Did Microsoft just launch a Social Network at the sametime as FB IPO’d?

Microsoft’s So.cl was launched onto the web last weekend – rather a strange time to launch a product, particularly following the heavily publicised Facebook IPO. This was a soft launch from Microsoft and the product is very much a work in progress with a lot of un-answered questions as to how the service will develop. In fact coming out of the FUSE labs at Microsoft it almost looks like an experiment or one of the perpetual “in beta” Google sites that is always in test mode before being released years later as a proper version.

So what is the So.Cl name?

As the name suggests it’s a social later, yep, you read right the name is just 4 letters jumping on the bandwagon for ever shorter domain names, even if they don’t end in .com. Consider that Facebook owns FB.com and Paypal has X.com and the photoservice Flickr is pretty short and snappy too. Four letters is just about as as short as you can make it and the letter signify this is a social effort from the boys at Microsoft.

What is So.Cl?

Microsoft still has plenty invested in it’s Bing search engine and is looking for ways to make its web property more social to compete with the likes of Google. It recently added a sidebar to Bing to allow you to search your social networks so it makes sense that Microsoft is looking for ways to add a social context to its products and hence So.cl which sets itself as a product that sits over the top of the search engine enabling one to make searches public. That’s right – public, you can see what other people are searching for, tag and flag those searches and comment on threads of interest.

Discover new people and interests

One of the main features that is most interesting is the ability to find interesting topics and discover interesting threads and topics. I liken it to an open social network compared to Facebook which is rather closed. For example on FB, all the people on there are friends or acquaintances of mine and I never use it to find new interests or make new friends – some people might but I don’t. I make friends through common interests – i.e. my hobbies, sports – perhaps my love of vintage computing but right now there is little out there apart from Quora which is topic focussed. So So.Cl is interest focussed.

Have great discussions with people you have never met

This is one of the best features of the service, that is reaching out and talking to people. Yes we have forums: these horrible standardized and regimented ways of communicating are outmoded and tired and frankly leave me bored. With So.cl I’m building up interesting conversations with like minded people in an informal flexible and adaptable way. So far I’ve had some great conversations with some business veterans with 40 years experience – building new links and friendships and possibly partnerships that can be taken off-line too.

Rather like twitter and Google+ you can build followers and follow others that may be of value. That means that like Google+ you can build an asymmetrical network of people. You can follow without being followed, in fact Facebook actually copied this feature from Google+ when it launched. Such following is common place in Twitter circles.

Share and tag your searches

You can make your searches public. Why? Because you can add extra information to make that search of more value to others. Of course this might be a marketers dream to help guide consumers into sales funnels or ring-fence certain sites. You can comment on searches, Tag those searches or riff on those searches. The riff functionality enables you to for example post back another link and enter into a dialogue on other searches. Tag’s are useful and these appear in the let hand pane – so that that you can then get back these tags or interests with ease.

Like -> +1 -> :-)

Positive feedback can be given in a variety of ways – but no social network would be complete without the ability to like something. In Facebook we have the “like” and in Google the +1, but in So.Cl we have the smiley face :-). The evolution of feedback has begun. I guess Microsoft had to think of something new out of the box.

Video parties

You can join videos, discuss videos and chat all at the same-time. It’s a social way to enjoy video/movies together. I’m not sure how this aspect of the site will develop and suspect it’s probably the weakest element of the entire so.cl theme, but if people understand it and have a use for it, the video aspect of the site might fly.

Should you use to So.Cl to market?

Bing is not one of the largest internet properties and is easily eclipsed by Google but should not be discounted with almost 20% share of the search market. Plus with the alliance from Nokia meaning that new phones will run windows, Bing is going to find its way into a lot of mobile handsets. So don’t under-estimate how far this service could go and now you are getting in at ground level. Granted it might not replace Google, but I would suggest keeping an eye on the service.

Initially targeted at students So.Cl began as an experiment on campus. Echoing the early beginnings of Facebook which started on university campus’s and spread nationally MS hopes to at least be useful in an academic context but whether the intention is to spread like wildfire is another matter. This is in direct opposite from Google and its Google+ which lept on the Social Networking bandwagon with guns ablaze.

Right now the closest thing we have to So.cl is Quora and LinkedIn. Both of which are relatively open and enable one to find new people and create contacts. Facebook is closed as a social medium and doesn’t have the exploratory nature that many people love in their day to day social offline interactions. I suspect Microsoft will see this as an experiment and will try to learn as much as possible – which is a smart thing – it can harvest user data to make services including search more relevant.

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