Tuesday, May 04, 2010

New Ning Plans: The Good, The Bad, and the Unknown

As they had promised, today Ning announced a new strategy for their host-your-own social networking service.  The following notes are from my reading of the blog announcement, the similar announcement page, and the new FAQ.  They are not definitive and are subject to possible misreadings; however, I did have a full discussion today with John McDonald from Ning during which he clarified several questions I had about the new plans, and I believe my notes here to be accurate.  Please feel free to comment with clarifications or corrections.

Because I've been at the USDLA conference today and have limited time, I'm not going to give a complete overview of the new plans.  Please refer to the links above for that detail.  I'm going to focus on what the impact of these new plans will be, particularly, for educators and the educational community.

The Good:
  • $2.95 per month for Ning Mini networks is a really good price point.  While it does not allow for Clay Shirky's "failure is free" kind of experimentation, it should make it relatively easy on the pocket to try a network out.  And because there's an easy upgrade path if a network is successful or needs more features, it seems like a really good price point if you have to charge some amount.  
  • Annual payment plans will help.  While still only credit card and PayPal, but with the promise of future alternatives, just having the ability to pay for a year at a time should allow educators to more easily budget for the expense of a network and submit for reimbursement.
  • A simple export feature will provide some peace of mind, both for backing up a network and/or for transferring data to other services.  It will be interesting to see if there are other services which will be able to do the full data import from a Ning network, but if they can it does provide options and a sense of security.
  • Single sign-on / alternative authentication has been a highly desired feature from Ning in the past, and will potentially allow institutions and organizations with existing membership bases to incorporate access to Ning into their existing services.  It seems like there will be a couple of other somewhat intriguing options here as well, including logging in using Facebook or Twitter authentication.  What's not entirely clear in the material--or, according to John, to Ning yet--is if these features will be included as part of the Pro service or an extra fee.  
  • API access to networks will be a plus to organizations really wanting to research the value and use of educational social networking.  Several graduate students have looked closely at my Classroom 2.0 network and this kind of access will make deeper scholarship possible.
  • $19.95 for full branding control.  The marketing message that you will now have more control at a cheaper price with the Plus network fee is, in my case, pretty true.  We'll talk below about videos and bandwidth, but for me I'll be paying less and getting more for most of my networks.
The Bad:
  • No fully-free networks will reduce experimentation, at least on the Ning platform.  The ability to start a network (or many) for free has been, I believe, a big factor in the adoption of Ning and the lack of a completely free option does change things.  What's not stated blatantly here, but which I believe John said at one point and which seems to be true, is that Ning themselves will no longer be doing any ad-serving; this, of course, means that even the base-level network has to have a fee.
  • If you don't pay even the minimal amount, currently your network and all its content will disappear 30 days after the July shift.  While Ning will likely provide some capability to get a network back within some limited period of time, the idea that created content is not "grandfathered in" and retained even in some format feels bad.  I'm not sure how bad it actually is, but I'm hoping they reconsider this in some way and while not allowing those networks be functional, it would be nice to have the content statically available for posterity.  I'm also thinking about all the networks that will be created in the future--the idea that if for some reason you stop paying Ning all of the contributions "disappear forever" will be a mental and real roadblock to using the service.
  • Not having groups in the Mini offering is too bad.  A lot of the vibrancy of networks comes from the ability of network members to be proactive, and creating a group is one of the great ways to encourage that.  
The Unknown:
  • The "major educational company" that has no name could be good or bad.  I'm assured it will be good, but I can imagine more than one large educational company whose providing Ning Mini networks for free would be looked upon with suspicion.  What's also not spelled out is what kind of control that company will have, their ability to market or message to the creators and members of the networks, and if there will be any advertising by that company on the networks.  Again, I've been assure that this will be handled well, but until that time this is an unknown.  And for those who's networks depend on functions that are not included in the Mini package, this won't help.
  • The wording in this same paragraph about the free Mini networks is ambiguous.  It could be read, and in fact seems to read, that networks can be created by educators for student networks in primary and secondary education.  UPDATE:  This is official, straight from John McDonald. The sponsored Mini networks can be used for professional development networks for primary and secondary educators, and can be used for teacher-led student/classroom networks for students 13+ in secondary (high school) institutions.  Ning's terms of service will continue to require that anyone signing up for a Ning network be 13 years of age or older.
  • It's not clear to me what the impact of no chat, pages, apps, and events in Mini networks will be.  I personally won't miss them much.
  • No video uploading for Mini and Plus networks.  This isn't explained as well as it might be, and it actually makes sense to me.  Embedding videos doesn't cost Ning bandwidth, as they get served by the actual originating service, but network-specific videos likely represent a real cost to Ning.  If you are running a student or educator network that depends on the capability of uploading unique video or audio content, you have to go up to the Pro account, and for some of those folks that may really represent to steep a jump.  The jury is out for me on my networks.
  • The extra costs for alternate authentication and bandwidth, which are not spelled out, and which would be in addition to the Pro fees, are an unknown.  John assured me that when there are plans for bandwidth charging, there will be features in place which show your current bandwidth usage and give network creators some controls to manage bandwidth.  
  • The ability to charge network members for being a member.  Not sure I would ever do this in my networks.  I'm interested if anyone has an educational network where that would make sense.
I hope this summary from my perspective is helpful.  Please let me know if I've missed anythings.
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