A lot can be said about the value of social media, with arguments for real business value or ways to stay connected with friends and family or even that most of it is just egocentric drivel. As one of the purveyors of egocentric drivel in my Twitter stream, I can understand that it's not for everybody. I did find a way to garner at least some faint interest in naysayers, however.
Last year I hosted Thanksgiving dinner at my pocket-sized house and practically counter-free kitchen for a dozen people. Since I had been in the kitchen almost non-stop since the prior afternoon I wasn't in much of a position to entertain my guests, but I did have something they found fascinating. I had just discovered the Brightkite Wall.
For those who don't know, Brightkite is a microblogging service, like Twitter, that also has built-in support for photos and geolocation, allowing you to "check in" to a location and post messages and images about the place (or event, etc.). It predates Foursquare, but does not use the game model at all and allows you to check in from anywhere in the world, not a restricted list of pre-defined cities.
The Brightkite Wall essentially turns your display into a simple electronic billboard, showing a stream of posts (text and images) as they come through the service. Last year I fed this directly to my television and let my family watch people comment and post photos throughout the day, watching shot after shot of peoples' meals, kitchens, families, turkey failures, plate mishaps, and comments about naps. It seemed a little voyeuristic, but it was also a great way to experience Thanksgiving across the country as a whole, feeling some sort of connection with people I've never met. We watched meals ebb and flow with the timezones, people try to juggle more than one stop, and many missives about things for which people were thankful (and more than a few for what they were not thankful). It became quite an interactive affair in my house as everyone commented on their favorite images or updates and as they pressed me to post photos of our meal.
This year I am not hosting, but I am bringing my laptop so, just in case anyone remembers, we can fire it up and watch this little slice of Americana play itself out throughout the day.
If you want to try this yourself, I have some configuration suggestions. First of all, you don't have to have a Brightkite account to use the wall. I recommend creating a Universe Stream instead of limiting it to one geographic area, one person, or one search term. Make sure you disable check-ins. You don't need to see that some guy named Ed checked in at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, you just want to see the comments and photos. If you want to see Twitter posts, you can enter Twitter search terms. These will help filter the tweets that get folded into the stream. You may need to adjust settings when you do it — when I ran this last year I didn't worry about Twitter spam or vulgarities.
This little experiment made it much easier to explain what social media is and how it works, and I think it made for a richer Thanksgiving. I do recommend a big enough display that people can see from across the room, since nobody who's overeaten on Thanksgiving wants to be crowded by others around a laptop.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving and I look forward to your Brighkite posts (and tweets).