Last week, Microsoft unveiled its new social network for students: So.cl (pronounced "social"). The project comes out of Microsoft Research’s FUSE Labs and is currently being piloted at three schools (University of Washington, Syracuse University, and New York University). Microsoft insists that So.cl isn't meant to be a Facebook competitor (in fact, as Techcrunch's Sarah Perez points out, it's "essentially a Facebook app"). Microsoft describes its new network as "a site designed to give students the ability to network with peers, share useful information quickly, and build their own pages that collect information from both inside and outside the classroom -- in a sense, transforming the web and social networks into the new classroom.”
That description, of course, sounds like every other social (learning) network out there. And like every other social network out there, So.cl lets users follow people. There's a "news feed." There's an option for a "video party" with chat. The site is also tightly woven with Bing, Microsoft's own search engine. Students can opt to share their searches with their followers; and the idea is that students will build social connections around these searches and interests.
It's fairly easy to shrug at Microsoft's efforts here and even to chuckle at their lateness to the social networking party (although the company, in all fairness, is an investor in Facebook). The new Microsoft social network enters a fairly crowded space. There are already existing academic social networks like ResearchGate and Academia.edu, as well as CUNY's Academic Commons soon-to-be-open-sourced Commons-in-a-Box (although admittedly those are aimed more at graduate students, faculty and researchers). There are multiple student-oriented networks too -- sites like Cramster and (arguably) Yahoo Answers, and of course, the big three: Twitter, Google+, and Facebook (not to mention the wide array of edu-apps available on the Facebook platform).
In many ways, it feels like many educational institutions are just starting to embrace social networks and social learning (although there are still plenty of folks who remain cautious, particularly at the K-12 level, of teachers and students getting "too social" and "too close"). And I don't want to dismiss as "passé" something that's really only beginning to take off. But with the arrival of Microsoft So.cl, I can't help but wonder if we've finally reached "Peak Social" -- or at least "peak social network."
It's not just that Microsoft's addition to the mix here seems rather uninspired. It's that there are all ready so many places where students can communicate and collaborate (not to mention the places where they're expected or required to communicate or collaborate). Can we really expect students to develop profiles and build their learning networks on yet another social site? Do students require a separate social network? Does another network add any value?