Does the world really need another social network?
Microsoft thinks so. The company on Wednesday opened up registration for its new project, the aptly named Socl, to users with Microsoft and Facebook accounts. Socl launched last year but was in beta for Microsoft employees and college students until Wednesday.
Socl isn't exactly a traditional social network. It's more like Pinterest than Facebook as its landing page is filled with photo collages. (This is a change; the site's original design was decidedly less image-heavy.) Socl was born from Microsoft Research FUSE Labs' research into social search for students.
Now, anyone can sign up for the site and find content either generated randomly on Socl's homepage or do a Bing-powered search by topic. To create a post, you can pull content from other parts of the Web--photos, videos, links, etc.--and the site puts together a collage for you.
You can "riff" or comment on others' posts and share related links and images. Your profile page is a gallery of the posts you've created and the interests and people you follow--no wall posts or 140-character bon mots here.
The emphasis is less on friends than content. If you sign in using your Facebook login information, Socl will find your Facebook friends, but the site encourages you to explore and connect with others based on common interests and posts you like.
Some in the blogosphere have questioned whether Microsoft is trying to compete with Facebook, but Socl isn't much like Facebook at all. Like Pinterest, Microsoft's new network seems like a solid way to waste a few hours browsing random photos and links rather than a tool to communicate with friends.
And Microsoft acknowledges Socl's limitations. On the site's About page, the company says Socl is not designed to compete with the established social networks, but is instead an "experimental research project with a minimal set of features."
Microsoft is attempting to create a unified, cross-platform ecosystem that extends across hardware (its Surface tablets) and software (Windows 8) to search engines (Bing) and, now, its own social network. The company is experimenting with viral ad campaigns and Twitter stunts.
But, the question remains: Can the company shed its old-fashioned image and enter a new era in technology governed by touch and social? That answer could hinge on Socl's success.