The networks are all a flutter today with the news from Ning that they have slashed jobs and will be charging for use of their networks in the very near future. Read this from Jay Rosenthal, newly appointed CEO of Ning;
When I became CEO 30 days ago, I told you I would take a hard look at our business. This process has brought real clarity to what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do now to make Ning a big success.
My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business. Our Premium Ning Networks like Friends or Enemies, Linkin Park, Shred or Die, Pickens Plan, and tens of thousands of others both drive 75% of our monthly US traffic, and those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us.
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. We will judge ourselves by our ability to enable and power Premium Ning Networks at huge scale. And all of our product development capability will be devoted to making paying Network Creators extremely happy.
Although I have to admit to being taken aback by this news, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised.
I’ve been speculating for quite some time on the ‘free’ model of enterprise many of us are familiar with and expect from the Web. This is a model that I don’t think can be sustained, proof of which came with this announcement today. So what will it mean for those of us running Ning networks?
Do we continue the networks and pay the fees? Do we lobby Ning and ask them (implore them!) to do as Wikispaces do and provide a free platform for education that doesn’t include ads? Do we export the data and look to a platform like Elgg to fill the gap? Do we wait and see who might see this this as an opportunity to launch a platform that will see large take up from disenfranchised Ning users? Do we sit back and wait to see the plans that Ning have promised they will send to network creators in the next two weeks?
All things we need to consider. I’m waiting to see the message from Ning for creators. I’m hopeful they will not been driven by monetary incentive and will see a need to support the education community. I’m not entirely confident this will happen however. I suppose we all need to get on the Ning discussion forum and do our bit to lobby Ning to think of the education sector and the good work they can do to support student learning with the use of their networks. Chris Champion has said it very well with this comment he left in the Ning forum discussion;
I am a creator of both free Nings and a “Premium” ad-free point my domain ning. The premium Ning represents a conference with paying customers – for a $360 annual cost, we have a network that we don’t have to host. Is it cheap? No. We could have done Elgg and dealt with more administration issues, plus about $80 in hosting. But Ning is nice because people who are already Ning members don’t have to create new accounts, learn new things. It works because people are comfortable with it. Unfortunately, we might find that the ONLY place people use the Ning is our premium site. So be it. As long as it doesn’t cost our users additional fees (we build in the fees when we price the conference), they won’t mind.
The other side is that I work for a school. I as well as another teacher use Ning to provide a protected social network in which students can share ideas, projects, and learn appropriate behavior and candor on a social network. This particular use is far more important to me than the Premium ning I manage.
I call on Marc Andreessen and Jason Rosenthal to follow the model of Wikispaces: grant K-12 schools the continued use of Nings for the classroom without ads, and at no charge. Do I think Ning is worth a few $ monthly? Yes. Would my school pay? Absolutely not.
Marc – I paid for Netscape way back before it was free. I was one of the few who paid because I am a developer (and computer science teacher now) and I recognize the value of hard work. But I also recognize the opportunity to provide teachers and students with great resources. I hope you do too.
Effectively, the message from this is that free can’t work. We have to become accustomed to the fact that if we want the Web to work for us, we have to outlay something to make it happen. I’ve been reading the work of Jaron Lanier and he extols this message. We need to be paying attention and we need to accept that this is the playing field we are operating in. Open source software has risks associated with its use, and we may find this is what will happen to other platforms we use that are currently free. The monetisation of the Web is an issue we all have to face, and it may be that it is time for us to start outlaying the cash to make it work.
The pity of all this, is that once again, it will be those that can least afford to lose out who will lose out. The schools whose budgets are tight will not be able to sustain their networks, and kids and their learning will suffer. It’s also a pity for all those educators out there who have stuck their necks out and successfully used Ning networks to assist their students. They’ve often had to lobby school administrators to move out of walled gardens to do this. This move by Ning provides grist to the mill to all those skeptics out there who will gleefully redirect them back to platforms like Sharepoint that don’t support the collaborative learning that you can achieve in a Ning environment. I do hope Ning is listening and will do their bit to support the education sector.