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?