A walk-through of what’s currently happening on the site didn’t show much evidence of students working on tasks like algebra assignments, though Cheng says she has seen math homework on So.cl.
Rather, people were searching using phrases such as “sushi art” and “star wars steampunk” to curate well-designed collages of images, and responding to one another with comments, collages, or their own slightly different take on the original. The visual threads that result are very different from the text-centric threads on Facebook or Twitter.
“People are conversing through these rich shared queries,” says Cheng. “I like allowing people to riff off of one another, and this is one of the emerging behaviors that we need to learn from.”
Another novel feature is dubbed “video party.” It allows a user to cue up and watch a playlist of YouTube videos, and their friends can join in and watch along with them. All the people taking part in a video party can add videos to the playlist and share comments with other people there; Cheng says she hopes to add support for other video sites, such as Vimeo, in the future.
It’s hard to resist the parallel between the way So.cl is being tested and the story of Facebook, which was first available only to university students before it ate the world. So.cl’s novel features and their flexibility certainly seem competitive with the features of existing social networks.
Cheng’s desire to create a place where people can work together on information found online seems to be shared by those working on Google’s social network. As Google+ is connected with more and more of Google’s other services, the company is promoting productivity benefits like being able to share maps with friends when planning a trip or see social activity when managing and sending e-mail.
However, Cheng remains adamant that So.cl is about learning, and not a warm-up to the launch of a general-interest social network that will go up against Twitter and Facebook. “The project isn’t specifically for formal learning, but learning as a general activity on any topic,” she says, “[So.cl] is one way you might combine search and social networking around learning.”
Cheng isn’t sure So.cl will evolve this way, though. She says another direction the project may take is to become a platform for students and researchers to build and test new forms of social networks.