Some thoughts on why it’s time to stop being distracted and get back to work.

“The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have.”
– Norman Vincent Peale
(American Protestant Clergyman and Writer, 1898-1993)

Clapham Junction Looters (SKY News):

The recent footage of the London riots is tough to watch.

While many of us focused on the news of the downward spiral of our ever worsening economic situation here in the US over the past week, London, my home town, degenerated into ever more violent bursts of lawlessness, theft, rioting, and social disorder. It’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch, especially from thousands of miles away.

I’m not going to explore the causes, symptoms, and reasons for the rioting here. Those are for other forums at other times, and will certainly benefit from some considerable hindsight. Tensions continue to run high and there’s still a great deal of work to be done to even contain still volatile areas in England. What’s of genuine interest is the role that social media has played in those recent events. Its presence, its culpability, its reach. In many ways it’s currently serving as a convenient political scapegoat for those looking to understand how the rioting spread to other areas within London, how the groups appeared to mobilize so fast, and ultimately how the violence crossed over into other parts of the country.

As the events of last Monday night unfolded, it was becoming clear that many of the rioters were communicating electronically in order to understand what was going on. Simultaneously, reporters on Twitter were broadcasting messages (and appealing for help in gathering information) from within the affected areas, as well as hearing and sharing news from other regions as to the latest details of what was going on, out to a wider audience. YouTube visualized the rioting in horrifyingly realistic ways for us at home. At the time, it was reported that Blackberry Messenger was one of the main platforms through with these messages were spreading. If this is true or not still remains unclear, and it’s inappropriate to further this speculation, but there is little doubt that the messages between the rioters (under the thin guise of organization) were happening electronically. This comes as no surprise to many of us who use these platforms every day, but from others perhaps less familiar with social platforms, there has been a startling response.

London Riot’s ‘Good Samaritan’ Robbery:

We don’t have hindsight on this past week’s events yet. It’s simply too soon. But what’s clear is that social media (and Twitter specifically), has come under some considerable scrutiny from the British Government in the light of attempts to stem communication between lawbreakers during times of civil unrest. Given the events of the past week it’s easy to understand and empathize where such an emotional response would come from, even if you disagree with the premise of the discussion. There has been discussion of hashtag throttling, suspension of services altogether, and also efforts to take down those services deemed inappropriate by the government during these kinds of emergency situations.

These are all, of course, highly improbable and unlikely to happen. Attempts to limit electronic communication between individuals by any government is an incredibly polarizing issue, fraught with heated discussion. The official censoring of any type of communication between individuals is always contentious and problematic. But what’s interesting, is that these proposed solutions are even raised at all. In the same instance that the looters were using these platforms to communicate, simultaneously they were used by legitimate reporters in getting the word out, as well as an incredible grass-roots movement that began the morning after, to clean up the impacted streets, centered around the #ukcleanup hashtag and characterized by hoards of civic-minded locals brandishing brooms.

Source: BBC News

Many have characterized the riots as a young person’s rebellion. The equation of social unrest with social media is an easy one to make in the light of this. But social media isn’t a young person’s platform any more than rioting and looting is. It’s well known that the fastest growing segment of Facebook’s demographics are in the older age ranges, and the current rate of convictions for those arrested in the UK spans all the way from as young as 11, up to 58. Unrest in this instance knows no demographic boundary.

Notably, the various arms of the police force in England, specifically the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police, are now using Flickr to help identify and ‘name and shame’ those caught on camera looting in front of stores. These Flickr posts are being widely shared online and by the media. Again, social media is hard at work for civic ‘good’. There are other lengthier explorations of the current role of social media in the light of this part week’s events available online, and I’ve included some resources of where to start in the notes below. However, these terrible events only serve as the context for this post, which is centered around the idea of perspective in the light of the past week.

As the events unfolded, I followed along via the live stream on the BBC’s website, which was essentially a recorded loop of the latest stories, cycling through every 30 minutes or so. What was quickly apparent was that if you really wanted the latest on what was going on, you had to turn to Twitter. This I had experienced during the Japanese earthquake disaster earlier this year, as well as during that incredible Sunday evening that the Osama Bin Laden news broke. In many ways, now Twitter IS the news as it happens, and its curated events are assembled and packaged over time for online, then later on for TV, and even later, and at the end of the line, for tomorrow’s newspaper. Twitter is currently at the fastest, most immediate, and ‘on-the-ground happening right now’ end of that media spectrum. Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine Blog is a great resource for anyone wishing to go further into this topic, and Jarvis is a wonderful follow on Twitter concerning the evolution of news media in the digital age. It’s exciting, but at the same time, especially when the news isn’t good, equally terrifying as well.

Rioters attack police:

Most of us in the real estate industry never get to experience Twitter’s events first-hand this way. We’re not journalists, and the chances of us becoming personally involved in such a breaking online story are slim. But what became apparent to me as I followed the events from London online this week, especially via Twitter, is how utterly meaningless the majority of what we focus our time and energies on with these platforms actually is. Sandwiched between a tweet about a burning building in West London, and images and reports of violence spreading to Liverpool, was a tweet which read “Who has more Klout… iPhone, Android or Blackberry users? Click here to find out”. As the recipient, it was a surreal juxtaposition, especially given my personal investment in following the current events. No fault of the sender of course, but so often our messages get completely decontextualized inside of others’ news feeds. How we’re appearing inside of other news feeds is an important thing to consider when we’re talking about social messaging.

Not only did it bring home the very real power of Twitter to me (and we can only speculate how powerful this kind of platform might have been during other important historical events), but it also brought home the idea of how trivial so much of what we devote our time to has become. In the bigger context, it just doesn’t matter. I don’t mean that what we do isn’t important in some sense, but I propose that too often we get caught up in ever-increasingly meaningless conversations. We talk about the best ways to grow follower counts. We chat endlessly about what makes a good Facebook post. We already debate the merits of Google+ ad nauseum. And while those things are often fun, and big business for many, they are completely frivolous, superficial and meaningless in the face of serious economic and social problems, all happening in the same news feeds at the same time. The intense focus on solving our social media problems is coming at the expense of addressing and working on our very real socio-economic problems.

What would happen if we put Clay Shirky’s ‘Cognitive Surplus‘ to work on solving these very real problems instead of focusing on better social media content? Anyone who’s not read this great book will enjoy his exploration of what we’re currently doing with our free time.

Network (1976):

Too often we get caught up on and seduced by the numerous shiny positives of social media, in whatever form, and this week’s events have demonstrated that they are perhaps not always appropriate mediums for good. However, it’s not a good vs. bad, or appropriate use vs. inappropriate use type of conversation, and it’s wrong to characterize it as such. It’s simply the way things are. People have always communicated to each other through these types of channels, social media and electronic messaging; it just happens to be the most recent and widespread one that folks use today. The problem isn’t the medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the problem is the message. And specifically the intent and context associated with those messages. While we work on what our real estate community is focused on, celebrating each other and pushing the industry forward as we all see fit (all very admirable activities), there are very real problems happening using the same platforms of communication, and we’re all in there together in the same news feed the user sees.

I am a great admirer of J.Philip Faranda, a local broker out of Briarcliff Manor in upstate New York. If you’ve never had the pleasure of talking to him in person, I’d highly recommend taking time out to reach out and chat online. Aside from being one of the most insightful, professional and selfless real estate professionals you’ll ever meet (along with being the writer of one of the best real estate blogs you’ll ever read), Phil has a great way of crystallizing these kinds of conversations, and I wanted to share a light-hearted and only partly tongue-in-cheek example of what I’m talking about from his neck of the woods:

Seeing actual breaking news you’re following, blend with chatter about the latest social media shiny object can be a sobering, humbling experience. It truly tells you what’s important, fast. Seeing the ‘100 great ways to build your Google+ presence’ posts in between posts about looting and images of rioters attacking police without fear of consequence has a way of resetting your internal social media priorities in an immediate and long-lasting way.

For me personally it was a massive wake-up call. I hope that by sharing this post with you, it becomes one for you too. The real estate industry can only own its own conversations and perception, but too often that discussion gets hijacked by the shiny and sexy, the new, and those seeking to further their own businesses and agendas at the expense of time and focus of real estate professionals. It’s time to make those tweets and posts count. Too often our eye is taken off the ball from genuinely helping people. As Declan McCullagh so clearly pointed out at Real Estate Connect recently, too often we ignore the disintermediation of our own industry by those seeking to constantly usurp our own value proposition. Too often we’re simply wasting our time online, instead of making a concrete, civic difference in the real world.

It’s time to get back to the meaningful, helpful, insightful process of finding homes for our clients.

Let’s get back to work.


Further Reading:
Twitter Follows: @FieldProducer @Stone_SkyNews @PaulLewis
BBC News: England Riots, Government mulls social media controls
Official Site of 10 Downing Street: ‘Prime Minister’s Statement On Disorder In England’

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