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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.

Three out of nine wall.fm plugins are for monetizing wall.fm communities

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.

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There are two major open source social networking platforms that are garnering much attention of late: BuddyPress and Elgg. Elgg 1.0 was released in August 2008. BuddyPress is currently in beta. Regular visitors to this blog have probably read many of my posts on Elgg. Recently, I posted some first impressions of BuddyPress as a user having created an account on BuddyPress’s test site.

I just finished a BuddyPress installation on my server, so I am now able to make more comparisons between the two platforms. The intent of this is not so much to decide which platform is superior, but to discuss the features, interfaces, and administration of each; thus, helping individuals decide which may be best suited for their purposes. Having looked both over, I believe that each may be best suited for different purposes.

Installation

Both Elgg and BuddyPress require the administrator to set up a mySQL database. The packages must be uploaded to a web server, and browser based installers are used to attach the database to the software and create the appropriate config files to make the programs work. They also require Mod Rewrite to be enabled on the server.  Beyond that, there are several differences.

BuddyPress installation is fairly complex. First WordPressMu must be installed which is simply a matter of creating a database, uploading the software, and running the installer. (One caveat: WPMU is much easier to install in the root public_html directory.) The only thing out of the ordinary is the option to use subdomains (blog.mysite.com) 0r subdirectories (mysite.com/blog). The former is generally recommended and requires activating wildcard dns on your server. Next you need to ftp and install the BuddyPress plugins and themes to the appropriate directories.

Finally, one needs to install and integrate bbPress if one wants the forums to function. bbPress must be uploaded and it should share a database with WPMU. It took a lot of back and forth with the admin interfaces and tweaking the bbPress and WPMU config files to make the cookies work.

Elgg installation is very straight forward. The Elgg developers responded to early complaints about difficulties with installation and made it even less particular about server configuration. Create a database, upload the software, run the installer. It doesn’t matter whether it is installed in the root or a subdirectory.

Now this might sound like a slam dunk for Elgg, but the results of installation are not equal. Let’s start by looking at the front page. The resultant buddyPress looks like this:

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Click to enlarge

BuddyPress presents the admin with a prompt to add widgets to the threee columns on the front page. Click on the add widget link and you arrive at a familiar WordPress Widget interface.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The front page is easily customized by adding widgets to the three columns and arraying them as desired. Elgg, on the other hand, has a front page that is initially simple and much more difficult to customize.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Customization of the front page is done using plugins (or hacking the core) which must be hand coded to render the desired results.

Default Features

Another area worth comparing is the default features with a standard installation of each package.

Component Elgg 1.x BuddyPress
Blogs X X
Groups X X
Private Messages X X
Bookmarks X *
Friends X X
Profile X X
Files X
Pages X *
Wire/Messageboard X X
Forums X X

* Features present in Blogs

The chart is really a rather superficial treatment, but serves to demonstrate that the two packages have similar feature sets. In spite of the similar set of tools, these tools are substantially different in many cases. Comparing these individual features will the subject of future blog posts.

Both Elgg and BuddyPress both require hand coding to create a good social networking plaform. BuddyPress currently requires a certain amount of coding in the installation process; whereas, Elgg requires coding to create something other than the spartan default main page. They have similar features, but the implementation is substantially different. Further comparision of components will yield more insight into the differences between the two platforms. In addition, the user and administrative interfaces represent other points of departure. Look for more posts comparing these two platforms in the near future. Feel free to visit my installation and create an account.

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