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: