Visit the #smchat room on Tweetchat to participate in Wednesday's Twitter chat. #smchat meets weekly to discuss various social media topics.
What do we do when a resource disappears, or changes in such a way that we need to reconsider our options? That is the question many of us are facing in regard to Ning, the social media service that let's you create your own social network. I'm currently a member of over a dozen Ning Networks, have created 4 and also have admin privileges on 2 created by others. So the Ning question affects me both as a user and as a developer.
Today I'd like to ponder how we prepare for service changes, how much we rely on external systems and related topics. I don't have all the answers, to this so I'll give some examples and pose some questions, but I expect that it will be your feedback that really helps us make decisions about services such as Ning. I'll also be asking these questions tomorrow, May 5, 2010 at 1:00 p.m. (e.d.t.) via #smchat, a weekly Twitter chat on social media. Please feel free to share your comments here or during the live chat.
First we panic. Then we recall that the Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe says "Don't Panic." So we calm down and think about the issues at hand. If the service is going away we need to examine our goals and determine what features we need in an alternative site. If the service is changing we must still examine our goals and consider whether or not the changed site will be able to accommodate them.
Back in 2008 I learned that one of my favorite social media services, Pownce, was going to shut down on December 15. In the frenzy to stay connected with Pownce friends, we rushed to explore other options, I created Pownce Refugees on Ning, others built their own sites, and soon we each had accounts scattered on services ranging from Soup to Vox. You can read more about this experience in my post, Social Media is People (but more enriching than Soylent Green*).
I'm a Web developer, so I could have built something from scratch, but I chose Ning to host Pownce Refugees because it was something I could do quickly enough to spread the word via Pownce before the shut-down occurred. While it didn't offer the same feature set, it offered enough options that we could continue to have the types of long conversations and media embeds that we'd grown used-to. Within a short period of time we had 100 members, and we were featured in the Ning Blog post, Former Pownce members find a new home. The site served as a useful home base, but over time it became less active. Now most of us communicate (with each other) primarily through Twitter, simply because it was the one service that everyone was already using. We missed the functionality of Pownce, but at least we were all on Twitter.
The heart of a social network lies in it's members. Ning, Vox and the Pownce clone, Schmownce (created by a fellow Pownce user) offered more features than Twitter, but they didn't have the same user base. Everyone (in our circle) was already on Twitter so it won simply because the people were already there. Other sites won as well. In an effort to make sure we wouldn't have to scramble again if Twitter died, many of us also friended each other on Facebook and other services so we'd have redundant connection points in play.
Ning announced it's pricing plans today. The lowest cost plan is cheap enough that even tiny communities should be able to afford it. But they'll lose features they have now. #smchat could retain most of the features we currently use on the $19.95/year plan. Some of my other networks require more features and the other plans are more expensive. When deciding whether to stay or go we'll have to consider:
How many members will we lose if we move to a new network? Will there be exporting and importing tools available to help us migrate users to a new service with minimal attrition rates? Small networks such as #smchat may find it easier to transition to a new service than would larger networks.
How much content do we have on the site? Does it exist in multiple formats? Is there a way to cleanly export it so that we can also easily import it to another site? Or will we have to download and copy our content manually? Ning plans to provide us with tools for migration in the future, but we don't as yet know how they'll work.
Can we, as site owners, afford the cost of whichever Ning plan offers the services we require? Would our members be interested in contributing to those costs? Can these costs be offset by advertising or sponsorship? As an example, the University Web Developers network is currently sponsored by OmniUpdate. We have 3,225 members, so I would think OmniUpdate would want to keep sponsoring the site under the new plans. (I'm not an administrator for this site, but this would be my guess.)
Can we, as site owners, afford the cost of an alternative plan? Ning's most expensive offering is $49.95/month. Or you can save a bit by paying $499.95 for a full year. While that will seem expensive to many, it's far cheaper than hiring someone like me to build a WordPress/BuddyPress alternative. If you have the skill set to build your own network, that may save you money, but you'll still need to invest your time. Our Lake Erie Moose Society is thinking about WordPress, but we're a blogging group, so we were planning to create such a site for people to experiment with anyway...and we have several members who can contribute to the project of building the site, so I won't have to spend as much time on it as I would if building it by myself.
What other free options are available? Posterous announced that it would work on building an import feature so that Ning users could transition to that service. The features are quite different, but such options might be worth considering. One of the options mentioned for #smchat has been to use a group Wiki. What other options should we consider for #smchat and/or other networks?
Or is it safer to stick with sites we build ourselves so that we don't become dependent on others that may not always be available? I think this really depends on the needs of your network. I can build my own sites, but I've still created Ning sites because they save me time. I don't use them for everything but the feature set and ease-of-use has made Ning a useful option. Building custom sites costs time and money, so I think we need to evaluate the risks and rewards of using platforms like Ning on a case-by-case basis.
Building your own site isn't an option for everyone. Those who use online services can mitigate the risks by providing alternative channels. Our Lake Erie Moose Society also has a Facebook page and a LinkedIn Group (we don't use that much). The Ning site is home base, but the others provide back-up communication channels and help us to reach out to people less familiar with Ning. (Some of our members have been following us on Facebook without ever visiting the Ning site.)
Posterous announced they will be building a Ning importer. WPMU has announced a Ning to BuddyPress importer plugin. I plan to experiment with WordPress and BuddyPress so that I can build networks for those seeking self-hosted alternatives. It's too early to tell how/if Ning's plans will benefit Ning users and the company, but it also creates an opportunity for others to reach out to Ning users with alternatives. Movable Type, for example, could try to gain more customers by offering importing recommendations to Ning users who might want to use Movable Type with Motion as a Ning alternative. Who else can benefit from this change? What should they be offering current Ning users to entice them to user their service instead?
As of now I've not decided what I'll do with each of my Networks, though I expect to keep at least one on the Ning platform. Each has different user needs that may be served with differing alternatives. We'll also be learning about more options in the weeks to come. What about you? What would you plan?
*On #smchat we number the questions by session. Tomorrow's chat will be our 46th, thus I've numbered my questions as 46A-46D.
We all know these blog posts don't get written as frequently as I'd like. But that doesn't mean you need to go weeks without hearing me babble. Over on http://www.facebook.com/heidicool, I'm sharing one tip per day, usually as a short paragraph with a link to something interesting I've found in the blogosphere.
At one tip per week day it won't clog your Facebook stream, but hopefully you'll find something useful. And for more links (and ramblings that may not always be related to the Web) I usually Tweet and reTweet a few (or several) times per day at @hacool. (I also have links to more accounts on My Social Media Profiles page and am now also babbling on Buzz.)