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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.

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.

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