in General, Reviews, Tech

Ning – an attempt at social application development for dummies

I discovered Ning a while back, signed up for a beta developer’s account, and then promptly forgot about it. Today my account was activated, so I spent a bit of time attempting to create my own application.

Ning’s goal is to enable anybody to create “social applications” a la Flickr, Craigslist, etc. Essentially, web sites that focus on and serve a particular community.

Theoretically, anybody with a developer’s account can get an app up and running quickly here. The key is the ability to ‘clone’ existing apps. You make an exact copy of an app someone else has produced (code is not exactly secret in Ning), and then customize to your heart’s content. Put more simply, you are free to remix anybody else’s Ning-based site into something purely your own.

As Ning’s homepage proclaims, you can make a Craigslist for any city, a Flickr for any event, a Zagat for any interest… etc. I tried my hand at modifying an existing teacher review app ( into a comic book rating system.

By following the readme file helpfully contained my newly cloned app, I was able to customize the interface on a basic level fairly quickly. Impressed, I went to add a sample comic review. I was promptly shown an error, informing me that I must not leave blank a field which I clearly did fill in.

I obviously either touched some code I shouldn’t have, or didn’t touch some that I should. I spent 15 minutes knocking my head against the files making up my app, but to no avail. This leads me to my main criticism of Ning: Just who is it for?

I don’t have the php development experience to work on complex applications like this. It would take me hours just to read all the code, figure out how the files are interrelated, analyze multiple generations of customization, and who knows what else. Even then I might not understand it enough to fix my problem. As a relative novice, Ning is above my head. But if I did have the experience I feel necessary to work in Ning’s environment, wouldn’t I be off building my app somewhere on my own already? Why would I make myself dependent on a third party?

Of course, like just about anything on the ‘net these days Ning is in beta. So I don’t want to be too harsh. I do think the concept has merit, and will watch to see what changes during development. A simple WYSIWIG editor would go a long way towards letting Joe Average build social apps in Ning.

In case you’re interested, here’s what I was able to accomplish in Ning before receiving the mysterious error:

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  1. Chad,

    I’m the CEO of Ning and I am sorry you ran into this issue. While you can create an app in three clicks by cloning, configuring is still more complex than we’d like it to be and we’ll be improving that in the coming weeks and months.

    That being said, in this case, I think that you ran into a bug that we will fix today and get you on your way.

    Thanks again for giving Ning a go and I look forward to getting you back on track with your app.

    Thanks again,

  2. Thanks Gina!

    I love that you’re scanning blogs for comments. And I’m definitely not giving up on Ning yet.

  3. No problem, we have someone on it right now. And please excuse my 47 thanks agains in my comment above 🙂

  4. Chad:

    I poked at your problem a bit on Gina’s behalf, and found a weakness in the way we were doing things before. I’ve updated some documentation in the CLONEME docs for RateMyTeachers to make it more clear where the error was coming from:

    The form validation rules before were specifying the ‘department’ field to validate against. You edited the $container variable in the Configuration, but you didn’t edit the form validation in the ComicBook __construct method. So, you were only one line away from getting it all set up to work 🙂 I’ve cleaned up that area of code now so that you don’t even have to do that modification, and I’m about to merge those changes back into RateMyTeachers. is the application that came out of that, which you can clone and edit to your heart’s content — it’s based on the clone you already put together, so there shouldn’t be too much you need to mod, but as with everything on Ning, cloning will let you change it to be how you want it.

    As far as who Ning is useful for: I think that there are several different levels of people that I can imagine using it.

    * You have some people who just want to change a name, and that’s it — those people will make localized versions of photosharing, for example, but not change an entire application.
    * You have others who have some minor programming knowledge, and can dig a little deeper to change some aspects of an app: this is where I would put you. Hopefully we can get the documetnation and configuration process up to spec so that users of this class won’t run into problems like you did.
    * Users like I would consider myself — heavy PHP developers who have fun peeking inside of things, tracing back what they see — but also don’t want to do the no-fun work of building a website, like setting up the database, creating user management systems, and so on. This aspect of creating applications is simply not enjoyable, and ning takes all the no-fun parts out of the process, so users like me who have the PHP skills can devote them to the fun stuff.

    There’s also a seperate class of users, to whom apps like will appeal: the type of users who have an idea, and cash to throw at it, but no skills or free time to poke at it. There’s an audience building up out there, and soon you may have a lot of labor out there – a lot of eyes – who have the skills to build on Ning and the creative aspect coming from a seperate entity. I think that that’s going to be a really interesting phenomenon, and I’m looking forward to it: I want to see what happens when you build up a marketplace and just let it grow.

    In any case, I’ve gotten a bit off topic here, but just wanted to point your towards ComicRat and thank you again for helping us find a bug in the process that I had missed out on.

  5. well, not exactly the same, its more of the idea of pulling these existing web resources together instead of creating a new one, but the end goal would be the same


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