Editor’s note: In the early days of the Web, not many people were adding content on their own. But that is quickly changing with more community-focused and social networking sites popping up and more people writing blogs. In this three-part report we explore how more people are adding their own real estate content and discussions onto the Internet, what they are talking about and what’s motivating them. (Read Part 1 and Part 3.)
Joe Zekas is using new technology to return to the roots of community information and interaction.
The effort, YoChicago, is a real estate-oriented site that encompasses property searches, neighborhood journals, guides and other resources.
“YoChicago is an attempt to go back to the basics of newspapers and start building a community around content,” said Zekas, YoChicago’s creator. He is recruiting hundreds of writers to provide content for online, neighborhood-focused journals in the seven-county area in and around Chicago. Volunteer writers will supply much of the site’s content.
Other Web sites, too, have secured a solid audience by providing geographically focused real estate content. Some blogs, such as Curbed.com and Brownstoner.com, have captured the attention of real estate professionals and gossipers alike by monitoring real estate trends with a relentless and even near-microscopic focus on city areas, neighborhoods, buildings and housing units. Some of the sites enable community interaction through comments, news tips and other user-generated content.
“One thing that’s been missing on the Internet is really hyper-local kind of content, said Zekas, who is also chairman of Data Based Ads, a technology company focused on real estate advertising, and co-publisher of New Homes Magazine, a real estate publication that features new homes in the Chicago area.
But some sites have missed the boat when it comes to identifying with people online, according to Zekas. Popular notions of blogging, citizen journalism and even online communities are a bit too contrived, he said.
“I don’t like the world ‘blog’ because 90 percent of the people I encounter in the real world still don’t know what that is. They know what an online journal is.” The term “citizen journalism” is “an arrogant term,” he said, that seems to imply that other journalists are somehow superior. “If people want to write something, why does (journalism) have to take on any kind of caste or any kind of movement, or have some concept wrapped around it?”
There are “too many hustlers around the notion of ‘community,’” he also said. “I don’t think people identify with Internet communities in any real way. I think (consumers) have things they want to do, things they want to find.”
Newspapers have been too slow to capitalize on Internet technologies, he said, adding that he hopes to teach the newspaper industry some lessons with the YoChicago venture. “Newspapers have been totally asleep at the switch when it comes to the Web.”
The Greater Chicago area consists of about 250 separate neighborhood areas and about 359 suburbs, Zekas said, and he hopes to find about six people to contribute to online journals for each one of these city and suburban areas. “We will focus first on developing a ton of content and then look for somebody we can sell that audience to,” he said. Also, Zekas is hoping to establish first-person journals that provide real stories about shopping for a house, selling a house or other aspects of the real estate process.
“People want a lot of local information and it isn’t there,” Zekas said. “What is there is very corporate and very boring – it’s not the kind of thing that people want to read and pay attention to.”
YoChicago started serving up content in December and January, and site developers continue to roll out new features as the site evolves.
Why the real estate focus for YoChicago? There’s the money thing. “I’m in this to make a buck,” Zekas said. “Real estate (content) has a huge hole that nobody has really developed the right Web site for. You have to wander all over the Web just trying to find one place that can provide it all.” He’s hoping that YoChicago will be that place, something like a “Swiss army knife” of real estate information.
For an annual fee of $199, site users can post an unlimited amount of real estate listings, job listings and other types of listings.
Zekas doesn’t claim to have figured out all of the secrets of the Internet yet – talk to him six months from now when the site is more established, he said. “There are a zillion things we don’t know yet that we’re going to learn as we go through this. We’re assuming that none of it is going to be easy – none of it is going to happen organically or by magic.”
As for the future of community-focused Web sites: “A lot less is going to happen in two years than you think and a lot more is going to happen in five years,” he said.
The anonymous author of the Brooklyn-centric Brownstoner.com blog, who will be referred to in this article as “Brownstoner,” said real estate content is an easy focal point for online discussions.
“For New York, real estate is … sort of a lens through which everything can be viewed,” he said. While Brownstoner is the sole writer at the site, he credits the site’s readers for helping to drive the content.
“The lifeblood of Brownstoner … are all of the tips and input you get from readers. There is only so much ground you can cover. You rely on people,” he said. The site launched in October 2004, and Brownstoner said it took him a few months to get his “sea legs” and get a good feel for the site he was building.
There are times when Brownstoner has to lay down the law and delete or edit a comment that he deems to be offensive. Because he is the creator, he feels personally responsible for monitoring the content at the site, he said. “It’s my editorial voice and vision that’s steering the ship. Reader input it integral to it, but it’s still my show. That’s kind of the least fun – being the hallway monitor. I don’t get too hung up on the free-speech thing because I look at this more like my living room.”
He added, “The ability of people to get offended at things never ceases to amaze me,” even though blogging tends to be a fairly informal sort of information. “The medium lends itself to not taking itself too seriously,” he said. “I sort of walk the line between earnestness, self-deprecation and fun. I actually tend to be a little more earnest than a lot of the other blogs out there.” The immediacy of blogging is one of its benefits, he said.
Brownstoner recalled a recent blog post that included a photo of a drawing that suggested a unification of three different neighborhoods. The picture touched on hot-button topics such as racism and gentrification. He said he doesn’t want the blog to get sidetracked from real estate issues, he said, though such topics can be integral to real estate discussions. “On one hand I don’t want to get too caught up in that stuff – on the other hand I don’t want to ignore it, either.”
Blogs can fill a gap in information that large media outlets skip over, Brownstoner said. “The New York Times isn’t going to put a picture up of every little 20-foot lot that is developed. They’re not going to care that some ugly new development is going on in their corner. There is sort of an outing process that goes on. The site definitely has a preservationist bent,” he said. Just look at the site’s own description: “An unhealthy obsession with historic Brooklyn brownstones and the neighborhoods and lifestyles they define.”
There is an average one blog posting per day that discusses “bad new cheap architecture,” he said, adding that he has a regular list of other Brooklyn-focused Web sites that he reads to stay up with current events.
One blog post about a planned new development drew about 100 comments – mostly negative, and Brownstoner said he mailed a printed version of those comments to the project’s developer.
“Who knows, maybe it went straight to the garbage,” he said, but maybe not. “I don’t have any grand illusions” that the site is somehow influencing Brooklyn development plans – but it is at least raising awareness about local developments, Brownstoner said.
There are a number of community and neighborhood-specific blogs maintained by individual real estate agents around the country – and this is by far the most common form of real estate-related blog. Keith Byrd, a Realtor for Lenox Hill Properties in Pismo Beach, Calif., maintains a blog for the San Luis Obispo County area in California’s Central Coast region. The blog includes “info, observations and other random stuff about San Luis Obispo real estate and the local area,” according to the site description.
Byrd said his blog is the second most popular feature at his Web site – a property map search that features multiple listing service properties gets the most traffic. “My blog has proven to be an important piece of my strategy to get those visitors to keep coming back to my site,” he said.
While some real estate-related sites allow comments or other forms of online feedback, Byrd’s blog is set up to provide information, he said. “The way I see it is that people come to my site for information, not a discussion. I do see newer blogs that allow for comments but I really don’t see much benefit in allowing un-moderated comments”
There are other examples of user-generated real estate content, too. Some property search sites, such as StreetEasy.com and Propsmart.com, are incorporating user feedback. And there are a handful of sites that allow visitors to rate their real estate agents or companies, such as Homethinking.com, RealtyRators.com, Realty Baron and Judy’s Book.
And there are general neighborhood-focused individual and group blogs that include the occasional real estate-focused posting. The Gothamist chain of blogs, which includes LAist (Los Angeles) and SFist (San Francisco) among others, features city-centric information in a group blogging format. Metroblogging is another community-focused group blogging network that covers general information in major cities and areas in the United States and internationally. There are over 40 blogs in the Metroblogging network.
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