The risk of disruption to the real estate industry comes not from technology, but from the belief that technology will disrupt the industry.
Twenty years ago this month I published my first freelance article in a magazine. I was in my junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, and it was the first time anyone paid me for anything I had written.
The magazine was Soap Opera Digest.
The article was about the emergence of a new community hub on the Internet called Usenet groups — specifically rec.arts.tv.soaps.* (RATS, for short) — where soap opera viewers gathered to discuss daytime soap operas. I reported on how the ability to share their thoughts and opinions with other viewers through participation in these groups enhanced their viewing experience and facilitated the development of friendships within the viewer community.
Of course, in today’s world, the concept of online engagement around television viewing is well-established, and its effect on the viewing experience is studied. Today, we live-Tweet television experiences. Television writers and producers are actively engaged in the conversation on Twitter and in public web forums.
But that’s today.
In early 1995, when I first discovered and started lurking around rec.arts.tv.soaps.* (specifically, rec.arts.tv.soaps.abc) the landscape was a little different (ok, a lot different).
There was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Not even MySpace. This was before the emergence of web-based recap sites and forums like Television Without Pity. The World Wide Web version 1.0 was just beginning to come online. Even in the university environment, email was scarcely used.
Back then, the idea of online engagement around a television show — or any other area of interest — was a revolutionary concept, perhaps even more than I realized at the time.
Reflecting on Twenty Years
It’s been a while since I thought about my early foray into the world of rec.arts.tv.soaps.* or the article I wrote for Soap Opera Digest. My physical copy of the magazine with my article was lost in a decluttering of my old bedroom at my parent’s house, and I have been unable to find it online. My favorite soaps (All My Children and One Life to Live) were cancelled.
Yet suddenly, I found myself thinking about this today, as I sat in the audience during Connect on the Road, the unofficial start of Inman.com‘s Inman Connect New York conference.
Today, Brad Inman published an article reflecting on the first Inman Connect, where 50 people gathered in the woods of Northern California and contemplated how technology and the Internet might shake up the residential real estate market. The Internet opened up possibilities for liberating the information that had long been held captive by real estate brokers.
Twenty years ago, real estate wasn’t on my radar. I was a Communication major at Penn, with a concentration in Marketing and Policy. I spent most of my summers working in television news production and was planning to attend law school (“Law school” is the default answer to “Communications? What are you going to do with that?”).
I spent a lot of time studying concepts like persuasion, agenda-setting, visual communication and consumer behavior. Although my professors were not yet teaching about the Internet, I spent a lot of time thinking about how technology and the Internet would impact these areas, and how they might change everything from how we communicate, share and receive information to how we find community and belonging as the world expanded.
This has remained at the core of my intellectual curiosity and practical exploration ever since, and is a significant factor in my annual attendance of the Inman Connect conference. Contemplating how technological innovation will affect us going forward is at the core of my through-line.
Disrupt, or Enhance?
In his article, Brad reviews some of the recent changes in the real estate industry — broker consolidation, new business models, new technologies — and he shares his core message for this year’s Connect:
You either adopt disruptive technology or you will be disrupted.
So, here we are.
If you’ve spent any time at all wondering why the real estate industry can’t seem to get it together, this is why. The industry is driven by fear, produced in part by statements like this.
To be clear, this is not a knock on Brad Inman. I like Brad and have a lot of respect for what he’s done and continues to do to drive the industry forward. I also fully believe in, and embrace, the power of technology and innovation to improve how we do business.
Where I object is in the use of fear tactics to prod agents into chasing shiny objects.
Even before I entered the real estate industry, pundits were predicting that liberating information and creating transparency would eliminate the need for real estate agents. “Experts” in “social media” and “digital marketing” push agents to chase the next platform and the newest app. They send a clear message: embrace what’s next or risk extinction. Adapt or be disrupted.
The industry is operating from a place of fear.
This approach is counterproductive and needs to stop.
My discovery of rec.arts.tv.soaps.* showed me how technology and the Internet could enhance the human experience. Daytime soap opera viewers often spent their days at home, accompanied only by the characters they allowed into their living rooms. There was no “water cooler conversation” around daytime soaps, because viewers were home, alone. The Usenet groups provided these viewers with a lifeline to community and connection with real people who shared their interests. They opened a pathway to human connection.
The focus on disruption in today’s tech world is misplaced.
Whether we’re talking about an online social network, mobile hardware, wearable device, smart home technology or other invention, the key factor in whether a technology takes root is not its capability to disrupt an industry, but rather its success in enhancing our lives.
The best enhancements are those that help us connect more meaningfully with others.
From the dawn of human existence, the one constant has been our need for human connection. Not “connection” as in improved broadband and faster wi-fi networks (although, that’s nice), but through face-to-face interaction and human contact.
That’s not to say that an innovation cannot enhance and disrupt. Some do, of course. But disruption alone is not a recipe for longevity.
The Real Power Tools
The purchase or sale of a home requires an investment of emotional resources as well as financial capital. The process is catalyzed by, and produces, life changes and uncertainty.
The opportunity to help others navigate this maze of uncertainty and feel confident about their decisions is what motivated me to leave my legal career and enter the real estate industry. Even as technology enables us to simplify parts of the transactional process, the emotional process of buying and selling homes remains complex.
The core of my business is rooted in an understanding of this emotional process, and in holding space for my clients’ experiences as I shepherd them through the process.
As much as I embrace technology, I know that human contact, personal engagement and emotional intelligence are my real power tools. Presence and empathy are my “killer apps.”
The real threat of disruption to the real estate industry does not come from technology or the next shiny object, but from our belief that we must chase these things to stay relevant.
When we give into this belief and act from a place of fear in constant pursuit of “what’s next,” we risk losing our grip of what’s most important: the human being in front of us who needs the support of a steady hand and a sure heart.