Monday, May 26, 2008

Making a Ning Dashboard

I am an unabashed Ning lover, and have several Ning networks I have either started or joined that I consider to be great resources for personal learning--including my own Classroom 2.0 and the network I run for Ning, Ning in Education.

As part of the larger trend I keep feeling--the growing "tidal wave of information"--I often find that it is hard to keep track of the many discussions taking place in these networks. It's not just a tidal wave of information, it's a tidal wave of good information. Part of what I have known that I needed to do was to find a way to better watch or track the many conversations taking place across multiple Ning networks, and I've wished for some kind of control panel or "dashboard" for doing so.

Well, in our way-too-early Saturday morning Web 2.0 Week in Review broadcast this weekend, Michael Staton did a short overview of RSS feeds and how useful they are, and demonstrated by showing how they can populate portal pages in Pageflakes and netvibes. I've been a pretty consistent user of the main iGoogle customizable page(s), and a couple of times had tried to bring my feeds into that page, but it never felt that productive to me. I'd just skipped over Pageflakes and netvibes, thinking that my Google Reader accomplished all that I wanted for my feeds. Michael made the point that in using a page or portal, watching your RSS feeds becomes more like reading a newspaper than reading your email--you can miss the newspaper for a few days and not feel the need to go back and read the days you missed, but unread email stores up and must be read.


Here I'd been waiting for Ning to come up with some kind of dashboard solution, and all the while the ability to create one had been right under my nose and I didn't realize it. I think we might all agree that this is a very Web 2.0 feeling: hundreds of programs with thousands of mash-up possibilities, and suddenly we discover something that we think must have been an obvious combination, but required we be thinking in the right way to see it.

So I've spent a few hours on this holiday weekend working on a good solution here. One that you should now be able to copy in a matter of minutes. I'm pretty happy with the result, and a week of playing with it will tell me more.

My primary requirements were:
  1. The ability to utilize a separate tab or page for each Ning network I want to track;
  2. The ability to easily copy the tab or page layout of one to set up others, so I don't have to start from scratch for each network;
  3. The ability for others to see or copy the pages, making it a usable model of an easily-customizable solution for other Ning users.
I tried iGoogle, Pageflakes, and netvibes. My final solution is in Pageflakes. You can see (and copy) the results at:
All three are essentially the same, and you can take any one, modify it to your liking, then make it "public" and copy it for each network you want to track. In a short period time, you can have a tab for every Ning network you want to track. If you know what you're doing, 5 minutes tops. If you have to learn (like me), might take a half hour to get it all done. (And I assume we will will be tweaking for weeks/months/years to come.)

Each of the three tabs or pages linked above has the same layout that I set up, but which you can change. On the left is the list of all forum posts and replies. (Ning's regular RSS feeds for forums is either a feed of all new posts, or of all replies to a particular post, but if you want all the forum posts and replies, you can use the following feed URL and substitute your network name: " http://[YOURNETWORKNAME]".) For the middle column I have the standard blog posts feed ("http://[YOURNETWORKNAME], and for the right hand column the photo and video feeds. I don't need to give these to you, really, because you can go to any of the three above pages and just click on the "copy" link at top right and it will copy this page and its settings to your own Pageflakes account. All you then have to do is to edit each "widget" by changing jsut the network name in the RSS feed URL, and within about 45 seconds you'll have a page to track a Ning network. After I figured this out I set up five pages in just a few minutes, including one for the Ning Creator Network and one for the Ning Developer Network.

For those with custom domain names, you can put either the custom domain address into the feed URL, or the name in the original address. I use the latter since they both work and since it makes copying one page to another for a new network super easy.


For those who want to drill down on this topic even more, here are some other notes.

netvibes: I liked the graphics and colors way better than either Pageflakes or iGoogle. But I couldn't share page sets making it easy for others to copy. Maybe I missed something? I also couldn't change the name/url of my "universe" page when I figured out what was going on. I loved the defaul action of using the internal reader when you click on a link, and that it shows the item as read. Pageflakes allows you to configure to use the internal reader, but doesn't seem to show what items you have read or not.

iGoogle: Some of the RSS reader widgets I tried didn't like Ning feeds for some reason, and while you can share individual widgets, that wasn't anywhere near as appealing as sharing a full page template for someone else to use. I would have loved a better integration with Google Reader functionality, and would love to be able to use the Reader keyboard shortcuts on my iGoogle page. I'm still going to use the Reader widget on iGoogle for my other non-Ning feeds. I found it very hard to get the RSS URLs for Reader folders, and even when I ad them, the RSS widgets couldn't handle it.