This weekend I noticed a tweet from Alec Couros about some issues with the Ning social networking platform. That post is over a year old but from the comments as late as last fall, there seem to be ongoing issues on how Ning treats its customers, users and their data.
This brought me to reflect, once again, how important an open source framework is as we move more of our computing to the cloud. While Ning may be free, it is not open source, and the company can make changes at will, just like Facebook, Google or Twitter may do.
I advise my clients that they should consider how important their data is to them before using software as a service (SaaS). Can the data be easily exported? With social bookmarks, it is easy to export and import OPML files from one platform to another. It is also simple to export from WordPress.com SaaS to your own open source hosted version, which is why I strongly advise clients to use WordPress for blogging. With Ning, Facebook and many others, there is no such export function.
So what is the alternative to Ning? This social networking platform is simple to set-up and use and has been embraced by millions, including LearnTrends (+3,000) and WorkLiteracy (+900), two sites I manage. For large enterprise projects I have used Drupal as a community management platform and it works well, though it requires solid technical support.
Another platform that I have used since its early days is Elgg, an open source social networking platform that attracted me because of its unique underlying model. We started using Elgg for an online medical community of practice in 2004 after going through dozens of platforms. The key differentiator of Elgg is that the individual is the centre of all the action. A course is just a node that an individual connects to. You don’t “enter” a course, you just connect to it, as you would to a colleague or friend. This is real user control. We liked Elgg so much that we paid to develop a calendar function and then gave the code to the community.
In 2005 I described Elgg as a Content/Community/Collaboration Management System that allows you to develop, invent and construct knowledge. That sure beats any LMS, in my opinion. Elgg is used for commercial applications like Emerald Publishing as well as the foundation for the Eduspaces community.
The Elgg platform has matured in the past six years and has a strong community and a solid product (v. 1.7). My colleague Jane Hart provides Elgg services for education & business. Soon, Elgg.com will launch with services for those who want a hosted community platform. One major advantage of Elgg will be the ability to take your data and have it hosted elsewhere. Avoiding vendor lock-in is a wise business decision. The Elgg community blog has more information.
Supporting communities like Elgg and Drupal means that we can have more control over our use of web technologies. As business and education move to the web and the cloud, open-source platforms will help to ensure that some corporate board doesn’t decide our future for us.