‘So.cl’, pronounced ‘social’, is a new social network launched publicly by Microsoft over the weekend, targeted at students and not positioned to take on Facebook.

The new network was launched quietly, in the shadow of Facebook’s IPO, with the aim of creating a new research experience for students to network with peers and share information. It combines social networks and research, aggregates web content and encourages collaboration through video ‘parties’ similar to Google Hangouts.

Developed by Microsoft’s research arm, FUSE Labs, it’s being referred to as “an experiment in open search,” and makes searches viewable to other So.cl users and third parties, tying in with the recent launch of Bing’s social search tools.

Users can log in to the network with their Facebook or Windows Live accounts. Once logged in, they’re presented with a list of suggested topics to follow, which are then added to a ‘feed’ section, similar to the newsfeeds on Facebook and Google+. The feed displays other So.cl users’ searches — which are powered by Bing — listing the search term the person used and the website it took them to in real time. Within each post, users can leave a comment, share someone else’s search, or add additional links and feedback to a thread, a feature Microsoft calls ‘riffing’. The hope is that by seeing first-hand what others are searching for, So.cl users can access new information more easily.

The service also comes with a bookmarklet feature that adds a ‘Share on So.cl’ button to users’ browser toolbars, similar to Pinterest’s ‘pin it’ button, allowing users to share interesting websites.

The service first launched a trial five months ago among students of selected universities in the US, following a similar launch path to Facebook. While it is not designed to compete directly with other social networks, it is likely to be up against similar services for share of time people are willing to spend on social networking.

With fewer features than Facebook and Google+, principal analyst at Ovum, Eden Zoller, says the service adds little value beyond social search and sharing of information.

Microsoft So.cl is not a fully-fledged social network and it is far too early to even suggest it could be a rival to Google+ or Facebook, and the chances are it never will be,” Zoller says.

So.cl screenshot jpg