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Ning, the network of social networks that boasted 20 million visitors a month, is making massive staff cutbacks and has announced a complete end to free services for its users. Those who pay for premium services will be asked to pay more, and those who are getting their social networks free of charge will be asked to fork over or phase off the Ning platform.

For a while now, we’ve been seeing Ning through rose-colored glasses. One year ago to the day, the company announced it had attained 1 million unique social networks built on its platform, along with a $500 million valuation. In May 2009, the company rolled out a developer platform along with 90 ready-to-go applications for network creators. On paper, their numbers were looking great.

Then, just last month, we got word that CEO Gina Bianchini had left the company. On the heels of this news came a 40% workforce reduction and a dramatic announcement from the new CEO, Jason Rosenthal:

When I became CEO 30 days ago, I told you I would take a hard look at our business. This process has brought real clarity to what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do now to make Ning a big success.

My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business. Our Premium Ning Networks[…] drive 75% of our monthly U.S. traffic, and those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us.

So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product to capture this big opportunity. We will phase out our free service. Existing free networks will have the opportunity to either convert to paying for premium services, or transition off of Ning[…] All of our product development capability will be devoted to making paying Network Creators extremely happy.”

VP Advocacy John MacDonald added, “I feel confident that this change in direction will be very positive for our premium service customers because Ning will be 100% focused on delivering the features and services which benefit you and help you achieve your goals.”

Currently, Ning’s premium offerings include express access to customer support starting at $10 per month, removal of Ning links at the bottom of pages at $25 per month, custom URLs at $5 per month, an ad-free interface at $25 per month and extra bandwidth and storage at $10 per month.

The Cost of Free

We’re not sure how pricing will change over the next few weeks, but what we do know is that the dotcom-era free-for-all of apps, services and content for end users is not-so-gradually coming to a halt. In the light of economic reality, nothing is free. Someone — be it an advertiser, an administrator, an investor or an entrepreneur — is footing the bill for every one and zero that’s electronically transmitted across this great Internet of ours. And at some point, most of those folks expect to see a return on their investment.

And just as we’ve grown used to paying for music through apps such as iTunes and getting cheap access to films online through Netflix, it’s about time we suck it up as consumers and start paying for the bandwidth we use, from web hosting to online storage to site creation and maintenance. As we all know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

If you’re the creator of a social network, you should probably be passionate about the hobby, interest, community or business you decided to build a network around. And you should be attracting and enlisting equally passionate users as part of your community management plan. If you and your community can’t find a way to pay a modest monthly fee for the goods and services you use in your network, you might have one of two problems: You’re not passionate enough to moderate a community on your topic, or your topic isn’t inspiring your network to keep it afloat.

There are dozens of ways to have a self-sustaining community. You can run your own ads on Ning-powered sites. You can sell swag through a Ning-powered store. You can get micropayments from your community and crowdsource the $25 per month you need to keep your network in business. But make no mistake: Even if you’re a nonprofit or a hobbyist, running any kind of website is a business. If you’re not able to pay a small fee for the resources you use, you might want to consider a free or inexpensive multi-author blog instead.

Ning Alternatives

Of course, we want to provide some alternatives, but with this critical caveat:

Ning is one of the largest and most-visited networks of social sites in its class. If Ning can’t succeed in letting users build free social network sites, it might not be a viable business model for the other guys, either — and you might have to pack your digital bags again in another year or two.

With that in mind, here are some free, social network-building alternatives to Ning. In general keep in mind that there are two types of social network CMSes: The freemium, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, uber-user-friendly kind; and the open-source, do-it-and-we-mean-all-of-it-yourself, better-call-tech-support-if-you-can’t-code kind. The benefit of the latter is that, while it might be a pain to set up in the beginning, it will always be free. We’ll give you three of each variety. advertises itself as having “a cleaner interface” and “more features” than Ning. It’s a do-it-yourself platform that lets you create networks around any kind of content. To see an example, check out BlackBerry Leaks, a site for BlackBerry fanatics.

Spruz is one site that’s specifically reaching out to Ning users, hoping to help ease their transition to a new platform. Saying he knew Ning was destined for implosion, CEO Jay Roberts