OK, so I'm not really providing a suggestion that offers free ning network owners a like-for-like deal. Jomsocial costs $149 in a one time deal. The reason I suggested it, was because I wanted to share our experience at Fidgetstick/
and the reason why, in the end, this was the route we took.
started as a premium Ning network. We started way back when (if you can remember) we had source code access and therefore complete control over our network, as network creators with some coding skills, we felt that was important in going with Ning in the first place.
We paid for our own domain, we paid to remove ads, we paid to remove Ning branding. We were a premium network who was creating cool new bespoke features for our community. Then Ning decided they were going to alienate communities like ours, the one's with real potential, to focus on making free generic communities the mainstay of their business. No more source access (actually we persuaded them to let us keep it, so I should just say, goodbye ning support).
We then set about the process of finding an alternative to Ning. We looked at Elgg (still in its infancy, but I now have a good relationship with one of it's original founders), we looked at SocialGo (didn't do it for us - too Ning-like). Others included
Social Engine - not flexible enough
Social Spring - not mature enough
Kickapps - too expensive
and there's so many more now than there was when we were looking.
We figured that, for our site (this may not be the case for everyone) that we needed something that was really going to help us manage content, so must have a more intuitive CMS. The two most accessible CMS-with-social add-ons were Joomla! and Drupal. Both being open source, we were looking at having full control again. In the end, we went down the Joomla! route, since we had become familiar with Joomla! through the Joomla! bridge stuff created by the Scripts4Ning/Sitesuites guys.
In Joomla, there's a few social components to choose from; namely Jomsocial, Joomunity, Community Builder and there's probably more now. Jomsocial is the most advanced, stable and flexible of the options, which is what we chose to use. There's some new technology coming as well, most noteably anahita social engine
which also works with Joomla! CMS
Don't get me wrong, it has its faults, it's not as glossy as some of the off-the-shelf community platforms available, but with a bit of effort you can get some very reasonably priced development done within the vibrant and extensive community that is Joomla! That's what we did.
And the best thing is, we're in control of our community again. If I want to create a new app/widget/feature, I can and it doesn't take much work - the API for Jomsocial is robust, Joomla! is really easy to get the hang of and the possibilities are endless.
Fortunately for us, the one plus of retaining source access was that we could extract our content much more easily than you can without it. I know Ning don't make it easy now, but there are ways...
It's hilarious now that Ning are turning to the communities that they alienated about 18 months ago. If they'd recognised what everyone was telling them back then, they'd not have the shit storm to deal with now. Ha ha!
I've rambled enough, if you have any questions, here I am to help...