Microsoft's FUSE Labs has released an "experimental research project" called So.cl, which aims to make sharing a natural part of the search process. Rather than trying to replace other social networks, So.cl seeks to improve research and content discovery by organizing information by interest and adding intuitive social sharing elements, such as eye-catching image collages and video playlist parties. But how well does So.cl combine search with social?
Currently, the only way to create an account with So.cl is to link to an existing Facebook or Windows Live account. So.cl promises to never post anything to your Facebook wall without permission and we had no experiences that proved otherwise. However, it is nice to have Windows Live authentication for those wanting to keep their Facebook account separate.
So.cl does not support image uploading quite yet, so your profile picture is automatically populated based on the connected Facebook or Windows Live account. Users have the ability to change this picture, but the new image must already be online.
The only other profile customization includes choosing a nickname and providing a brief introduction. The rest of your story can be told by searching and building your feed.
So.cl has a look and feel (pictured) similar to early versions of Google+ with a touch of Pinterest-style image pinboards. Upon creating an account, we were greeted with the Explore screen, the home base for content discovery. Explore shows a list of popular topics, called "interests," ranging from animated gifs to current events. Users are able to either follow an interest, adding relevant content to their personalized feed, or submit relevant content within the interest.
Content in these interests are organized through a center column feed, unlike Pinterest, which takes up the full screen. Scrolling through this feed feels more like browsing Facebook or Google+, despite the emphasis on pictures and media. Content in an interest still has a link to the poster's profile, a title and comments, breaking up the flow of pictures.
Images are at the center of So.cl, which make the feed quick and easy to navigate and scan. We like the Pinterest-style image collage that styles shared search results. This format allowed us to quickly build a richer understanding of shared search terms, since topics are generally coupled with a number ofexplanatorypictures.
New posts are created through a large search bar at the top of the screen. Typing a search into the search field connects to Bing to provide three different types of results: images, Web pages and related So.cl posts. Users can then compile relevant search results into content-filled collages that are shared with other So.cl users. Unfortunately, the Bing search results are not quite as good as Google's, so it may take some hunting to find the perfect picture to add to your collage or website to accompany your shared search.
So.cl separates feeds (pictured) into three different sections: Everyone, People I Follow, and Interests. In the Everyone feed, posts populate from all over So.cl. If you have chosen to make a search public, then it will show up all over So.cl in the Everyone feed for everyone to enjoy. You can also follow your favorite So.cl users and all of their posts will organize into the People I Follow feed. The third feed, Interests, fills with posts related to your selected interests. If you haven't selected any interests and aren't following any other users, these feeds will be blank.
There are quite a few ways to interact with posts on So.cl. Similar to "liking" a post on Facebook, users can "smile" at a So.cl post, giving their virtual approval. Other options include commenting, riffing, tagging and sharing. Riffing a post allows you to create a visual response, building an entirely new collage inspired by the original. Tagging lets you add a post to an Interest and sharing allows you to email or share on Facebook.
Users are encouraged to compile relevant search results into content-filled collages to share with other So.cl users. Making and posting a content collage is quick and easy: click as many items as you want and add it to a post. Images are automatically resized and organized into a beautiful collage and links are grouped directlybeneaththe pictures.
Another great feature of So.cl is Video Parties, which allow users to build video playlists and invite friends to watch in real time. We joined an existing Video Party titled Epic Music Videos and rocked out to the community-curated playlist. We added one of our favorite music videos to the list, bumped it to next in line, and watched it alongside seven other people in the room. There is even a small chat window to the right of the video player allowing Video Party participants to talk and interact with each other.
There are a few different ways to invite people to join a Video Party. You can post an invite link directly to your So.cl or Facebook feed, allowing anyone who sees the link to join. Conversely, you can invite individual friends, either by entering their name if they're on So.cl, or by using their email address.
Users don't need to leave a Video Party when they want to get back to searching and sharing. Returning to the So.cl homepage keeps the party going by putting the video feed into the top right corner of the screen, where you can continue watching with friends. This sharedexperience, even when playing in a small corner of the screen, made us feel more connected to other users and the service as a whole.
We made a number of different posts while trying out So.cl, on topics including technology, gadgets, music and mood. Our most popular post, however, was our post around lunchtime. Rather than simply writing that sandwiches were exciting, we decided to show our excitement by making a collage of people eating. This garnered four likes from complete strangers in less than three hours. Guess we weren't the only ones happy for lunchtime.
So.cl is not aiming to replace popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or search engines such as Bing or Google. Instead, Microsoft's project hopes to provide a brand-new experience of rich visual collages organized by interest. While the product is fun and visually pleasing, the content discovery process isn't yet valuable enough to keep users coming back. Video Parties are engaging, but with established alternatives such as Google Hangouts and Facebook chat, the novelty of So.cl will wear off quick in favor of convenience. Overall, So.cl makes it easy to share search results and more in a beautiful layout, but we're not yet convinced it will have staying power.