Privacy, Potential & Pitfalls: Using Ning to Create Community Part Three

By Michael Stephens |

The past two months, I've been exploring the use of Ning by public libraries to create communities centered around reader services. We started with a look at Lafayette Readers in Lafayette, Colorado and the online discussion forums at Lisle Library District. I was pondering the third installment when Pam Sahr, Horizon System Administrator at the Lafayette library, emailed me about Ning's changes to user logins and the implications it had for the privacy of users.

Ning's blog announced the changes to here

We’re excited to launch a new on Monday, March 9th. As Gina mentioned yesterday, the new will provide members of the social networks on Ning with better ways to discover and stay connected to the social networks on the Ning Platform.

Not only will this make the experience of being a member of one or more social networks on Ning easier and more compelling, but it will benefit Network Creators with both better discovery by prospective members as well as recurring usage by existing ones.

The post goes on to outline how easy it will be for Ning users to login with their NingID to all of their networks. I had a chance to discuss Ning a little further with Pam recently.

Michael Stephens: Pam, it's been a few months since we checked in. How is Lafayette Readers coming along?

Pam Sahr: We have had a nice increase in membership (214 members on 5/7) and the activity level has picked up as well. About 10% of new cardholders have joined since 1/1, so it’s great to see new faces online.

Privacy Settings in Ning

MS: Last time, you noted that you had more lurkers than active members, has this changed?

PS: Only slightly! The Google Analytics reports still show numerous pageviews from unique users, but the percentage of members who participate is relatively small. We are lucky to have several prolific posters to keep things lively.

MS: The privacy issue you mentioned in your email to me is indicative of the caution we should use with some systems. It also provides a learning opportunity as we build our own online connections and communities. I went to read all the forum posts you included and they were GONE!

PS: Yes, Ning didn't just delete those posts, they shut down the entire forum. So much for free speech! The March 23 uproar was due to Ning basically changing their site to be more Facebook-ish. And they announced they would be sending an email blast to all Ning members from Ning corporate.

The major points that made people so unhappy:

1) Networks set up as "private" suddenly had their members’ profiles searchable on because Ning set the default to "Anyone can see everything" for the cutover.

2) Many networks pay a premium fee so that they can have private-label URLs -- in other words, "ning" is not part of the address as in The network creators of some of these sites were unhappy to be unmasked to their members that they are not standalone networks, but part of the gigantic Ning network. And sites that are for commercial interests were perturbed that suddenly their “members” could be friended by competitors on other Ning networks.

3) Ning forbids X-rated networks. However, there are networks for survivors of abuse, addictions etc. whose members did NOT want to be suddenly searchable to everyone network on People who belong to a variety of Ning networks -- some for professional groups, other for hobbies, personal interests, etc. did NOT want members of some of their networks to know that they belonged to some of the other networks. But suddenly it was all showing up on the person's page in one place on Not to mention political, ethnic, religious, sexual preference, etc. affiliations that someone might not everyone on to know about.

4) Previously, content on each network was “owned” by the network creator. The TOS now states that owns it.

Here’s a post on the site Ning set up for network creators (in lieu of the forum they shut down) regarding all the issues:

It links to a post on the “Charting Stocks” blog dissing (with many followup comments, mostly negative):

MS: How have you addressed privacy concerns with your users?

PS: We have a standard newsletter that is emailed to all new members reminding them to check their privacy settings both on Lafayette Readers AND on The settings do not carry over from one to the other; they must be set separately.

As soon as we learned about the controversy, we sent out a privacy-specific Graphic Mail to our network.  It gave instructions for how to go to & change privacy settings -- if the members so desired.  We wanted to strike a balance between giving helpful info to our Internet-Innocent members and insulting members who have no qualms about privacy on social networks.

The upshot was we received no complaints or questions.  Total newsletters sent so far: 211; 94 were opened; 19 recipients clicked the link to change their settings. We will continue to send "Important Privacy" newsletters to new members just so no one is caught unaware that they are not just a part of our library's Ning, but the worldwide Ning community.

Public libraries are very conscientious about protecting patrons’ personal information, so we want to ensure that members of a social network realize that they, not the library, are responsible for their online privacy when they join Lafayette Readers.

MS: How has Ning been for offering privacy options?

PS: The options are there – but users must stay on top of their settings. Each member should decide how visible they want their profile & comments to be to people outside their networks and change their privacy settings accordingly.

The default on is that “Anyone” can see everything. Other choices are “Members of My Social Network,” “Just My Friends,” or “Just Me.” There is also a checkbox to “Hide My Social Networks from Others.”

Depending on members’ privacy settings, you may be able to see their profile, comments, all the networks they belong to (not just the library ones), and click on their friends’ photos … and so on. Six degrees of separation kicks in really fast!

MS: What advice would you give a librarian wanting to start a user community via Ning?

PS: Here are some ideas:

Define your expectations. What do you want from Ning that will differentiate it from your current array of readers advisory tools?

Get buy-in from your director & staff. You will need staff who commit to posting regularly so there is always something new for members to see when they login.

Decide on a system to invite new members – and also to stay in touch with existing members. GraphicMail has worked very well for us. Our pageviews always spike on the day the monthly newsletter is emailed.

Do as much cross-marketing with other library services as you can. We want people to be able to get to our website, databases, catalog, and special programs like the Adult Summer Reading from Lafayette Readers. Our goal is to make all our online products and services just “one click” away from wherever anyone encounters our library on the web.

Those are four useful points  if you are creating a Ning or other type of community for your library users! TechSource Readers - what would you add to the list?

Thanks to Pam for all of her insights and for sharing her experience.