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Press Social To Learn

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With the Facebook IPO frenzy giving way to Facebook fatigue and the last droplets of an ignominiously burst bubble still drifting to the ground, the last thing one would have thought we needed was another social network. That too from one of the tech giants. But that's what we've got. When everyone was watching Facebook stock on its roller coaster ride, Microsoft slipped in a new social network which was so far was restricted to beta with students from Syracuse University and two other colleges. Call it Social.

Extract two useless vowels out of the social and you have its new name: So.cl. And that's what you type into your browser to go there. It's still pronounced social though. It's still student-oriented, or rather learning oriented, but now open to the public. I had no wait getting in. All you do to get in is log in with your Facebook or Windows Live account.

What you see immediately is a pretty attractive spread of picture tiles, each representing an interest area. Like sports or science and technology. It's already been likened to Google+ which in turn was likened to Facebook. It's also thought to be a little Pinterest-like. You can click to follow the topic, or rather others active with the subject. That could be people you don't know. You can also choose to follow people you do know; friends from Facebook. Either way, the idea is collaborative learning. The people you follow will share your interest in a subject and by being able to see each others' researches, you build up little knowledge bases on things you need to learn about and research.

The focus on learning is exactly what makes So.cl different from Facebook. When you look at the social networks today, you can't be blamed by thinking they're all so similar. After all, you can create Circles in Google+ and nothing stops you from using these for learning about a specific subject. Much of Twitter is also built around sharing links on topics of mutual interest. For that matter, you could also create groups on Facebook, separated from your personal or company account, and use those as a home base for interacting on a subject. But each of the networks is also nuanced enough to generate its own user mindset, and So.cl's is all learning. In fact it's not just a learning network but a social search network, based on Microsoft's Bing. Your searches can be private, but it would be defeating the idea of learning socially. Problem is, third parties can also use your search -- and no one knows what that implies yet. I do think though that the age of being able to use services, including social networks, for free and expecting nothing to be used to keep that service in business, has gone. It only remains for social networks to be upfront and transparent about whatever is being shared.

Again, video chat is not unusual in a social network after Google+ made a big deal of their Hangouts. So.cl also features something similar: Video Parties. These are an option to invite multiple people to discuss the topic of interest that's common to them. You can already see that study groups could put this to good use. Same for a group doing research together.

Long ago, right at the start of the World Wide Web going mainstream, a collaborative project called Thinkquest started up. Students from different parts of the world could get together online and research a subject in-depth. At that time, there was no easy Skype or micro-blogging. You would rely on email and messaging to get your work done together, finally putting it up at the end on the Thinkquest website. Today, it's a different world with a choice of tools available and a network like So.cl is bringing some of those together for a specific purpose. Much now depends on how users use it and what they make of it, for it's never just the tools and the opportunity but what is build upon that by users. Twitter would never have become what it is today if its users hadn't begun to create simple but superbly effective and innovative tricks like the Retweet and hashtag.

The media has criticised Microsoft for making the searches on So.cl public, viewable by anyone who searches for a topic, but first, this is being stated upfront in an easy to understand FAQ, and second, this is the way you will be able to benefit from others' searches rather than reinventing the wheel. With other mainstream search engines available, keep your learning-related searches to So.cl, remembering that others could make use of information that you found. Unlike with Facebook, you will not find your searching popping up on Facebook without your permission.