Freedom at Every Level
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One of the things that drives us here at Ning is the belief that freedom – especially in software – wins. When people get a taste of the freedom to change every aspect of the software they use, the genie is out of the bottle. When given the choice, people want the freedom to create, customize, and change things. People want to control their own destiny.

We saw this in the early Internet with online services like AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy. They were fantastic insofar as early email, chat rooms, and pages previewed what was possible online. But when people were offered the freedom to create their own websites – or, as analogy, their own AOL – they took it in droves. AOL continued to serve as a fantastic funnel for people coming online but the web overtook it in terms of sheer size because it gave people the freedom to create their own worlds, not just join AOL’s. The web enabled the freedom to create in a way that, as an online service, AOL simply couldn’t.

If a service starts off as a “walled garden” – with a narrow and fixed view of what people can do on its service – it’s not a platform, at least not a programmable platform. A programmable platform enables a person to change the features on the network directly. Don’t like how your network on Ning displays friends? No problem, you can change it. Want to add sticky notes on the discussion forum or a wiki to your network ahead of us offering it? Go for it. On Ning, you can change (almost) everything on your social network because we give you the application code to modify and use as you like.

In our case, we built Ning from the ground up to be a programmable platform and to enable people to create their own worlds, not just join ours:

  • People get their own individual copies of their own social networks on Ning to modify as they like. This is like getting your own copy of MySpace or Facebook that you can then modify directly.
  • Customization and control is built into every level of Ning. There is the freedom to create, modify, or add all the way down into the code.
  • Every feature we offer on your social network on Ning, we create as an API. We then use the same APIs we offer for external creation, modifications, or additions for internal application development. We will always support these APIs because we use them ourselves.
  • Backwards compatibility. We support our APIs and ensure they have backwards compatibility.

This programmability is difficult to add to a service later. If you have an online service that didn’t start off as a platform, you can add some incremental freedom to create ancillary elements to the basic service, but you can’t go back and fundamentally shift it into a programmable platform. For example, AOL could have added the ability for AOL members to create their own pages on AOL, but it was impossible for them to offer the ability for everyone to modify AOL or develop new features themselves directly on the service.

All freedom is good freedom, even in its more limited capacity. Our fundamental belief though is that when people get a taste of freedom, they want more than just a bite. They want the whole enchilada. We’ve build Ning to be the whole enchilada and more.