WidgetLaboratory Strikes Back At Ning Where It Hurts

Yesterday we reported on Ning’s termination of its most popular premium widget developer, WidgetLaboratory. Although apparently justified, Ning removed all WidgetLaboratory widgets from its platform without warning to the community, and in doing so broke many of the social networks that had been created by its members. The decision was met with a backlash from the Ning community, as many members had spent hundreds of hours and dollars perfecting their homespun social networks.

Ning says that WidgetLaboratory has broken the platform’s Terms of Service, but hasn’t to specified publicly what violation it has committed (though we have heard that WidgetLaboratory had been warned multiple times). This may be the case, but Ning neglected to warn any of its members that the change was coming, leaving many of its top networks in shambles.

Today, WidgetLaboratory has decided to hit back. The company has written a blog post stating that it is open sourcing all of its widgets, many of which were formerly only available for a monthly fee, to allow users to get their networks back up and running. Users will be free to add, modify, or improve on each widget as they wish. The post also announces WidgetLaboratory’s free migration tool, which will allow Ning users to pull content from their social networks should they wish to move elsewhere.

The migration data will be available for users to use as they wish, but WidgetLaboratory plans to help users find open source alternatives to Ning where they will be able to set up shop (WidgetLaboratory won’t have anything to do with actually hosting or managing the networks).

I spoke with Spencer Forman, CEO of WidgetLaboratory. Forman says that Ning has only specified one violation in its terms of service – network degradation – and that Ning is simply being anti-competitive. He explained that they have had similar network quality complaints from Ning in the past, but that oftentimes it was actually a fault of Ning’s servers or setup, and not WidgetLaboratory’s (he says he will be releasing a full record of email and phone exchanges to support his claims). Finally, he says that Ning was uncomfortable with WidgetLaboratory’s success (the widget maker may have been collecting as much revenue as Ning itself), and that any other explanation is a smoke screen.

In any case, the bold move to open source the widgets puts Ning in a bind. If the site bans the widgets, users will skim through the code to find anything that could be in violation. If Ning lets them stay, then obviously the network issues can’t have been the real motivation behind WidgetLaboratory’s removal in the first place.

Earlier today Ning posted a response to some of the issues. Ning will be implementing a number of features to replicate the widgets in the next few weeks, and will try to take measures to a prevent any future lack of communication. Here’s an excerpt of how they will deal with such ToS violations in the future:

…Namely, if we have had to warn a third party developer, we want to provide some general way of letting you know about it before we remove them from the Ning Platform… Now, I can’t guarantee that we’ll always be able to do this. There are times when a third party developer’s actions require immediate attention and removal. We will always put the needs of the Ning Platform as a whole ahead of functionality on any individual network.

There’s already a pretty general way to notify users that you’re stripping a portion of their site: Email (blog posts work too). Ning needs to defend its users and its network stability, but it should have done something to warn its users beforehand.