Microsoft's New Social Network, So.cl: It's Like Google+ for Wonks

File this in the "we-try-it-out-so-you-don't-have-to" category. So.cl is a derivative social network that may be useful to students, but it won't fly elsewhere.

Over the weekend, Microsoft opened to the public an experimental social network called So.cl. It's a mix between Google+ and Storify. Users are encouraged to search for information about a particular topic, then compile the best results - textual content, images and videos - into a single post. So.cl, which launched in beta at the end of last year, is initially targeted to students. It may end up being useful to that market, but it's unlikely to get traction as a mainstream social network. Here's why...

Microsoft is calling So.cl "an experiment in open search," in that anything you search for on the network is viewable by other users and made available to third party developers. That description makes it sound like a direct competitor to Google+, which was Google's attempt at combining search with social networking. It certainly has similarities, but So.cl is ultimately an academic tool moreso than a social one.

To get started, you can sign up using either your Facebook or Windows Live profile. Microsoft had little choice but to leverage Facebook's social graph, given that hardly anyone uses Windows Live (Microsoft's ID platform). Sure enough, Facebook gave me a good leg up into the So.cl network, enabling me to auto-follow over 50 people.

The Features

When it comes to using So.cl and finding value in it, the flaws become obvious. The Storify-like aggregation feature in So.cl is nifty, but everything else has been done before in hundreds of other social networks: posting, commenting, tagging, liking, sharing (two options: to Facebook or email!).

The attempts at innovation in So.cl seem forced. An option labeled "riffing" is supposed to be "a new way to interact and improvise with content" - but in reality, it simply means to re-share a post and optionally add your own comment or content.

It is nice that you can add extra content to a post and I can see this being useful in an educational setting; for example, a student in a science class adding more data to a thread about an astronomy topic. But this isn't something people need or want in a mainstream social network. When it comes to re-sharing, all most people want to do on a social network is paste that inspirational quote or solar eclipse photo to their profile page - so their friends can see it too.

Another noteworthy feature in So.cl is something called "video parties." This is basically a video playlist with a chat area - kind of like YouTube's playlists. It's probably the most innovative feature in So.cl, but that isn't saying a lot. The reality is that Facebook or Google+ could easily replicate it, if they wanted to.

The Verdict

So.cl is a largely derivative product and there's no way this is going to go mainstream. What slim chance it had to capture the imagination of a public that is already using Facebook (and may or may not be playing around with Google+), was dashed with the decision not to have a mobile component. As Robert Scoble rightly pointed out: "We're in the post-PC world now. Why didn't you start with just working on mobile? That would have been at least interesting."

I can see why So.cl is PC focused, with its reliance on aggregation and multimedia elements like "video parties." But that doesn't change the fact that any social network launching in 2012 that isn't mobile-based, is most likely doomed to fail if it wants to reach a mainstream audience.

So.cl comes from Microsoft's FUSE research group and the resulting product shows its academic roots. It may become a useful tool for students, with its focus on aggregating topical content. But So.cl won't get any traction outside the education sector. It's too unoriginal and wonky.