A Guide to Microsoft So.cl – Is this Microsoft’s move into social networking?

Microsoft So.cl front page screenshot

Over the weekend Microsoft launched what looks like their foray into the world of social media with So.cl (pronounced “social”). Microsoft are staying away from the “social network” label and are positioning So.cl as a way of combining “social networking with web browsing and search, for the purpose of learning.” Ostensibly, they’re not challenging Facebook head on, with registration requiring either a login via Facebook or a Microsoft Windows Live ID but it’s definitely an added social layer to the Microsoft offering.


The project has been developed by Microsoft’s FUSE Labs, a wing of Microsoft which is responsible for creating media-rich, real time and social experiences by partnering with product development and research teams. In other words, their job is to interweave social into Microsoft products. A quick perusal of their site reveals that they are behind such projects as the Docs.com, a service which allows friends to share Office documents across Facebook, CompanyCrowd, another tester project which “automatically collects stories, media, and social content to create a living newspaper about the companies that are most important to you” and Montage, a web based service that pulls together a visual album on topics you’re interested in.

So.cl is primarily being pitched at students and started out in formal partnerships with colleges such as University of Washington and New York University. Much like Facebook. There is however a different idea behind So.cl, as far as I can glean from using it. While Facebook was about connecting people, having people talk about themselves, So.cl seems to be solely based around sharing content.

Microsoft So.cl, Build your Feed, screenshot

click for larger size

When you first login to So.cl and agree to their terms and conditions, you will most likely come across a screen telling you that you’ve joined the waiting list. It seems they’re having a little trouble keeping up with all the early adopters out there. It says you’ll receive an e-mail when it’s ready for you but I just logged in again the next day and it allowed me access.

Once you’re in, you’re greeted by a box giving you suggestions on topics and, in theory, people to follow. Because you’ve logged in with either Facebook or Windows Live it will also find your friends on those sites. After picking some interests and people to follow, you move on to your normal home screen. Across all parts of the site you’ll see a search box at the top asking “What are you interested in?”. Search is at the heart of So.cl.

I’ve done up a little quick guide for what happens next but have a look after the guide for my first impressions.


Quick Guide to Microsoft So.cl

Navigation is mostly along the left hand side bar and there are various options available.

Explore

This leads you to a colourful image based page. A banner at the top displays the latest searches from everyone while the main panel shows you graphics relating to the current main topics on So.cl.

Feed

The Feed is the main section for dynamic content. By default So.cl allows you to see what everyone is searching. That is to say, there are no private searches, so if you’re looking at “Everyone” in your feed you’ll see a constantly refreshing stream of random keywords. You can also filter by the people you are following and by your posts. There’s also another feature in the feed called “conversations”, where you can tag particular users and send them direct messages.

Post

posting screen shot, microsoft so.cl

click for larger image

Post is where you create content, via Bing. Put in your keywords and you’ll get a full list of content around that topic. You can then break this down by various media types and sources. The options for filtering here are Web, News, Images, Videos, Feed, Parties and People. To create a post you just click the various links and images that you want, write a comment then press post.

Unlike other social networking sites, you’re able to mix the media you’re adding to your post. For example, you can add a few pictures, a link, a video and a comment, then post it all as one entity for people to respond to. It’s a neat idea and I can see how that works in terms of using So.cl for collaborative projects.

There are a variety of actions that people can take to interact with your post. Anyone can like it, comment on it, “riff” on it, share it – the only options at the moment are Facebook and e-mail – or tag it with an interest. More on “interests” later. I’m still not entirely sure what “riffing” is but it seems to be an action which allows you to create new searches and posts, based on the post you just “riffed”.

Profile

Unsurprisingly this show you your own page. You can see your latest activity across status updates, search, conversations and video parties. You can also update your profile, languages, privacy and notifications settings and also… Set your browser search to So.cl, thereby broadcasting every search you make. To be honest I’ve been too afraid to click the button. Not that I’d be searching for anything incriminating…

Video Parties

video parties, microsoft so.cl, screenshot

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This brings you to a different section of So.cl. All the other actions were conducted in your normal navigation screen, while Video Parties brings a different a new section. Your first option is to “Start a new party”. You can also see a list of your “recent parties” as well as “my friend’s parties” and “popular parties”. Essentially you create a playlist of videos via search then invite people to come and watch them. You can then chat to everyone at the party via a chat stream on the right hand side of the video. You can also search for parties around on your particular interests using the ubiquitous search bar.

To be honest I find the terminology a little strange but it’s kind of a fun idea. My main problem with it is that it’s a little too focused on the collaborative aspect. Anyone can push a video into the next slot on the playlist (but no other position) and (presumably) because it’s group watching, you cannot skip ahead within a video, nor can you see how long is left in it. A moderator wouldn’t go astray. Also, a party you create seems to exist after you leave it and I haven’t worked out yet if there’s a way to collapse the party when you no longer need it.

At the moment, most people seem to be using it as a radio. I didn’t see a lot of chatting but it was nice to listen to some music and not have to go picking the next video. We’ll see how it settles if and when more people start using So.cl. I can see it working for a project though – if, for example, you had a study group where you wanted to show videos and discuss them, this is a great way to do it.

Interests

This allows you to search around tags that are added to posts. You can add them when you create a post or other people can add them after the fact. It’s good, but like blog post tags I’m sure it’s something that’s going to get out of hand as people add new ones and forget which ones they used the last time.

Help, Following and Followers

These are all separate but I figured they were self explanatory.


My first impression of the So.cl is… that it has potential. It’s seems to be a little bit buggy at the moment, the section where it recommends people to follow isn’t working and I found some problems trying to get into Video Parties but all in all, I think it’s an interesting idea.

The big question is of course, is this their social network to rival Facebook and Google+?

Perhaps it’s a little naive, but I don’t think so. There’s no real, gripping functionality there that would suggest it, and the fact that you can use Facebook to login suggests that this is more an attempt to muscle in on Facebook’s poor search capabilities. Facebook already uses Bing for search but this is a far more accomplished integration with Facebook than theirs. A search on Facebook does not easily lend itself to sharing. You have to find the link then create a post. With Bing you can create the post straight from search then share it to Facebook with the click of a button.

It’s actually quite an elegant piece of work if you don’t consider as a social network. The only way I can describe it is as a socially augmented search. It is search, but with an added layer. This makes much more sense if you consider it as a power play at Google. Bing is currently the #2 search engine in the US but it’s far, far behind Google. The latest figures from ComScore shows their share stands at 15.4% compared to Google’s 66.5%. I imagine that, rather than investing heavily in a new social network themselves, they are planning on building on their already strong relationship with the biggest player out there.

What would make even more sense would be if this was integrated directly into Facebook, and perhaps it will be, if Facebook pay a handsome price. Since it was quietly spread about over a weekend where all chatter was on the Facebook IPO, we can assume that this is really just a dipping a toe in the water for Microsoft. Their emphasis on the experimental nature of the project and the focus on students all but scream that they will dismiss it as just another experiment if it fails but to be honest, I can’t imagine that this is even close to a final plan for this product.

Personally, I like it so far. I’d like to see a little more work done, particularly on the video parties, but I’m very interested to see how it develops. I shall be keeping an eye on it.

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