Recent changes in Ning’s business model (see News & Views About Change for updates) have Network Creators wondering whether to pay to keep hosting their online communities on the Ning platform, or to start looking at alternatives. We won’t be told the new pricing structure and other details until May 4th, but in the meantime, inevitably, rumors are running rife – and it’s a fresh reminder to backup the content you and your members have worked hard to create online.
Back in 2008, founder Marc Andreessen described Ning as “very pro data portability” with lots of ways for users to “get data in and out of the system.” Since then, Ning may have discontinued FTP, WebDAV, and any other tools for individual network administrators to export their content – but that doesn’t mean that Network Creators must be locked in or shut out.
Here’s a rundown of some of your backup options – including a few tools that will be useful to other (non-Ning) membership website admins and bloggers, as well:
Network Creators can request a full backup – if you’re leaving Ning
If you've definitely decided to take your network off the Ning platform, you can (if you’re the current Network Creator) ask for a Network Content Export.
To request a Network Content Export, you’ll need to download and print out a release form (PDF here), fill it out, and mail/fax it to Ning at the address/number given on this FAQ page: http://help.ning.com/?faq=3772. When the release form has been received, Ning will contact you by email to confirm your decision to leave their system, and then prepare the backup for you.
The content we provide is a full backup of the content store for your Ning Network. There will be a folder tree with distinct folders for each type of content. The data is represented in individual xml files containing all data fields, including who uploaded what content. The actual content can be found in individual folders for each type of content. This package can be understandably quite large, so it will all be packed up into a tar.gz file (think zip file) which will be hosted on our servers. When it’s all ready we will provide a link where the tar file can be downloaded.
Please Note: your Ning Network will be deleted 30 days after generating and providing the link to download the export file. Once your network has been exported and deleted it cannot be restored.
There are a few wrinkles to consider, however, if you’re hoping to seamlessly move your community to another platform. For more information, see this discussion in Ning Creators: What if someone has to transfer from Ning; for example:
The exported content is atom-formatted xml. I'm not aware of any working import tools into blogger or wordpress though. I don't think it would be possible to move your network to another platform without letting your members know, since they would need to set up new credentials on the platform you're transferring to.
Third-party transfer service is available – for a price
SocialCoderz.com offers to move data between social networks, including Ning, with prices starting at $250. If your organization is considering a move away from Ning because you can’t afford a small monthly fee to continue hosting it, the cost of transfer may be a barrier for you. The SocialCoderz website has very few details about what’s involved with the transfer, but there’s a contact form if you’d like to find out if this service will fit your needs.
Again, the same limitations that Ning’s Phil McClusky points out about a Network Content Export would certainly apply to a third-party transfer:
Member passwords aren't part of the export data (Ning credentials are common across all of the Ning networks that a member belongs to) so you would need a mechanism to let your members recreate their accounts on the new platform.
I have yet to find another service that seems to offer to move all your network’s content from Ning to another platform. If you’re aware of another solution, please let us all know in the comments?
Backup for safety, even if you’re not leaving Ning…
If nothing else, Network Creators and their members have just had a sharp reminder of the importance of keeping a local backup of any content you’ve created online.
By the time Ning announces the details of its plans on May 4th – or at least by the end of the 10 weeks they’ve promised to allow Creators of free networks to make a decision – this may all be a moot point. For all we know, export tools may be part of that package… but that’s just speculation, sparked by "wishful thinking" and one support email quoted in Ning Creators: What if someone has to transfer from Ning:
Ning Networks do not currently have a backup tool, so you will want to manually copy and save any content that you'd like to preserve elsewhere, to a different space for storage. We are working for export tools that can be implemented in the future, but those are not available yet.
If “manually copy and save any content you’d like to preserve” sounds like a real chore, that’s because… well, frankly, it is a chore.
Any website with content that’s dynamically generated from a database and includes any number of apps, some of them supplied by third parties, will not be a quick-and-easy backup job without an export tool.
But if you’ve got nightmare visions of copy-pasting chunks of text, piece by piece, or right-clicking every image you want to save to your hard drive, don’t worry – it doesn’t have to be quite that tough.
Three ways to capture page content
SaveMyNing.com says they’re in the process of building a tool to crawl Ning networks, make a static copy of the content, then “put those pages up on our own servers (for free) and allow you to access your Ning Network forever.” Now, those pages will be static copies of your existing network pages – an archive, not a dynamic social network – so they “will not allow new posting or uploading, it will only be a copy of your Ning Network as of April 2010.” This service will be ad-supported, and there will be a fee attached to another version of the service that should allow you to download your Ning Network and host it on your own server. See their FAQ for details.
One do-it-yourself archive option is HTTrack Website Copier, a free opensource offline browser utility to “mirror” websites. Now, I haven’t run this on a multi-network platform like Ning, just on independently hosted websites, so feel free to weigh in with feedback if you have firsthand experience there. HTTrack creates a local version of your website on your computer, with the same file directory and link structure, images and all. Worth a shot for backing up your Ning content, and generally a handy tool to keep in your back pocket.
The ScrapBook add-on for Firefox is one of my favorite free tools for quickly capturing a local copy of web pages – either single pages or following several links deep, again with images (or videos, audio, pdf files, etc.) included, depending on the settings you choose. (I first started using it when living with an unreliable Internet connection that kept cutting off access to websites I needed for research – usually on the brink of a deadline. And I’ve just saved off a bunch of the Ning Creator pages so we know for sure it’ll save local copies of Ning network pages.) Read more about Scrapbook on the developer’s website.
You can export your members' profile information at any time from the Manage Members page This will generate a comma-separated (CSV) text file that you can open using a program like Excel. It'll contain information about your members, including their name on your Ning Network, a link to their profile page, their email address, the date they joined, their birthday, and their answers to all of the profile questions on your Ning Network.
A number of alternatives to Ning will let you import the CSV file to create new member records with the exported data, the same way you can import your existing members’ records into a new Wild Apricot paid or free membership website. Posterous (the mini-blogging platform we talked about a while back), BuddyPress (for WordpressMU), Webs and Grou.ps are just a few of many vendors who are now rolling out Ning-to-whatever “Importer” tools and tutorials, in the few days since Ning announced the approaching end of Free.
(Keep your eye on the collaborative document that educator Alec Couros started at Google Docs http://bit.ly/altNing for the most complete and current discussion of Ning alternatives I've come across so far.)
Note that some of the "Ning alternatives" that offer automatic "importers" will also automatically send out emails to tell your members they’ve been migrated to your new network. You might want to think carefully about whether that is something you want to do – many people object to being added to social networks without their consent, or to getting bulk emails they didn’t opt in for. Others may be fine with it, however: you'll know your own people best.
So, to summarize:
- Members profile records are the easy part, and it would be wise to keep a backup copy in any case – no matter what platform you end up on with your community.
- Backing up your content is an imperfect process, unless and until Ning comes out with do-it-yourself export tools, but you can realistically save local copies of your most important assets as a safety measure.
- If you plan to move your network away from Ning, you can put in a request through their Help section and they’ll export the whole network for you, then delete your account in 30 days.
Which way to go?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and little point in speculating about what will happen until May 4th, when Ning shows its plans. They have said that whatever the new pricing structure is to be, it will have room for small nonprofits and educational use… so we’ll watch to see how it all shakes out.
Do take a backup of whatever web content you value most, and download a safety copy of your membership records.
Do keep those backups up-to-date, while you’re deciding on your next move.
And do talk with your members about the various options for the future of your network – whether you’ll migrate to a new platform or start fresh elsewhere, renovate the community or abandon it, take the opportunity to reinvent your community to better suit the needs of its membership, move to a paid membership model, or whatever options you’re considering – to get a sense of what your group would prefer.
After all, we’re talking about your online community here.
Content is just content, in the final analysis – but there’s no network without your members!
I’ve run down a few options here for saving off your Ning content, whether you plan to migrate elsewhere or just want to have a safety copy of your online assets – but, the Web being full of unsung treasures as it is, for sure this round-up has barely touched the surface. If you’ve explored other ways to make a Ning backup – or you hear of a new one – please share it with us in the comments.