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Microsoft is talking for the first time publicly about its “So.cl” network today, explaining what it is — and what it isn’t — and expanding the private beta of the service to more students and academics.

Microsoft researcher Shelly Farnham, FUSE GM Lili Cheng.

Based on a sneak peek yesterday at the offices of the Microsoft Research lab behind the project, GeekWire can confirm that So.cl is not meant to be a Facebook killer, at least not in its current form.

But it is an interesting project that’s designed to bridge the worlds of Internet search and social networking to help people learn informally from their friends and colleagues.

And it’s easy to see how Microsoft’s product teams could incorporate elements of So.cl into their work.

First things first: “So.cl is a research experiment,” says Lili Cheng, general manager of FUSE Labs, the Microsoft Research group behind the project.

That means it’s not designed to be released as a product on a wide scale. The group has been testing the service with about 150 students in information and design schools at the University of Washington, Syracuse University and New York University. Starting today, the service will be opened up to as many as 1,000 academics and students by invitation, to make it easier to test in classrooms next semester.

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Cheng says project grew out of a recognition that tools like Internet search were originally created before social networks became pervasive. The idea is to integrate search more deeply into the social learning experience, as a window into the larger online world.

“Students are just amazing in the way that they’re using everyday tools — social networks and search and Wikipedia — to learn, and we think that over time education is going to change,” she says. “We’ve been thinking, how might you combine these things in better ways to support the things that students do every day?”

The current version of So.cl supports written status updates, with a news feed similar to Facebook and other social networks. Its following mechanism is similar to Twitter. But a major difference is the way it incorporates web search, allowing users to search for images and links in Microsoft’s Bing search engine and quickly assemble them into a post just by clicking on them.

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The idea is to help students quickly share what they’re discovering online, as a way of learning from each other.

“If you think about the way people are innovating now, it’s by learning from each other and building on each other’s work through the Internet,” said Shelly Farnham, a Microsoft researcher working on the So.cl project, drawing parallels to do-it-yourself online communities. “You can really accelerate learning and collaboration through this sharing process.

Other features include a video party feature, letting users watch a video together from their respective computers and chat about it in an accompanying pane. For now, at least, the service focuses entirely on letting people aggregate web content, and doesn’t include some basic features such as uploading a picture into a post.

The service is online at so.cl, and while the beta is expected to remain tightly controlled, the home page includes an introductory video. So.cl uses Facebook as a mechanism for logging in and requesting access to the beta.

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