How Ning made me a chump and how you can avoid it

The problem with Software as a Service is you don’t own it.

You get it for free, but you don’t have a stake and you don’t have negotiating power.  Instead, try to work with services that give you an exit plan or that have the safety stamp of an aGPL license. 1

Who cares?

Vim pretties up with the Vivid Chalk theme.Let me back up and tell you a story about a social network I created.  Two big-time development bloggers, Jeff and Scott, were writing posts back and forth about how what colors they liked in their text editors and what fonts they used.

I’m not kidding, this is important in a job where most of what you do is sip coffee and type.  I’ve certainly killed some time messing about with how I color my  source code.

Jeff is a big idea generator. He posted the idea of a Pimp my Ride for text editing.  He said

What we really need is for some enterprising coder to create a “Hot or Not” site for IDE color schemes, where we can post screenshots and downloadable *.settings files for our preferred IDE color and font schemes.

I was a young man of that sort, so I whipped one up in 8 minutes.  Exactly 8 minutes.  I used Ning, the first “social network in a box”.  Back in those days they gave you full access to everything and they had tons of cool ways to structure your site.  You could upload a settings file and a screenshot, give it some descriptions and share it with other folks.  The site hummed along without much work from me, folks added settings every once in a while and all was good.

Ning promised that you could export your site if you wanted to migrate away, but that feature never got released.  This became important because Ning eventually had to deal with some nasty types who were using the platform to perform dastardly deeds, hacks that served pernicious purposes. 2   They reacted by rolling back features, locking things down and circling the wagons.   Eventually they moved things to a new, incompatible system and shut down  I never got an email about it.

Recently, one of the users emailed me to let me know it was down.  After a month of emails with the Ning support group, they revealed the final solution they could give me:

After investigating the situation, our engineers were unable to extract the data from As we were unable to retrieve the content, and the application would be staying down indefinitely, we went ahead and removed it so that you could create a brand new Ning Network in it’s place. It looks like we didn’t clearly convey this to you before removing the application and I apologize. This was an oversight by us which we should have checked,

Regardless, is now free. If you need help with any part of creating a Ning Network, setting it up or getting it running, please don’t hesitate to ask.

They’ve lost all the content that people put in there. They’ve lost all the pictures, descriptions, and files. But hey, no problem because you can just go ahead and rebuild that for them.


People put their time and energy in there and it disappeared.  Yes, it was a free service, but no, that doesn’t excuse it.  Say I offer to hold your wallet for you while you swim.  When you get out of the pool some of the pictures are missing.  Is it ok that I wasn’t charging you to hold your wallet?

The important bit

This is the fundamental problem with software as a service – you don’t own it, you don’t control it, and there’s no recourse to the providers like Ning.  It’s why I like to have my own cloud.  Cloud computing, software in the cloud, these terms are names for the same basic idea.  Digital Sharecropping.  You’ll get the resources you need for little or no money and you can produce value there for you and yours, but you never own it, you can’t take it somewhere else, and you have very little bargaining power for changes.  This is why Facebook is so troubling.  Most of my friends aren’t nerds, and they don’t know how to work a feed reader 3 or set up a blog for free.  That’s all they are really using Facebook for – reading the things their friends wrote and writing things to their friends.  It’s true. The technology to do all of this is simple and easy.  But Facebook centralized it and went viral with it.  That’s where my network of friends hang out.  My worry is, what happens to all of that content when Facebook changes its terms and decides to wall off part of it or charge for it or turn my comments to my friends into advertisements for products I don’t endorse?  What happens when Myspace turns that iMeem “Vampire Weekend” music playlist you made into an ad for Beyonce ringtones 4 ?

There is a solution

When possible, work with cloud services that give you an escape route.  They have to give you ownership of your data, a way to get your data out, and you have to use that method to back up your data on a regular basis. 5  Don’t be a chump.

  1. The project has a great list of alternatives that either AGPL or CC or something you can use.  Check out this guide to replacing what you are using now with services that keep you free.  (back)
  2. Maybe.  Now it looks like they might have just wanted to ditch a company called Widget Labs   (back)
  3. But you should definitely be using a feed reader. Do this.  Here’s the simplest overview ever.


  4. Where’s your hipster credibility now, buddy‽   (back)
  5. See these footnotes   (back)

But wait, there's more

10 thoughts on “How Ning made me a chump and how you can avoid it

  1. I understand your advice, but not the emotion behind it.

    This was a site that cost you exactly 8 minutes of effort in creating and that you didn't check on a regular basis often enough to even know that it went down or that the provider was having issues. That makes the analogy of someone holding your wallet seem more inflammatory than necessary; instead of asking them to hold your wallet, it's more that you asked a stranger to hold some neat looking rocks that you found and then were surprised when, several weeks later, they weren't still protecting them.

    Yes, you get what you pay for. Along with even a minor financial commitment is the implication that your work has value that will be respected by the company you give it to. Free or advertising financed services are common on the net, but expectations for them should be lower than more expensive services because paying for something infuses the seller with a sense of responsibility, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of people who can enforce such things. You wouldn't throw your car keys to a random dude on the street and ask him to park it for you, but you might to a valet, even though it would be equally easy for either of them to steal your car. One has some responsibility imposed on them, the other does not, and we all know this inherently.

    Free services (like Ning) serve a useful purpose in letting people play around with ideas that they might not be committed enough to pay for. But to expect more out of them is, as you point out, foolish. One good solution is to own things yourself (not a level of commitment everyone wants to have) and the other is simply to identify the transition between "software toy / pet project" and "valuable website" and take responsibility for it. Like data on your own computer, if you care enough about it that you would be this upset when it's gone, back it up. If the service doesn't allow you do that *right now* (as opposed to being a feature that's coming soon), then you're on a service that doesn't meet your needs and it's time to move.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to post a well written and thought out comment. I disagree with some of what you say.

      I am not at all miffed about 8 wasted minutes of mine. I am guilty of wasting my time far worse then they did. I am unhappy about the collective effort that was wasted. I tried to make it clear that the loss is the effort of all the folks who participated or used the site.

      Your valet example is good. Some places offer free valet service. I think ning was much more like that. They made certain promises, and then they broke those promises. Something that was working in the world stopped working because of it. Because of this behavior I am less likely to trust software as a service providers, especially if they don't provide data export. I am also much more likely to USE the data export – which I should have been doing all along instead of relying on it to always be available.

  2. @Raumornie

    What if the valet said "I'll park your car for free; all you have to do is let me put an ad on it". There is still a payment (in ad space, or traffic or whatever). You could just as easily pay cash for a service that sucks.

    "Like data on your own computer, if you care enough about it that you would be this upset when it's gone, back it up. If the service doesn't allow you do that *right now* (as opposed to being a feature that's coming soon), then you're on a service that doesn't meet your needs and it's time to move."
    I think that was the whole point of this post, wasn't it?

  3. I understand this, but at the same time, to say that SaaS partnerships are only negative seems a little nearsighted.

    I 100% agree that people shouldn't start dumping all their data, time, files into a resource that they don't trust – that's part of the freemium model – you spend enough time in our playbox, you'll want to pay for more features (ex. Evernote).

    However, there are SaaS providers that are serious about being partners, not vendors. The partnership being, you pay us $ a month and we provide you with a continuing service. Many SaaS providers offer export and backup at anytime.

    In my practice as a value migration consultant, I never recommend any providers that don't have that stipulation in their ToS.

    Owning the solution, having your own cloud? The people who can actually efficiently maintain that sort of technical solution will always be a niche market. People want an easy to use, friendly service that helps them share and create content to their audience – what's wrong with someone providing that?

    Phone service, water, gas, heat, electricity – these are all services. SaaS is the logical extension of this.

    1. I like your point about phone service, water, gas, heat and electricity as a service. I'm excited by solar at home. One of the things that ticked me off was that free export of the data was promised, and it didn't happen.

      Coincidentally, after this article got onto reddit, digg, twitter etc – I got a little note from the Ning folks. If they actually follow through and get the data export I'll be happy to update and note that.

  4. I had a similar problem w NING at the very beginning…

    It is more an issue of broken promises and what happens when they already get their value add.
    What the community did was worth time and money. All the invested data, beta testing, promotion etc.

    Dataownership is the big issue here. And it will continue to be w SaaS and what the repercussions are for broken promises…

  5. Matt, thanks for explaining what happened to the site. I'm one of the coffee sipper/typists you refer to and was very interested in checking out the various themes after reading both Hanselman's and Atwood's posts about it. The url is still valid, and ning doesn't say the site is down, they say it is undergoing maintenance.

  6. It is now 2016. I am leaving NING because they DOUBLED the rates. I have a fairly large social group and I need a new home or a new process.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Hmmm, I don’t know of a specific alternative. I just abandoned my nascent group. But I bet most features could be replicated in WordPress or Drupal. It will take learning those platforms and some time. What features were you using in Ning.

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