Is Facebook Today's MLS Book Or Are MLSs Tomorrow's Facebook?

Oct 23, 2007 Michael Wurzer

Facebook is the darling of nearly everyone, it seems, especially after the site “opened up” to allow outsiders to develop software for use inside Facebook. Notice especially that last phrase, though, “inside Facebook.” The idea is that Facebook has all these people (you, me, etc.) adding personal data to the site, making friends, poking each other, etc., and all that data about us (what Facebook likes to call the “social graph”) is Facebook’s; it’s on their servers and it’s their “platform” to be made available to others as long as you’re on Facebook.

Recently, however, some pretty prominent companies and developers have been calling for “opening up the social graph” and giving users control over their data instead of having it stuck in Facebook’s silo. (I like silo better than platform; it seems more descriptive somehow.) For example, just last week, Brad Fitzpatrick (Google) and David Recordon (SixApart) gave a speech at O’Reilly’s Web2Summit about their efforts to create social network portability. Brad and David also are co-creators of OpenID, which aims to be “a free and easy way [for people] to use a single identity across the Internet.”

This speech followed Brad Fitzpatrick’s post a few months ago on the same topic, not long before or after which, Brad joined Google. And not long after that, Google announced that on November 5 (just a few weeks away now) it would be making a major announcement regarding Google’s plans for social networking, i.e., competing with Facebook. The basic idea is that, whereas Facebook is a silo for your data, Google is expected to create a way for you to control your data and make it transportable to other networks more easily.

At the same Web2Summit last week, Jeff Huber from Google was quoted on TechCrunch, in the post “The Web Is The Platform”, as proclaiming:

What we see is applications fundamentally changing. Just like the model for content changed from monolithic sites, now applications are going to be feeds and containers. A lot that you have heard here is about platforms and who is going to win. That is Paleolithic thinking. The Web has already won. The web is the Platform. So let’s go build the programmable Web.

A good question at this point is how this relates to MLS? In two ways: (1) Facebook, despite being the darling of the web today, is a data silo, just like MLS systems are accused of being; and (2) the future of data management and control is changing significantly, right now. Let me state these points again, differently, because I think they are important.

First, I’m speaking for myself here, but I think MLSs and MLS vendors are too defensive and too used to outsider carping about how backward and old-school and far-removed from the openness of the web they and their clients supposedly are. That’s just not true, and we only need to look at the Facebook silo, the darling of the web, for proof. If anything, MLSs are far ahead of Facebook in terms of web technology, because MLSs have a pretty well established API for retrieving data from the MLS system.

Second, the future of MLS today is being debated on whether to centralize data collections or not, with the strong move being towards centralization. Yet Google’s work in social networking portability is pointing the way toward decentralized data collections, using the “web as the platform.” What does that mean, exactly? It means people follow standard ways to create their data (in the case of real estate listings, hopefully RETS) and then also provide a standard way for others to access and interact with it, all of which means the creators retain control of their own data, which is very much at the heart of the debates in MLS today.

I’ve written before that I believe one of the single most important steps NAR could and should take to benefit their members would be to develop a leadership position around a national or worldwide property identification system based on web addresses. I can’t claim to have the technical skill to have thought through this every step of the way, but my basic idea is the same as what Google and SixApart and others are saying about the web being the platform. More data is being created today by more people than ever before. You can have all the silos you want, but the reality is that the full data about any thing is going to be distributed everywhere. What’s much more important than trying to silo data is trying to link data, and that’s why I think it’s so important to develop an easy and concrete method of identifying properties, so that all the disparate data can be linked together.

The great appeal of this approach is that it’s relatively easy technologically (any URL will do) and just requires popularity (prevalent use) to make it successful. (Importantly, it may also require, at least transitionally, a central repository to establish the identity.) That’s where NAR can help by coordinating with county governments and recorders and title companies to develop consensus around a new microformat for identifying properties. With such a basic piece in place, so much more can be built on top of it without having silos. Or put differently, creating many and more comprehensive and even competitive silos will be made easier because there will be a uniform way to tie together the data.

Is this idea too far out? Is it crazy? Or is Google just spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt in Facebook’s direction to try to lower their valuation so Google can acquire them? Maybe. Yet the same concepts have been articulated by two Yahoo! researchers as well in a paper called Toward A PeopleWeb (unfortunately, a pay site, unless you’re an IEEE member). The abstract of the article says it with techno-speak but well enough:

Important properties of users and objects will move from being tied to individual Web sites to being globally available. The conjunction of a global object model with portable user context will lead to a richer content structure and introduce significant shifts in online communities and information discovery.

In English, no silos. In the paper, the writers state that, with a global object model, “Users will be able to reference broad range of objects from anywhere on the Web, and they will do so based on a common identity for both objects and individuals.”

RETS is one part of defining this global object model and a key to that is a common identity. Other efforts on other “objects” are happening all over the world. This is what I was writing about in The Future of MLS Is Now. Just like other industries and social concerns, the real estate industry is being modeled for the web. This is happening now, it hasn’t run past us. Yet.