How the Web Is Ruining Real Estate

Experts in real estate technology argue that online media is causing real problems for practitioners and consumers and how they connect with each other. What are these issues, and what can you do about them?

April 20, 2012

It was the last thing you would have expected at a technology-oriented conference, but there it was: Speaker after speaker at RE Tech South (RETSO), which was held in April in the Atlanta area, warned attendees that social networks and online media were damaging the real estate business.

“It’s time for us as an industry to take a stand and talk honestly about how these emerging technologies are affecting not only our businesses but our personal interactions,” said opening keynote speaker Jeff Turner, president of Zeek Interactive. “This is a problem we don’t need to push under the rug. We need to face it head on and own it.”

Given the general consensus in real estate that practitioners should be leveraging the Web and Turner’s own advocacy of using online and mobile technologies, this argument seems surprising, to say the least. What, exactly, is the “problem” he referred to, and what can be done about it?

The Problems With Online Interactions

As it turns out, the Web’s negative effects on real estate professionals are manifold. Turner cited the fact that social networks “seduce” users with positive feedback loops (such as liking and sharing), and these kinds interactions not only lure them into spending lots of time doing things on social networks that have little business value but also cause them to neglect important professional and personal relationships.

In fact, Turner recalled a colleague who said he had trouble focusing on conversations during family dinners because his mind was on what was happening on the various social networks in which he participated. “The feedback I get online is more satisfying” than interactions with family, the man told Turner.

If this sounds something like a chemical addiction, that’s because it’s exactly what it is, said Matthew Shadbolt, director of interactive marketing for the Corcoran Group, a New York-based brokerage. In his RETSO presentation, he described how the positive reinforcement people find on social media causes oxytocin to be released into the brain. Oxytocin, which creates a calm, soothing, and pleasurable feeling, is the same chemical that’s generated in the minds of mothers when they interact with their babies, he added.

This is not without its benefits. When oxytocin levels are elevated in the brain, people are happier, more empathetic, and more charitable. But while social media may stimulate these good feelings, it also makes participants define themselves primarily by the responses they get from others, Shadbolt said. Paradoxically, this can simultaneously lead to a loss of creativity and originality (as people on these networks often conform to each other’s views) and a rise in outlandish conduct (as people solicit reactions from as many others as possible through bizarre statements and behavior, which they often wouldn’t do in a physical setting).

Additionally, there’s the effect caused by simply staring at a screen for several hours, particularly late in the day. Shadbolt said that looking at illuminated screens — especially ones that are close to your face — inhibits the release of melatonin, the chemical used to bring the body to a state of sleep. Consequently, using mobile or desktop devices shortly before bed can keep you from getting the deep and restful sleep you need to function normally.

Finally, there’s the simple fact of cognitive burnout. Too much information coming at people from too many places will essentially fry the brain for short periods of time, Shadbolt said. It dramatically shortens attention spans, diffusing concentration and causing what Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford University, termed the “infantilization of the human mind.”

When all of these factors collide, they can make people self-absorbed, unfocused, and lethargic in their relationships outside the virtual sphere. And it doesn’t take an expert to help real estate professionals understand why that’s bad for business.

How to Approach the Social Web

Don’t mistake these criticisms of online media as an encouragement to abandon it entirely. As Turner pointed out, it’s still a very powerful tool that — if used correctly — can provide real benefits for your business.

One of the best ways to use social media, for example, is to listen instead of talk, said Gahlord Dewald, president of Thoughtfaucet. He discussed using geocodes to learn who’s talking in your local market and what they’re talking about in his RETSO presentation. One way to do this is by entering a precise location based on latitude and longitude in Twitter, then determining a radius around that point. Then, you can get a stream of tweets from all users in that area.

The central component of a listening strategy is not the technology, however, but an open mind. And it’s not just sitting and gathering data, Dewald said. It’s being reflective and putting things into context, and having courage to act on what people say they really want, regardless of your preconceived notions.

Another great way to use online media is through a concept Scott Schang, branch manager of Broadview Mortgage Corp. and founder of the Homeownership University site, referred to as “mayorism” in his RETSO presentation. Essentially, this means approaching your overall Web presence as if you were running a campaign for mayor of your market. This means showing — not telling — consumers you’re the expert on the local area. You do this by being a resource of information about cultural events, new development, and, of course, real estate in that area.

Schang emphasized that this was not an easy, quick solution. The pace of a campaign like this is not unlike that of an actual political campaign, meaning it would take a year or two to build up your image as the market expert. “There are no turnkey solutions, because we’re talking about building relationships and building trust,” Schang said.

Breaking Away

Ultimately, though, the best thing most real estate pros can do with regard to Web media, mobile technology, and social networks is to stop spending so much time on them and work on establishing and improving meaningful, in-real-life relationships, both Turner and Shadbolt advised. They also said practitioners should be much more selective about when and how they use these tools.

In addition, Shadbolt advocated taking regular “Internet sabbaths” to avoid the mental deterioration brought about by online overexposure. And Turner recommends evaluating your business plan before spending any more time on social media, and taking a hard look at how technology fits into your overall strategy.

“Stop allowing guys like me to influence you to try things you don’t need,” Turner said. “Be able to say, ‘That doesn’t fit in with my business.’”

Brian Summerfield is the former manager of business development and outreach for NAR Commercial and Global Services.