This may be premature, but it seems like the folks at Ning are listening to us. They just announced that Ning would continue to allow educators to use their ad-free service for no charge. What’s cool about this, besides the obvious fact that a bunch of my sites won’t need a new host, is the way in which we got the attention of Ning. An online petition. A net meetup. Raising awareness through blogs, wikis, and more. We networked to save the network. Here’s the article from the NY Times. I’m including it in its entirety.


Ning Planning to Remain Free for Teachers

By JOSHUA BRUSTEIN
May 4, 2010

Ning, a company that allows users to build their own social networks, says it has signed a letter of intent with a major educational publisher to keep its service free for educators, several weeks after causing an outcry among nonprofit groups by announcing that it would end its popular free service. Ning did not give any more information about the deal, which it disclosed as it outlined its plans to begin charging subscription fees to all of its users.

Ning claims over 46 million users, spread over 300,000 social networks focused on topics from music to politics to religion. It has become popular among nonprofit groups, and tens of thousands of organizations established networks ranging in scale from teachers who set up networks for their students to sprawling efforts like T. Boone Pickens’s PickensPlan, for people interested in alternative energy, which claims over 200,000 users. Setting up the network is free, but extra features are available for a fee.

While the vast majority of Ning’s users relied on the free service, the company says 75 percent of its traffic and 80 percent of its revenue come from paying customers. The company announced on April 15 that it would shift to an exclusively subscription-based model, saying the needs of its free and paid clients were so different that it had to choose one of the groups to be its focus.

The company’s initial announcement prompted a round of spirited discussion among nonprofit groups about the perils of relying on free Web-based services. While these services can be invaluable to groups on shoestring budgets, they can also disappear with little warning when companies change business strategies or fall onto difficult financial times.

This is not the first time that nonprofits feel they have been burned. Last November, Causes, a fund-raising application, stopped working with MySpace, deleting users’ content and communications. Ideablob, a service that created a platform for people to discuss business ideas and awarded cash prizes to the most popular ones, shut down later in the month when its parent company filed for bankruptcy. In both cases, the changes were abrupt, and nonprofit groups felt blindsided. This seemed to be happening again last month, when Ning’s decision was made public before the company told its clients.

“We have to ask, ‘what is the cost of free?’ ” wrote Beth Kanter, the author of a blog about how nonprofits can use social media, in an e-mail message.

In the hours and days after Ning’s announcement, the company’s message boards were filled, and it was deluged with hundreds of e-mail messages from teachers and nonprofit groups. It was also presented with an online petition signed by over 1,100 people asking it to waive its fees for educational and nonprofit groups.

Ning says it is taking a step in that direction with its effort to provide free service for teachers and their students. The company also says its premium subscriptions will cost less than they do now. It will offer three tiers of service, ranging in price from $2.95 a month (or $20 a year) to $49.95 a month. Ning will no longer look to gain revenue by placing advertisements on its networks. Jason Rosenthal, the company’s C.E.O., said he expected the increased income from subscription fees to offset the loss in advertising revenue.

The company is announcing its changes on its blog on Tuesday.

The decision to exempt teachers from subscription fees was made after discussions with teachers about the barriers to getting even small amounts of money approved by school systems.

“For public educators, the process for buying anything tends to be so arduous, and we’re going to make it easier to use Ning,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

Manny Hernandez, the author of the book Ning for Dummies who also runs a nonprofit focused on diabetes that maintains two social networks on Ning, was involved in discussions between nonprofit groups and the company as it worked out its new pricing structure. He said he was happy with the outcome, saying that even the paid subscriptions were modest enough to be affordable for small groups.

But he also saw a cautionary tale.

“The big lesson for nonprofits and education technologists alike would be to keep in mind that if you want absolute control over the way a certain platform or solution works, the only way that can be accomplished is by housing it yourself,” he said. “Unfortunately that comes at an additional cost, and that cost has to be taken by someone.”