The Future of MLS is Now

Aug 19, 2007 Michael Wurzer

If there is a decision to be made about how cyberspace will grow, then that decision will be made. The only question is by whom. We can stand by and do nothing as these choices are made —by others, by those who will not simply stand by. Or we can try to imagine a world where choice can again be made collectively and responsibly,

— Lawrence Lessig, Code Version 2.0

For the past six months, I’ve been writing about the prognosticated death and life death of the MLS. Over a span of about 100 posts, I’ve suggested that:

In writing on this topic, I’ve often felt like web 2.0 and its promoters are rushing ahead of everyone, creating something new destined to destroy the MLS. The speed with which new sites and systems are developed is astonishing and that speed of change can make one feel powerless, as if caught up in a storm that can’t be controlled. Chaotic is a word that describes the feeling well.

Recently, however, I read two books that gave me an interesting perspective on this chaos that is worth sharing. First, Lawrence Lessig’s book Code v2.0, quoted above, makes clear that cyberspace requires us to make choices about our future. One of the central presmises of Lessig’s book is that software “code is law.”

I’ll undoubtedly miss some of the sophistication of this premise by summarizing it as saying that the way in which a system is designed creates the rules for engaging with that system. This is true of everything made in real space, too, but what many seem willing to overlook is that this is especially true in cyberspace. Cyberspace doesn’t exist except as humans create it. The corollary of this is that we have choices to make in creating cyberspace. Cyberspace doesn’t just spring up from nothing, we need to choose to create it and those choices rule what cyberspace is and how we interact with it and each other while there.

Lessig uses an interesting example to make the point that we have choices to make in defining cyberspace. Lessig recounts what at first appears to be a common tale of a disagreement between neighbors. One neighbor was growing poisonous plants and the other neighbor’s dog ate the plants and died, which resulted in the disagreement. The dog owner complained to the gardening neighbor, suggesting she could have grown plants that weren’t poisonous. The gardener responded that the dog owner should have chosen a dog that wouldn’t eat the plants or at least could be re-born after dying. Incredibly, the dog owner didn’t blanch at this suggestion, even though it seems completely bizarre to us. Why? Because these were neighbors in SecondLife, a completely on-line (cyberpsace) community, where you can design your own poisonous plants or dogs that do things not possible in real space. Choices. Lots of choices, in cyberspace.

Now, let’s relate this back to MLS. So much of what I’ve read and discussed with others about MLS “in cyberspace” borders on capitulation. Cyberspace exists and it’s changing or destroying the MLS, the story goes, like cyberspace is some outside force that cannot be controlled. However, that’s only true if we abdicate to others the choices of defining cyberspace for real estate, if we assume that the rules should or need to be made by the technologists or anti-trust regulators or the NAR or someone else other than us.

It’s also tempting to think that cyberspace for real estate is already defined, but it isn’t. Not by a long shot. In fact, cyberspace isn’t defined for much of anything. Seriously. Sure, the web has been evolving for the better part of ten years, and it seems ubiquitous now, a thing or blob that’s just here, there, everywhere. But the truth is that everything about the web and cyberspace generally is just now being defined.

Perhaps the best example is the shift from anonymity to identity occurring right now. In the early days, the wonder of cyberspace was tied closely to the fact that you could be anyone or no one or many people, all that the same time. This anonymity or pseuodonymity, as the case may be, promised freedom to many. Freedom to be someone they were not, such as not this sex or that race, or ugly or fat, or a CEO or a mail worker or anything else they are.

The rise of social networks over the last several years, however, has shifted the focus away from anonymity to “who are you”? First, kids were posting the most intimate details of their lives to their MySpace or Xanga pages and then college students were posting privately to their friends on Facebook, and now business people are trying to figure out how to network on LinkedIn or Facebook or Zillow or Trulia or any of the other many broad or targeted social networking sites. What’s common about all of these sites is that they all have a “profile” of each user and it’s that profile or identity that’s being shared with everyone. For many, the profiles on these sites are who they are.

Think about this for a minute. Facebook has many ways for you to describe yourself. You can share your music, photos, writings, videos and more. But there is a limit. Even though Facebook has opened up its system to allow others to add applications to it, there still is a limit to what can be shared. For those who tie their identity into the social network, those limits constrain who they can be. The limits of the system limit the participants. This was one of the points Lessig is trying to make when he says code is law. Put another way, code constrains or regulates.

So, who is making the rules? Maybe it’s Facebook or maybe it’s Zillow or Trulia or or some other site you’re working on right now. But maybe the rules are just being written or constantly re-written. That’s what I think. Here’s an example from just a few days ago. Brad Fitzpatrick, a 27 year old who helped create LiveJournal, is promoting an idea to standardize the “social graph”, because, in Mr. Fitzpatrick’s words, “People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site., but also: Developing “Social Applications” is too much work.” Brad wants the social network to be portable and not tied into the silos of Facebook or the other social network sites, one of which, LiveJournal, Mr. Fitzpatrick helped create. Here’s more:

While Facebook is an amazing platform and has some amazing technology, there’s a lot of hesitation in the developer / “Web 2.0” community about being slaves to Facebook, dependent on their continued goodwill, availability, future owners, not changing the rules, etc. That hesitation I think is well-founded. A centralized “owner” of the social graph is bad for the Internet.

Does this sound familiar, sort of like the debate over access to listing data and who can do what with it? But here’s the deal: Mr. Fitzpatrick understands that the world in which he’s living is definable. The rules are not yet written.

Standards are just now being defined for all that matters. Until now, the standards that were being defined were for things like HTML, TCP/IP and other important parts of the Internet and web. But those things are all generic or abstract at a level mostly interesting to technologists. Now, however, what’s being defined are things like who you can be and what you can do with your data and who you can talk to and what you can say or share with them. This is where it gets interesting for you and everyone.

Back to the MLS. The RETS community has been working hard to define standards for exchanging MLS data, including defining what the data should look like. This is the meat as well as the potatoes for the future of MLS. Anyone with interest in real estate should be engaged with the RETS process at some level. More importantly, I think the to-be-formed Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) has an opportunity to create conversations far beyond the core of listing definitions and data exchange.

One of the areas that needs to be explored is what does being a “member” of the MLS mean, especially in cyberspace. This goes to the core of the MLS portal question. What does it mean to have an MLS portal? Who gets access? What can they do when they get there? Who can they talk to? What are the rules? As noted above, these questions will be answered, the question is who will be answering them and how. I’m suggesting that now is the time for the current MLSs and their members to engage these issues squarely and openly and rationally.

This conclusion — that now is the time to engage these issues, like never before or after — leads directly to the other important book I read recently, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution by David O. Stewart. What amazed me most about the recounting of the Constitutional Convention by Mr. Stewart was that the convention lasted nearly four months, with many delegates coming and going throughout that time, and many others staying the entire time.

So, in many ways, the fame of our founders is due to the fact that they were there. They showed up at the time that mattered. On the other hand, the Convention likely would not have been a success had just anyone showed up. From beginning to end, George Washington was there, silent as the leader most of the time, but there, lending legitimacy and urgency and importance to the affair. Many others, Wilson, Rutledge, Madison and Mason, may have had a more direct hand in writing or crafting the Constitution, but it would have been for naught had Washington not been there, too. Everyone played a critical role in the process, with small states battling large states, slave states battling free, farmers battling shippers, and more.

Certainly there were significant compromises in the Consitution (notably slavery) that were poorly reasoned, but the beauty of the remainder of the document is the result of a hard clash of reason. These men discussed the issues of representation, the presidency, the courts, and state rights for months. Very little was just pushed aside. The issues were explored at length. Lessig makes this point, too:

There is a magic in a process where reasons count—not where experts rule or where only smart people have the vote, but where power is set in the face of reason. The magic is in a process where citizens give reasons and understand that power is constrained by these reasons.

My question is, when is the Constitutional Convention for the MLSs going to occur? I attend conference after conference that last two days, at most. Then there may be some calls in between that last an hour or two. This isn’t going to cut it. The questions facing our industry to define the rules of real estate in cyberspace are too difficult to resolve in a few days. We need the clash of the big and small brokers and MLSs, the regulators (NAR and the DOJ), the technologists (vendors of all kinds) and others to participate in this process on a meaningful level. Of course, today, such a convention doesn’t have to occur in real space, but rather can occur in cyberspace. The important point is that the convention occur. That we engage the questions, seriously and deliberatively. Now.