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Is Microsoft's So.cl the Start of Something Bigger?

Designers of a new social-networking pilot that combines many Facebook and Twitter features with the capabilities of a Web search engine have told MIT's Technology Review that the project's design is based on how students use social networks and search engines for class research.

In other words, the creators of Microsoft's So.cl, which is being tested on students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Syracuse University, and New York University, have no aim to take over the social networking world in the next 10 years, as Facebook has done over the last eight.

But if you remember Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network—and dismiss Mark Zuckerberg's claim that the film "is fiction"—you'll recall Facebook's original pull to Harvard students was that—unlike MySpace and other networks of the time—the site was only for Harvard students.

Fast forward to now, when Facebook's target growth demographic is folks my parents' age (I was a college junior when Facebook first hit my campus), while many of my peers gripe that the site is overexposed and impersonal. Given that, you'll understand why Technology Review wonders if So.cl, which it describes as more visual and collaborative than either Facebook or Twitter, may be the start of something bigger than education.

And coming at it from an educational vantage point, it's one thing to design something functional, and another entirely to convince students to use it. Take video games, where companies try very hard to resist having games branded as "educational" for fear of losing street cred with kids and adults, who look at gaming as escapism.

To be fair, Lili Cheng, the Microsoft researcher leading the project's development, tells Technology Review So.cl isn't necessarily oriented to formal education and admits she can't predict how the platform will develop. Check out the Review's sneak peek into So.cl for more about the project.

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