Sure, there are alternatives, but switching is a pain... you ideally want to move some or all of your content... and you have to bring all your users over with you... It is a lot of work.

It's easy to say, as I've seen many commenters do, that "you get what you pay for"... and to chastise users of Ning's free service to be so naive to think that it would be around for the long term. But why not? That was the promise made by the company. Build your community here and we'll make it easy for you to maintain and grow - and so many networks did prosper there.

SPOFs AND "THE INTERNET WAY"

As Shel wrote in his post, I have this issue with "single points of failure" (SPOFs). I've written at great length about how Twitter and Facebook violate "The Internet Way" of distributed and decentralized services. I would add Ning to that list as well. It is a centralized service under the control of a single company... and a startup company at that.

The problem in relying on a single company/service/platform is that if you are locked in to that company/service/platform, you have a single point-of-failure.

They die... you die.

Compare the Ning situation to, say, garden-variety web hosting providers. You can get web hosting pretty much anywhere for an inexpensive amount of money. Upload your HTML files, point your domain there... ta da... your website is up and running.

Don't like the web hosting provider? Or have too many service problems? Or have the web hosting provider fail as a business? No problem... sign up with another web hosting provider... upload your HTML files (you do have a backup, right?)... point your domain there... and ta da... you're back in action. You have many, many, many choices for web hosting providers... it's all distributed and decentralized.

CONTROL AND PORTABILITY

With a web hosting provider... or even an email provider... there is a fundamental feature:

YOU ARE IN CONTROL!

If you don't like the provider, you can move. You aren't locked in. Sure, it may be a pile of work... and moving your domain may be a hassle if you didn't retain control of it... but it's relatively straightforward to move. Even if you use PHP or other scripting languages, odds are that you can move your web site to another provider, because...

Web sites are portable as they are based on open standards.

Usually... unless, of course, the web hosting provider found some way to make your administration "simpler" and subsequently lock you in to their services.

When using Ning, though, you sacrifice that control and portability in the name of simplicity. It's easy and simple (and free!) to set up a Ning community. It can be a lot harder to set up your own software on your own server - and it will probably cost you something. The same can be said of Facebook and using a Facebook Page or Group... or using any of the many other services out there that let you build communities.

A HARSH LESSON

Sadly, hundreds of thousands of actual users (perhaps millions) are learning about control and portability in a bitter and harsh lesson. They will soon learn about what pricing Ning will be offering... and they will have to make their choices. Pay some fee... move their community... or simply shut it down. I already know that one of the ones I am a member of will be moving. I expect many others will move as well.

I can only hope... and that is what it is - "hope"... that as Ning community administrators look at alternatives, they will ask those providers the tough questions, like:

  • How do I know you will be around in a while?
  • How can I trust you not to screw me like Ning just did?
  • What is your business model?
  • How easy is it for me to move my community OFF of your platform if I choose to do so?

And so on...

As for Ning, I wish them luck... I somehow think they're going to need it.


UPDATE: John Cass has an excellent post tracking many good posts involved in the conversation about Ning's changes.


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Why does Facebook only let you import ONE blog/RSS feed?

Why does Facebook only let you import ONE feed from a blog or other site? Do they not think that you might have more than one RSS feed you want to import?

Forgetting for a moment Facebook's draconian Terms of Service (which can be summarized quite simply as "ALL your content belongs to us - forever and always." (I wrote about this a year ago or so.)), let's say you do want to import in posts from your blog. This is quite simple (once you can find the Import tab):

facebookimport.jpg

Click on the "Blog/RSS" link, enter in the URL for your feed and... ta da... your blog posts start being imported as Notes into Facebook. Now all your friends who view the world through the lens of Facebook can also see the content you are writing outside of the Facebook walls.

But what if you have more than one RSS feed you want to import?

Oops.

No can do. You get exactly one "Blog/RSS" feed to import.

So what if you are someone like me who writes in a half a dozen different places (also here and here)? Sorry, but you're out of luck.

Your options are really to either: 1) only import one of your various blogs, which is what I have been doing to date; or 2) create an aggregated feed of your blogs and import that.

For #2, you then must go off and create that aggregated feed using Yahoo Pipes, Friendfeed or any of the zillion other services out there. I recently decided to look at this again and immediately thought of my FriendFeed feed at friendfeed.com/danyork since I already use that service to aggregate my online writing.

The problem is that the way I use Friendfeed is as a giant fire hose that aggregates everything I write or publish publicly online. This includes duplicate items such as my twitter and identi.ca feeds (which are usually, but not always, the same). Pointing Facebook to my Friendfeed feed would wind up with all sorts of duplicate material entering Facebook (especially as someday in here I'll sort out the Facebook <-> Twitter infinite loop I've created and get the interconnect happening there again).

Now in Friendfeed you can "hide" certain items from a feed from someone else... but I've not figured out a way in Friendfeed to do that in a feed of your own. So, naturally, my kludgey solution today was to:

  • Create a second Friendfeed account and keep it a private account.
  • Subscribe it only to my main Friendfeed account.
  • Hide the various things in my main feed that I don't want to see (i.e. Twitter, identi.ca)
  • Take the resulting RSS feed from this second Friendfeed account and give that to Facebook to import.

Ta da... blog-only aggregation accomplished in about 5-10 minutes of mouse-clicking.

But what a kludge! (And yes, I could have probably done this even simpler in half a dozen other sites...)

Wouldn't it be so much nicer if Facebook was like Friendfeed and let you import any number of RSS feeds? Take a look at this view of my Friendfeed page:

friendfeedsubs.jpg

All the nice orange RSS icons are for various different feeds I'm importing. Why couldn't Facebook do something like that? It would be great if they would... and probably would result in more content being brought into Facebook (and helping in their continued battle for world domination. :-)

What do you think? What do you do if you have more than one blog or feed you want to import into Facebook? Or do you only have one blog? Or are you avoiding importing anything into Facebook because of their hideous Terms of Service?


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Vote TODAY for the new logo for the Data Portability project now!

While I have written a bit about the DataPortability.org project and am, in fact, subscribed to the project mailing list, I admit that I haven't been reading the list or following it enough to realize that Red Hat had sent them a "cease and desist" letter regarding the logo. As chronicled here, a logo competition ensued, and the 15 finalists are now posted for people to vote on.

If you are interested in the project, cast your vote today! The deadline is tonight at 11:59pm Pacific US time.

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There's still time to join the DataPortability.org video conversation/promotion effort!

dataportability.jpgThere's still time to join the DataPortability.org video promotion effort - the deadline has been extended now to March 31st!

Now you may be saying to yourself: "WHAT video promotion?" Well, if you haven't been following the work of the DataPortability.org project, earlier this month they launched a video conversation/promotion effort where they are asking people to record a video answer 5 questions:

  • What does DataPortability mean to you?
  • How do you imagine DataPortability might change the way you use the web?
  • How would you explain the value of DataPortability to Vendors - those that store the data.
  • How would you explain the value of DataPortability to Users - those that create and own the data.
  • Ideally, what would you like to see from the DataPortability Project in the next 12 months? 24 months?

The original deadine was today, February 20th, but, as previously mentioned, it's now been extended to March 31st. People are asked to upload a video to any of the video sharing sites with the tag "dataportabilityandme". Some results on YouTube are visible with the tag "dataportabilityandme" and also "dataportablity". Others are appearing on blip.tv, seesmic and also on private blogs. Here's one that I particularly enjoyed:

What do you want in the way of data portability on the Internet? Why don't you join the conversation?

P.S. And yes, I will be doing so soon...

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Yahoo supports OpenID... Yaawwwnnn... when can I *login* to Yahoo! services with OpenID?

BBA831C6-CAD7-498F-9164-AC5BA8FEADD7.jpgThe big news in the blogosphere today is that "Yahoo Implements OpenID; Massive Win For The Project". Indeed, Yahoo announced that all 248 million Yahoo! accounts would be able to sign in to OpenID-enabled sites using their Yahoo! ID.

Yaawwwwnnnn.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of OpenID. I've written about it both here and on DisruptiveTelephony. I was part of a long podcast about OpenID security. I subscribe to the DataPortablility.org mailing list. My home site is configured to be an OpenID provider. So is my work blog site.

But that's the point, really...

We don't really need more OpenID providers - we need sites that will accept OpenID!

Here are all the OpenID providers that I can currently use (at least, the ones I remember):

  • www.danyork.com
  • dyork.livejournal.com
  • claimid.com/danyork
  • danyork.myopenid.com
  • technorati.com/people/technorati/dyork
  • danyork.vox.com
  • danyork.wordpress.com
  • blogs.voxeo.com (and several variants on this URL)
  • openid.aol.com/danyork324 as well as a couple of other AOL screen names (per AOL's support)
  • and now my Yahoo! account

I obviously have absolutely ZERO problem getting an OpenID.

The problem I have is using one of my OpenIDs. Here's the companion list of where I can use my OpenID on a regular basis:

  • leave a comment on a Blogger blog (but I already have a Google account that I'm usually logged into)
  • leave a comment on a LiveJournal blog (but I already have a LJ account)
  • login to Plaxo (but I had an account there that pre-dates their OpenID support, and yes, I know I can tie them together)
  • login to Twitterfeed.com to create a RSS-to-Twitter stream
  • leave comments on random other blogs that support OpenID

And... and... and... ???

Now, granted, it's nice to be able to leave those comments... but that's not a whole lot of usefulness out of my zillion different OpenIDs. Yes, I know there is are directories of OpenID-enabled site (for example, here and here). If I ever want a quick wiki page, I know there are half a dozen Wiki sites that let you create one with an OpenID. But here's the thing... I don't use those sites that are listed. Now, maybe I should, as a way of thanking them for their OpenID support, but I don't.

On one level, I'm thrilled that Yahoo is becoming an OpenID provider. It is a huge endorsement for the protocol. But I'd be far happier if Yahoo was announcing that I could login to their sites with an OpenID. Let me choose one of my OpenIDs and let me use that as the one to use to login to my Flickr account, and my Yahoo!Messenger and my Yahoo!Mail and del.icio.us and all the other sites that Yahoo! owns. THAT would be something to be incredibly excited about.

As it is, I fear that some % of those 248 million Yahoo! users will investigate what this OpenID site is all about and find that... well.. there aren't a whole lot of places they can really use it.

That is what we need. (And what sites like SpreadOpenID, which is unfortunately down for maintenance, are all about.)

When will Yahoo! go the next step and let us use our OpenIDs on Yahoo! sites? (I agree with Marshall Kirkpatrick that they probably won't anytime soon.)

P.S. And yes, I'm trying to do my part and get my work blog site to support OpenID for comments.

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Don't understand why we NEED "data portability"? Watch this video...

If you don't yet understand why the walls need to come down between social networks, here is this great video from Michael Pick of Smashcut Media (first seen on Particls.Blog):
DataPortability - Connect, Control, Share, Remix from Smashcut Media on Vimeo.

Indeed... this kind of portability is exactly what we need. We need to have control over our own information and network. Join the conversation over at DataPortability.org....

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