How Do You Use Metaphors for Learning? Open Thread
Professional Development Practice: The One Sentence Journal

Ninging It

Conversation Jen of @injenuity is feeling frustrated with Ning:

It pains me to say this, but I am no longer a fan of Ning for community building. It has been a year since I created my first site, a network for moms that has grown to 200 plus members, but I have no time to maintain. The network I created for faculty at my campus plugs along, but isn’t functioning the way a social network naturally should. I feel like my members are trapped! It’s no better than an LMS. . . .

People are distributed everywhere, yet all accessible from anywhere I have connectivity. We don’t need to congregate on a single platform. Everyone knows where to find me. The tool doesn’t matter. We can use whatever tools we like, as long as we take the time to learn more about the people in our network and how best to communicate with them.

Since I'm in the process of considering Ning for some other projects and have had my own experiences with running Ning communities, this got me thinking about when/if Ning is a good idea. What occurred to me is that maybe Ning is better as a sort of "gateway" tool for those who are relatively new to social media, rather than for connecting with those who are more experienced in using Web 2.0 tools.

After you've spent some time functioning with social media, like Jen, you begin to figure out where your contacts are and you'll "meet them" at their blogs, on Twitter, through their del.icio.us tags, etc. Having to go to a single destination like Ning feels limiting and useless because at that point, you've tended to develop a more fluid, connected notion of what it means to network with people online. But as I've said before, we're the exceptions. I think we're a particular kind of user who's comfortable with the more distributed nature of connection online and we've become unconsciously competent in working those networks. For us, our single point of contact is through our RSS feeds, not through a particular website.

This isn't true for most people, though. Power RSS users are still a decided minority and reality is, a LOT of people want and need a single location for accessing information and conversations that interest them. Most people do not have a blog, so the blog function in Ning is a way to help people get started with the idea in a safe environment, surrounded by people who share their interests. Many people don't get the idea of social bookmarking or tagging, so being able to share videos, etc. and tag them in Ning is another way to practice new skills.

Yes, I believe that the tools that exist outside of Ning for these purposes are superior to running them within a Ning community. But the reality is, Ning can also be a good set of "training wheels" for helping people try out some things before they are set loose into the wider Web 2.0 world. For beginners, they can be a great way to get a sense of the possibilities of social media within some kind of bounded arena before launching themselves into signing up with Blogger or getting a Twitter account. I think that this may be one of the reasons that Classroom 2.0 is so active--beside the fact that it's now large enough for the 1% rule to mean there are a ton of people participating, it's also filled with people who are beginning to get their feet wet with social media.

This isn't to say that I don't see issues with running a Ning community. Jen is right when she says that they can require a lot of facilitation, especially in the beginning stages. I also think that they may work best for time-limited purposes (such as planning for a face-to-face event or to facilitate a class) or when the focus is broad enough to invite a range of active participants. They can also work, I think, when used in combination with more traditional tools, like email, to help ease the transition and drive traffic to the site.

I haven't given up on Ning, but I definitely see its limitations. One of those, I think, is that it's probably better suited for "newbies."

What do you think? Are you with Jen in thinking Ning is too limited or do you think that there are times when Ning is the right tool?

Flickr photo via eye2eye.

Comments

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Michele
I'm with your thinking about Ning. Get as a time-delimited/training-wheels app but for those who are busy and know how to get around in social networks, then yes, it can be a bit of a trap. I can understand Jen when she talks about the time it takes to maintain, although I do not host a Ning site.

I recently joined a Ning community and I'm wondering why I did. Nothing much seems to be happening and the folk who have joined appear to be social network power users. I think they are, like me, too busy elsewhere. I'm going to think twice about joining any new Nings ... great as the concept is.

Another development in this giddy fast lane of the Web 2.0 world.

PS I joined FriendFeed this morning. Oh my!

Have to say that I agree. I joined the better blog Ning and don't follow it at all. Again, agree that for newbies it does help to have a central point. But call me 'old fashioned' I still love emails groups. What about a wiki - would that be as confining as Ning?

Another timely post.

I'm just about to start facilitating a course on Ning - as a time limited project which I think it probably works well for - and I've just been exploring how Ning could be used as an 'introduction to social media' environment for youth workers in the UK.

I've also been thinking about using it for more permanent networks - but this post highlights that for these sorts of ongoing networks it might be better to see it as the reception room - where people network and get to know each other before heading off to form overlapping small networks on other social media tools across the web where the real content sharing takes place. How that gets facilitated I'm not quite sure...

So--it sounds like we're all on the same page that Ning seems to work better for those who are less experienced in social media and/or for time-limited projects. Tim, not sure how it would work to have Ning be your sort of "reception room." I've seen people use it as their main website, so in that sense I could see it working.

I think Tim hit the nail on the head with the time limited approach. I'm in the process of creating a community for an upcoming conference. The appeal of Ning is it is simple for our delegates, (the majority of whom are overly experienced '2.0' users) to get into and explore.

We also already have a conference booking site, a portal for downloading conference presentations and a public blog. Packaging all of the social networking tools into one site is very appealing!

m

I agree with the posts above. I am a member of a couple of Ning groups but I rarely check them. I joined them (like other people) with the hopes that this would be a one-stop meeting place for those of like mind, but I find I spend more of my time on Twitter or Facebook or what have you.

I will be teaching two history courses (one in the summer and one in the fall) and I was thinking of setting up a Ning for my students. I am, of course, working under the assumption that they are not already traveling down the Web2.0 super highway. I want to use this as an opportunity to introduce them to what is out there in a controlled environment.

I haven't used Ning at all, so take my comments for what they're worth.

I think you're right, Michele, that those who work with social media figure out where their contacts are. That's really like learning who in your physical office prefers to talk in person, who prefers a quick phone call, who prefers an email.

(And often for a given person those preferences are situational.)

If you read a lot of blogs, you tend to forget that most people don't have them. If you've set up websites, you tend to forget the learning curve for someone who hasn't. Large swaths of the working world don't permit instant messaging.

The time-delimited thing makes a lot of sense, in part because then the focus is on the thing that's limited in time: a conference, a course, a group working on some specific project with a definite end date.

Thanks for visiting my blog. I think you're right about the short term projects as well as it being a good intro to social media. I've been wondering today, though, maybe it's more distributed than we think and that's the problem. The images, music, videos, blogs discussions are all divided. You have to click in several places to access the content. While it seems logically organized, it's just more work. It isn't like reading a page with embedded content. What do you think?

@Dani and @Mick--would love to hear more about your experiences with Ning as you implement your projects. With active facilitation, I think they can work for people in the kinds of projects you describe, but I'm curious to see if that's the case.

@Jen--I think you're right that with content all over the place, it might make things more difficult to navigate--not the same as a blog or wiki where you could have everything on the same page. I haven't played with it yet, but doesn't Ning now have the ability to create wikis? Maybe that becomes a way around that.

I'm a member of a couple of Ning communities, but like previous commenters I rarely visit them. The problem in my case is that I find the forum discussions too hard to follow. It's hard for me to tell what I've already read and what's new, even if I get the RSS feed.

Cathy, you bring up a really interesting point that I think is true for all uses of social media--some of it just doesn't seem to work with how individual people process information. For example, I haven't been able to get into FriendFeed--it just overwhelms me with too much information. I think it's how I scan to read or something, but nothing stands out and it all feels like one big wash of data coming over me. I think that's why a lot of people still like e-mail--it's easier for them to sort through then an RSS feed or a forum discussion.

I have been very interested to read these comments, and Michele your original post. I have been trying to figure out how to build and maintain a community of practice for practitioners in small schools in my local area, especially the ICT Coordinators. Most have little contact with others in a similar role. I was thinking that Ning may be an answer but will need to explore other avenues too.
@Michele: also interesting what you say about not engaging with a page of information- some pages can be very offputting; I guess that too much information is a big part of it, but probably also a host of more subtle factors.

Chris, I think that Ning could potentially work with people who are new to this sort of thing and accustomed to visiting web sites for their activity. You may need to engage people on a regular basis through the email function in Ning--although it might then make sense to create a Google group which would give you email for discussion and then the capacity to create pages of links and upload and share documents. Might be easier for people to grasp.

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