Welcome to the So.cl – Microsoft’s social search experiment

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Can search be social? That is what Microsoft is trying to look at with its new experiment from in-house FUSE Labs. Dubbed So.cl, the new site tries to combine social mechanics with a Bing Search so people can find and share web pages.

Now, you may be asking, how did I get in? I didn’t get in the ‘traditional’ way of being a student in one of the selected schools. In fact, I was invited in by my friend over at TechAU, Jason Cartwright (who was invited by Microsoft), by signing up to his new startup Constructiv (I highly suggest you check it out).

When you first open, you notice that it looks a bit like Facebook. I personally believe that making it similar to Facebook was not because of simply copying, but because it is a layout that people know how to use instantly. That means that users can simply pick it up and use straight away, rather than exploring the site aimlessly.

In fact, you need to use your Facebook login to access this site – once you have been given an invite to use this service. This means that you just need to use one ID rather than remembering several other usernames and passwords.

Again taking cues from Facebook, you are introduced with a “Feed” – except you start off reading everyone’s searches and status messages. However, you can filter this out by choosing via the sidebar to see only who you follow, or yours only.

The main idea of the site is to share your searches in a social environment. The top bar has a search box, where you automatically send out what you are searching for. A simple click to that speech bubble will switch that to a status message, a la Facebook. Taking cues from Google+, it has made your privacy settings for each individual post a bit more prominent. You can switch the privacy settings by clicking the globe (where it will turn to a padlock – representing private), or use the drop down menu below the status/search box.

Adding to the social component, you can also use what you find on Bing to create a personalised status message. You can add a link to a website, or even make a rubric set of images – like what I did below with the query “Australian Open”.

This feature I like very much, mainly because I can see students of all ages using this for research projects to share to their friends. And plus, it’s a much better alternative of saving it on this sort of thing, rather than trying to scroll through images or links over and over again. The tagging features is an added bonus, so you can group several things together, making research a bit less painful.

Then we have something called Video Parties (which you can see a screenshot below). It is a combination of a live video playlist and a chatroom, where you and your friends (or whoever is watching in the party) can simply add a video from YouTube. And like a video chatroom, you won’t be able to pause, rewind or fast forward. However, you do have the option reorder the playlist by skipping the current video and playing one video next.

It does assume that you have a fast internet connection as the video will cut off after the allocated time if it stutters, and does play the video in HD if available. So, this further highlights that this was designed for classroom and student use, rather than as an alternative to Facebook. What is also neat is that the Video Party can continue on the sidebar, so you can search for something while still watching the video.

It follows the Facebook method of public first, private second

Okay, since I’ve mainly been gushing over this network, lets list some negatives. A big one is the privacy. It follows the Facebook method of public first, private second. You have no option to change the default. You do, however, get to clear your history, tags, likes and comments from the network. And there should at least be a third option where you can share with Friends on Facebook only (since you can’t have friends, but followers), or with selected people so not everything you search for is plastered on the wall.

So if you search for some crazy things – maybe not do it on this social network.

Minor negatives are the aforementioned HD quality video streams, and the limits on providers on video parties. I would like it linked to many more providers rather than just YouTube since not all videos are uploaded on the site (granted, a majority of educational ones are). I also would like to see some more communication features, like live video chat – and they could use Skype for that.

…the major problem with So.cl is that it does not feel, well, social

But the major problem with So.cl is that it does not feel, well, social. It is a simple search, add and wait till friends comment on it. I would love the site to have more collaborative features rather than just video parties. Maybe have some document editing for your research project, or deeper integration with Facebook. And like every social networking site, there has to be a mobile strategy for this experiment as education is slowly shifting from desktop to portable devices. A web app that lets you do the same things – add, tag, comment – would suffice.

I should point out that this is an experiment to see if search and social media can be meshed into one site. Maybe we could see these features integrated across Microsoft products once this winds down. However, and this could be unintentional, it could rival Delicious simply because you can list, tag and collect pages from all over the web.