Make a connection: A screenshot of Microsoft’s new social network.
When a social-networking service from Microsoft code-named Tulalip or Socl was accidentally made public in July, less than a month after Google had launched Google+, the online rumor mill understandably began churning. The Microsoft site appeared to combine Web search with features familiar from Facebook and Twitter, neatly uniting the Web’s two most successful products.
Back then, Microsoft hurriedly took down the Socl page and said it was an internal research project accidentally made public. Now, the service has reemerged as So.cl, and the team at Microsoft’s research labs has given Technology Review a preview.
The rumors were right about So.cl’s form. It’s a well-made reinvention of the basic design shared by the major social networks, centered on Microsoft’s Web search engine Bing. Most posts on the site start as queries typed into the search box at the top of the page. The top few results can be shared with friends, and images turned up through a Bing search can be turned into a slick collage to be shared. Regular text-based status updates and comments can be posted too, but friends on So.cl are more followers, in the model of Twitter.
Lili Cheng, the Microsoft researcher who led development of So.cl, says the speculation about the social network’s function was incorrect. “The rumors were all that we were taking on Facebook, and that’s not our goal,” she says, “So.cl is really an experimental research project focused on how social networking and search can be used for the purpose of learning.”
Cheng heads FUSE Labs, a division inside Microsoft’s research wing, Microsoft Research, which works on new ideas for social websites and services. The division collaborates with other parts of Microsoft Research as well as the main business—for example, on a trial service that creates online Microsoft Office documents within Facebook.
Cheng and colleagues got started on So.cl by thinking about how students use both Web search and social networking to find information for classes and when working together. “The tools that students use were each designed separately,”she says. “We’re trying to imagine how they could fit together and change the way learning happens.”
Cheng and her team have been working closely with students at the University of Washington, Syracuse University, and New York University to guide development and test drive So.cl. Today they will start growing the user base by allowing those students to invite friends to join them in using So.cl. In coming months, the trial may open up even further, she says.