Community Rules

Feb 21, 2008  |  Michael Wurzer

Nick Carr has an interesting post today about problems with eBay’s rating system, which is very reminiscent of the Clay Shirky post I highlighted last summer called A Crowd Is Its Own Worst Enemy.   This is related to the MLS because it evidences what I’ve been highlighting on the FBS Blog for months, namely that MLS is more than technology.  Nick Carr writes:

By providing buyers and sellers with a simple means for rating one another, eBay has been able, we’ve been told, to avoid lots of rules and regulations and other top-down controls.  The community, built on trust and fellow-feeling, essentially manages itself. . . .

Nice story. Too bad it didn’t work out.

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Patti Waldmeir, in a column in the Financial Times today titled “The death of self-rule on the internet,” writes, “For those who were there from the start of this experiment in digitising utopia, including me, this is very disillusioning.” By “radically rewriting the constitution of the democratic republic of Ebay,” she says, the company has closed the book on a certain brand of internet idealism.

* * *

It follows a common pattern that we’ve seen play out in other “social production” sites like Digg and Wikipedia. (Disclosure: I’m on the editorial advisory board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.) As these sites grow, keeping them in line requires more rules and regulations, greater exercise of central control. The digital world, it seems, is not so different from the real world.

This is what the MLS brings to the social network of competitive real estate professionals, just enough cooperation to allow for preservation of the network of competitors.  The MLS is a constant balancing act of rules that often frustrate some, but, overall, strike a balance that allows competitors to cooperate and create more value in the process.  The challenge for the MLS today is how to continue that balancing act in the new world of the web.  What are the balanced rules that can allow the community to remain loosely joined?  Can those balances be struck on a national basis or is there a role yet for local MLSs?

10 Responses to “Community Rules”

  1. Brian Larson says:

    Mike,
    Nick’s article is interesting, as are your ruminations about the role of MLS. I characterize MLSs (to folks who do not know them) as online communities of real estate brokers sharing listing information and cooperating in sales, where MLS provides technology and community rule enforcement.

    I wish MLSs would give more thought to the principles that should guide their community rule-making. It’s so common for folks to want to impose rules that enshrine “the way we have always done things”; and to impose rules to solve problems that are properly left in the hands of others (ethical lapses, license law violations, etc.).

    On the bright side, I find that if I dicuss the implications of rule-making with MLS boards, they are usually receptive to principled thinking and approaches that protect the interests of users of the service while encouraging competition and innovation.

    -Brian

  2. Mark Flavin says:

    Michael great post and very timely, as a member of a shared MLS my organization is in a constant balancing act with the other local MLS organizations and ensuring that our rules are close in nature but specific to need.
    Personally, I welcome industry wide best practices and guidelines and to be clear these do exist and are utilized by my organization. However, it has been my experience with the State and National templates they are great kick-off points but there remain issues which can only be addressed at the local board level.
    Brian’s point about the reactive rule making is on the money. Often these rules are in response to unique market conditions or local business practices and to be frank in many cases member driven (securing the “way it has always been done”). Thankfully I have the privilege to work at I believe one of the more progressive and far-seeing organizations in the industry, so I see less of these “way it has always been” rules, even there balancing acts must be struck.
    One of the ways I believe to combat reactive rule making is to identify the long term effects of such a rule or potential obstacles to success. From my perspective it seems that we as an industry are creating rules in response to the local market issues. The people whom we turn to for insight are facing similar challenges as they are closest to us in geography. So when a truly “new” issue presents itself it is responded to in the best way the local organization is able to and that is where we see the rise of these reactive rules.
    Addressing this issue moving forward will require I believe a couple things first is communication and second is sharing. While leadership does a great job at networking during conventions and to some degree mailing lists I believe there needs to be a central clearing house of information that addresses these points. Ideally when a rules committee makes a recommendation they should have the information covers not only the background and need for the rule but have identified potential case studies of other organizations not necessarily local that have implemented similar rules.
    What I would like to see is I believe what you started with the Future of MLS Wiki and that is a central point where industry leadership can exchange information regarding rules development. Unfortunately I believe as a resource it would be relatively under-utilized however as an alternative perhaps we could work out a strategy for quarterly MLS breakout sessions that were separate from those at the national level. That would be in my mind the perfect space for the local MLS groups to participate.

  3. Insightful comments, Brian and Mark, thank you! I spoke at a Virginia Association of REALTORS conference a week or so ago and suggested then that MLSs should be considering the “terms of use” for how consumers may engage with the MLS, advising brokers on terms for syndication of data, and possibly revisiting IDX within the context of these and other issues. I analogized to the CreativeCommons licenses and how a similar tool for MLSs, brokers and agents would be very useful.

    To that end and along the lines of what Mark suggested, what do you think of something like http://mlsbestpractices.wiki.zoho.com/? Check out the practice areas page. I’d love it if you or someone you know could help me draft an outline of practice areas that might be useful for sharing. Once we have an outline drafted, we could get some of the people we know to start adding content. The failure of the FutureofMLS wiki was, I believe, the lack of good seed content, so people didn’t know what to do when they got there and so they did nothing. If we get a good framework established, though, around some of the easy topics like DOM, etc., maybe we can get the conversation going and create a good resource.

  4. Also on this, Kristen Carr has long had the idea of “RETS in a box”, which would be a set of documents to jump start an MLS on the legal issues surrounding RETS, possible licensing requirements, etc. The idea behind the Best Practices site certainly could include this type of content, too.

  5. Mark Flavin says:

    I think the http://mlsbestpractices.wiki.zoho.com/ is a great step in the right direction but I believe it will languish for the same reasons that the FutureofMLS wiki did. Instead I was going to submit to you that if we were to collaborate on this effort we model it off of http://www.sermo.com/. Which is a site where physicians around the world collaborate by asking for consults.

    The leadership within MLS industry could I believe buy-in to the ask a question get an answer model and over time the best practices will become apparant without the need for active content generation. I also believe this won’t be something that we can simply wait for participants to find rather it should be open to invitation and become a social network in its own right.

    Ultimately the wiki is great for collecting information but what we really want to generate is a back and forth discussion and in some cases debate. Like with the National and State templates no answer is going to be universally acceptable so we need a push pull system where participants are engaged in health debate. I am even willing to host the site, register a domain, and assist with development if there is enough traction behind this idea.

    I was looking on godaddy and http://www.mlsincubator.com is available, any thoughts?

  6. Sounds like a great idea. O’Reilly recently had a couple of posts called Educating computer users: The need for community/author collaboration (Part I is linked in Part II) that are relevant to this discussion. The idea essentially is to combine forum and wiki attributes where the community engages in the forum and more permanent content gets pushed to the wiki or other CMS. The challenge with a forum, without more, is that the same questions gets asked over and over again. What O’Reilly points out is that combining the two can create a community learning environment where the discussion fuels the documentation effort. Well, at least that’s the theory. I’m definitely willing to work with you and others on this and will even contribute FBS resources (time and money) to get it rolling, if necessary.

  7. Brian Larson says:

    I have to agree with Mark, but I think there are a couple other problems.

    One is the investment that is required to generate quality content. I think ideally you’d have a wiki page that had really well-crafted and researched content, and then a forum attached to it. Seems like most wikis already provide the means for folks to comment on pages. For exampke, in the case of DOM, we could sketch out the technical, legal, marketing, and enforcement issues associated with the known options. Then we could encourage folks to comment on their approaches and why they like or do not like them. The quality background material helps to ensure an MLS board using the resource will kickstart its decision-making with a good foundation.

    But quality content takes effort to write and to maintain. Writing a good wiki page is a lot more work than writing a good blog post. And wiki pages need to be maintained intrinsically, not just with notes tacked on via comments.

    The other problem relates to collaboration among folks for whom it is not a cultural expecation. I’ve tried to use wikis to support projects for consulting clients and on an ABA project I’m working on. Unfortunately, even the younger participants in those projects are not used to active roles as bloggers or wiki writers. The contributions come from a small group of folks, and the others seem to remain silent. In the MLS context, I’m afraid that we’d hear from the folks who are already thinking hard, and we’d fail to reach the rank-and-file.

    We considered launching a subscription service that would provide factual and deliberative background on many MLS issues (including vendors, technologies, rules, etc.). Subscription to cover the cost of developing editorial. It would have been a wiki, but our expectation is that subscribers would have been principally readers and not writers.

    Having said all that, I’d love to help with a broad-based project, but frankly I think I’d want attribution for research and writing that we do in order to enjoy some of the goodwill associated with it… From a business standpoint, I want to be known as someone willing to share without making a buck at every turn. But anonymous contributions don’t build business or reputation 🙂

    -Brian

  8. Attribution would come with contribution; nothing anonymous is necessary. In fact, I think that would detract from the authority of the contributions. I certainly agree with all that getting quality content would be key and that forum-like dialog is easiest but I also think something more permanent and easily referenced needs to develop. Maybe this could be better supported through the RETS community or be a way of integrating business folks into the RETS community more concretely along the lines of Kristen’s ideas.

  9. Mark Flavin says:

    Maybe the direction to take is a blended approach similar to Answers.com with their wiki.answers.com. That would allow people like Brian to prepare high-quality editorial content and recieve proper attribution. Also anyone could participate in the open question and answer side of things. The user community would then be able to rate several things the questions asked, the answers, editorial content and feedback.

    As to RETS management perhaps I think there is definately a place for that group as entity however to see the broadest adoption I think there should be several user groups to hit the proper mix of business and technical expertise.

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