Microsoft's social networking experiment, So.cl, a site designed around sharing Web content pulled from Bing searches, is now available for all users. Launched in December and aimed at students, So.cl is not meant to compete with popular social networks such as Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. So.cl isn't a place to connect with friends and share moments from your lives.
Instead, So.cl is more like an image board where you post and share web-based content based on general interest categories such as cars, movies, and sports -- all of which is filtered through a built-in Bing search tool.
So.cl isn't for everyone and convincing users to fit this site into an already busy online life with Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and LinkedIn will be a tough sell for Microsoft.
Then again, So.cl doesn't appear to be a product built for mass appeal. The social network is still under the "Microsoft Research" banner and is very much a development project. You may find at times that links won't work, content won't populate your feed, and other functions will be limited. But if you're a hard core social networking fan and want to see what Microsoft is up to, here's a quick peek at So.cl.
You can get into So.cl using your Facebook account or Windows Live ID. I signed up initially with my Windows Live ID with no problems, but when I tried to use Facebook I didn't get in right away. Instead, I was told to expect an invitation by e-mail in the coming days. So for now, your best bet may be to use your Windows Live ID to get immediate access to So.cl.
After you're signed in, you'll see a pop-up window suggesting some general interest categories as well as people to follow. The buttons on this window didn't work for me, however, so I just ended up adding interest categories on my own.
Once you get past So.cl's initial greeting, you'll land on a page called Explore. The main column is populated with general interest categories you can follow.
To the left is a navigation column with links such as Feed, Post, Profile, Video Parties, and Interests. The navigation column also uses what are effectively subfolders for each main navigation link. These secondary navigation links let you control what you are seeing in your feed or what kind of content you are going to share in a post.
After you add a few general interest categories to your profile, your next stop is the "Feed" section, which is your standard social networking news feed similar to Facebook and Google+.
Your feed shows you every public post that other So.cl users are sharing online. But you can also pare this down to just the people and categories you are following, or take a look at the activity just on your posts. There's also a section under your feeds called "Conversations" where you can send direct messages to other So.cl users.
Our next stop on this So.cl whistle stop tour is the posting section. This is where So.cl's Bing-centric nature really comes into play, because before you can post any external content to So.cl it has to go through Bing first. The first way you can post is to choose a topic such as “surfing” or “Windows 8” and then search for it in the Bing-powered search bar at the top of the page.
Once you have your search results, you can drill down using the navigation links on the left to see results for news, images, and videos related to your search. To add a specific link to your post, you click the “Add to post” button at the bottom of each separate search result. You can then add a message and once you're satisfied with the post, click done.
The second way to post is to grab a link from a website and click the “Add link” button below the message entry box. Let's say you wanted to post an article from The New York Times. On any other social network you would just grab the article link, paste it into your post, type up a comment, and you're done. But not on So.cl.
Instead, you past your URL into a pop-up box that appears after you click “Add link” and hit enter. This causes a Bing search based on your link and then you can choose the article you want to share from the Bing-powered results.
Once you're post is out in the world, people can like it by clicking the smiley underneath your post. They can also leave comments, or share your post outside So.cl via e-mail or Facebook. There is also a link called “Riff” that lets people do a Bing search based on your post and then create their own posting. Finally, people can tag your post, which is just a quick way for a user inspired by your post to follow a category on So.cl.
Your So.cl profile is fairly standard. It lists your name and uses your Windows Live or Facebook profile picture, shows you recent activity and lets people comment on your posts or leave you a message.
So.cl also provides a Facebook-style cover photo section, but it appears So.cl automatically generates this based on what you share. That's just my guess, however, because I didn't see a way to change it.
This is where you can watch YouTube videos at the same time as other So.cl users in lean back mode.
All video parties are based around a subject such as a singer like Katy Perry or Adele. You can leave comments in real time, add videos to the playlist, and move a video to the top of the playlist.
This section lists the interests you're following. Each interest has its own page that lets you see posts from other users based on the same subject. There is also a quick search link to find and add new interests to your profile.
And that's about it. So.cl lets you share your interests with others online, discover topics through other people's posts, and participate in video viewing parties. So.cl is a curious take on social networking and is definitely not for everyone. I'd say if you're life is already filled with tweets, Facebook likes, and LinkedIn status updates, you can safely skip So.cl without missing much.