You Must Read This, If You're Interested In The Future Of MLS On The Web

Jul 24, 2007 Michael Wurzer

If you’re interested in MLS and want to see where MLS crosses into web 2.0, you must read A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy by Clay Shirky. The article itself never mentions MLS but that doesn’t matter. This article is all about MLS and the reasons it succeeds and how it may change in the face of the current challenges from web technology. Reading the article in its entirety is critically important, but, to help ensure that you do read it, here are a few quotes that support my claim of relevance to MLS:

[H]umans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.

. . .

So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it’s being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we’re going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.

He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

. . .

People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but when you’re dealing with groups of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an incredibly different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds of crises a constitutional crisis. It’s what happens when the tension between the individual and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that something has to be done.

And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it’s not just “We need to have some rules.” It’s also “We need to have some rules for making some rules.” And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.

Maybe I’m so pumped up about this article because this is essentially what I wrote in MLS Is More Than Technology. To cooperate, competitors need rules for engagement and that’s what the MLS does. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to someone, “The one thing I don’t like about the MLS industry is the politics.” I’ll never say that again. MLS is politics! MLS is the rules of the road or Robert’s Rules of Order or whatever you want to call it. That’s what makes it last.

Now, the second part of Mr. Shirky’s article is even more interesting, as it explains how social software is bringing these group dynamics into the fore:

If these things I’m saying have happened so often before, have been happening and been documented and we’ve got psychological literature that predates the Internet, what’s going on now that makes this important?

I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.

. . .

We’ve had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we’ve had IM, we’ve had these various patterns. And now, all of a sudden, these things are popping up. We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.

. . .

When you got social software on the web in the mid-Nineties, a lot of it was: “This is the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, now with New Lightweight Web Interface!” It never felt like the web. It felt like this hulking thing with a little, you know, “Here’s some icons. Don’t look behind the curtain.”

A weblog is web-native. It’s the web all the way in. A wiki is a web-native way of hosting collaboration. It’s lightweight, it’s loosely coupled, it’s easy to extend, it’s easy to break down. And it’s not just the surface, like oh, you can just do things in a form. It assumes http is transport. It assumes markup in the coding. RSS is a web-native way of doing syndication. So we’re taking all of these tools and we’re extending them in a way that lets us build new things really quickly.

Wow, this blew me away! All “web MLS” systems to date are just like the Giant Lotus Dreadnought, they look like the web but they aren’t. But why is this? The technology? Nope. It’s the politics! (And I don’t mean that pejoratively, any more.)  Why aren’t web MLS systems truly web creatures, allowing for easy exchange of data every which way and that? Because the group rules don’t allow it. Why don’t the rules allow it? Because the group would cease to exist without them!

This is not to say that the rules won’t change or that MLS won’t or can’t become truly web centric. I think that’s happening right now.  But nobody, be it NAR or Zillow or Point2 or anyone else has figured this out yet. Nobody.  Who are the social software engineers who are going to figure this out?  My bet is on the brokers, agents and MLS executives that contribute their time and talents now to the MLS.   This is their challenge.  We’re here to partner with them in that challenge. (What an awesome way to enter our annual client Summit, clearly defining such a huge challenge to share with our customers!)

Fortunately, Mr. Shirky goes even further and outlines his patterns for success in social software.  First, there are three things to accept:

  1. “Of the things you have to accept, the first is that you cannot completely separate technical and social issues.”  This one is so unbelievably important and so ignored to date.  Everyone thinks that the software is defining what people can do in the groups.  Wrong!  It’s both.
  2. “The second thing you have to accept: Members are different than users.”  Or, there are people who care about the survival of the group and then there is everyone else.  Anyone who has been on an MLS Committee knows the difference.  But,and this question is key, is the definition of membership in the MLS changing?  Are the buyers and sellers becoming more like members every day?
  3. “The third thing you need to accept: The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations.”   Who owns the listing again?  Oh, yeah, the seller/broker/agent . . .

While Shirky says the above three things are givens and will not change, the following four items can be designed for and adjusted:

  1. ” If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.”  This is already done in most MLS systems, though it’s getting challenges from the proliferation of teams and I believe it will get even more complicated as new marketing possibilities are explored.  The idea, though, is that the social software needs to provide a hook that ties your activities together.
  2. “Second, you have to design a way for there to be members in good standing. Have to design some way in which good works get recognized.”  Oh, boy, this goes straight to the who owns the listing debate.  Or, who is number one in your town?
  3. “Three, you need barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of capabilities.”  Fascinating area to explore . . .
  4. “And, finally, you have to find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe’s law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated with one another.”

I truly believe this is the framework for reinventing the constitutions of the MLSs.  The seeds are here.  We need to grow them.  Now.