I recently found another social networking server app through Twitter. As we know Ning recently changed its terms of service and is no longer offering free social networks. This sent a wave of panic throughout the educational technology community, accustomed to having “free” apps at their disposal. People immediately sought alternatives to Ning. Of course they wanted free hosted solutions in most cases in spite of having had the rug pulled out from under them. I contend that those who have not learned the lesson about relying on such solutions are doomed to repeat the same outcomes as any subsequent solution runs in to similar problems keeping their business afloat while offering free services.
That aside, a new option I had not heard of before, wall.fm, came to my attention. I immediately went to the website and after a little digging around found that the site ran on software called Oxwall.
Oxwall seemed like a straight forward php/mySQL sort of a site, so I went through the server requirements and found that I had to add some functionality to my server. After a quick recompile of Apache, I set out to install it by uploading it, creating a database, then run the web installer. Installation seemed standard until I got to the point that it told it gave me a bit of code to paste directly into the config file (Delete the text already there–that’s not clear). No big deal, but it might put off some users. In the finale step you are invited to install some plugins.
These are the core plugins. There are a few more available on their site. Most are free, but a few cost $20. Like any new software, the offerings are lean. More on all this later.
Upon installation, one has a simple Oxwall site. An administrator has a Customize this page button which brings up a drag and drop widget management environment that allows you to move and customize each widget.
Without going into detail about each feature, the site is pretty bare bones. In the most extreme case, groups, the only functionality is a wall. To be fair, the developers say that more is coming. Other than that you have a simple blog with very basic formatting and the ability to insert an image. There is also tagging and rating. There is similar functionality in the video and link sharing areas. As it stands though, none of these plugins interact with each other. In other terms, you can’t, for example, embed a video in a blog post.
The administrative interface is attractive and has an important feature built in that Elgg’s and BuddyPress’s core installations lack: granular role and permissions control. Having started with a discussion forum as my first social server app, I have been puzzled by the lack of an ACL system in software such as Joomla, Elgg, and WordPress/BuddyPress. In Oxwall, an admin can create a role and assign any set of permissions to it. Users can then be assigned specific roles with specific permissions. This is particularly important for education sites.
One troubling omission from the basic package is a forum. A forum plugin can be purchased for $20. I understand the developers’ need to make money, but omitting such a basic tool from the default set renders Oxwall of very little utility until someone ponies up the money.
Oxwall software is an alphabet soup of licensing. The core software is licensed under a CPAL “badgeware” license. This means that you must leave Oxwall links and labels on the site to use it unless you obtain permission to do otherwise. The paid plugins are release under a commercial Oxwall Store Commercial License (OSCL), while the free plugins are under a BSD license.
Those not wanting to install Oxwall on a server can create a free community on wall.fm sponsored by the developers. Like Ning, the developers are going to have to find a way to pay the bills. The question is–will it remain free?
Oxwall is extremely new and has been release in an immature state. It will be interesting to see if the developers foster an ecosystem that fosters a development of plugins. Unlike other platforms, Oxwall appears to want to support developers by selling their plugins through the Oxwall Store. Indeed there are a number of features that appear to promote making money through Oxwall in the wall.fm sites by encouraging site creators to charge for site access.
While, I like what I see in the administrative interface–particularly the User/roles/permission system, I’m not sure that the commercial nature of this software will be well suited for educators on limited or non-existant resources. I certainly believe that a discussion forum is an essential part of any social network platform and should be part of the free basic installation. Charging for such an elementary feature leaves me skeptical about the direction of this project.
Is Oxwall a Ning replacement? Without a forum, the answer is a flat no. With a discussion forum–maybe, but I don’t think Ning ex-pats would be satisfied with it yet.
I’ll keep an eye on Oxwall, in spite of the commercial edge of this “open source” package. If I come to believe that it has a place in education, I may delve further into features on this blog. I’d love to hear your impressions of Oxwall and wall.fm.