Buying and selling real estate in the metaverse

With Facebook pivoting to the metaverse, real estate activity is picking up in this realm:

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In October, Tokens.com, a blockchain technology company focused on NFTs and metaverse real estate, acquired 50 percent of Metaverse Group, one of the world’s first virtual real estate companies, for about $1.7 million. Metaverse Group is based in Toronto but has virtual headquarters in a world called Decentraland in Crypto Valley, which is the metaverse’s answer to Silicon Valley. Decentraland also has districts for gambling, shopping, fashion and the arts.

“Rather than try to create a universe like Facebook, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and buy the parcels of land in these metaverses, and then we can become the landlords?” said Andrew Kiguel, a co-founder and the chief executive of Tokens.com…

For those wondering why a company would want to invest in a virtual office in the metaverse, Michael Gord, a co-founder of the Metaverse Group, said that skeptics should look at the trends catalyzed by the pandemic…

The Metaverse Group has a real estate investment trust and it plans to build a portfolio of properties in Decentraland as well as other realms including Somnium Space, Sandbox and Upland. The internet may be infinite, but virtual real estate is not — Decentraland, for example, is 90,000 parcels of land, each roughly 50 feet by 50 feet. Among investors, there’s a sense that there’s gold in those pixelated hills, Mr. Gord said.

Let the artificially-induced-scarcity-fueled-boom begin!

Seriously though, this offers an opportunity to acquire real estate that otherwise might be very difficult to find online or offline. In the offline world, how often do significant new parcels of land or developments come available? If they can be bought, they are not cheap, they probably attract a lot of interest, and there might be restrictions based on what is already there or what is possible on the site. In the online world, it could be difficult to predict where users might show up, how long it could take for sites to develop, and what it all might be worth?

In the meantime, investors and speculators will wait and see what happens. The bet could pay off massively: if the metaverse is successful with a few years or even a decade or two, those who got in early in prime locations with the right offerings could gain a lot. And if the metaverse does not develop in this way or other factors go awry, the money lost will be in a long line of those who hoped for the best with property and nothing materialized.

Zillow sought pricing predictability in the supposedly predictable market of Phoenix

With Zillow stopping its iBuyer initiative, here are more details about how the Phoenix housing market was key to the plan:

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Tech firms chose the Phoenix area because of its preponderance of cookie-cutter homes. Unlike Boston or New York, the identikit streets make pricing properties easier. iBuyers’ market share in Phoenix grew from around 1 percent in 2015—when tech companies first entered the market—to 6 percent in 2018, says Tomasz Piskorski of Columbia Business School, who is also a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Piskorski believes iBuyers—Zillow included—have grown their share since, but are still involved in less than 10 percent of all transactions in the city…

Barton told analysts that the premise of Zillow’s iBuying business was being able to forecast the price of homes accurately three to six months in advance. That reflected the time to fix and sell homes Zillow had bought…

In Phoenix, the problem was particularly acute. Nine in 10 homes Zillow bought were put up for sale at a lower price than the company originally bought them, according to an October 2021 analysis by Insider. If each of those homes sold for Zillow’s asking price, the company would lose $6.3 million. “Put simply, our observed error rate has been far more volatile than we ever expected possible,” Barton admitted. “And makes us look far more like a leveraged housing trader than the market maker we set out to be.”…

To make the iBuying program profitable, however, Zillow believed its estimates had to be more precise, within just a few thousand dollars. Throw in the changes brought in by the pandemic, and the iBuying program was losing money. One such factor: In Phoenix and elsewhere, a shortage of contractors made it hard for Zillow to flip its homes as quickly as it hoped.

It sounds like the rapid sprawling growth of Phoenix in recent decades made it attractive for trying to estimate and predict prices. The story above highlights cookie-cutter subdivisions and homes – they are newer and similar to each other – and I imagine this is helpful for models compared to older cities where there is more variation within and across neighborhoods. Take that critics of suburban ticky-tacky houses and conformity!

But, when conditions change – COVID-19 hits which then changes the behavior of buyers and sellers, contractors and the building trades, and other actors in the housing industry – that uniformity in housing was not enough to easily profit.

As the end of the article suggests, the algorithms could be changed or improved and other institutional buyers are also interested. Is this just a matter of having more data and/or better modeling? Could it all work for these companies outside of really unusual times? Or, perhaps there really are US or housing markets around the globe that are more predictable than others?

If suburban areas and communities are the places where this really takes off, the historical patterns of people making money off what are often regarded as havens for families and the American Dream may continue. Sure, homeowners may profit as their housing values increase over time but the bigger actors including developers, lenders, and real estate tech companies may be the ones who really benefit.

Redfin – and America – selling an unattainable American Dream of homeownership?

The CEO of Redfin recounts how he has viewed who can and should be able to purchase homes:

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Rampant speculation and skyrocketing property values have left Kelman feeling almost nostalgic for those years leading up to 2008, which, in retrospect, were the last time the working poor could reasonably aspire to home ownership in America. “I used to read stories about strawberry pickers buying McMansions in central California, and everybody viewed that as just the absolute apex of insanity,” Kelman told me. “But reading Piketty five years later, is it so bad that the strawberry picker had a nice house?”

Conceding that the picker probably could not afford his McMansion, and that the loans that put him in it were untenable, Kelman nevertheless liked this gaudy permutation of the American Dream. More than that, he disliked the level of “elitist judgment” surrounding these types of homes, which he views as nothing more sinister than the market’s attempt to grapple with problems politicians are content to ignore. In Kelman’s view, the left is eager to help the poor rent homes but not own them, while the right tends to ignore their plight altogether. Meanwhile, rampant NIMBYism prevents the kind of building that might help bring home prices back down to earth.

It had put him in a mood to reflect somewhat darkly on the future of housing in America. “The original premise of my stint at Redfin was that we’re selling the American Dream and the idea that everyone can afford a house sooner or later if they work hard and play by the rules,” he said. “Recently, I’ve had this feeling that there are so many people who are never going to become Redfin customers — that maybe the product we’ve been selling just isn’t a middle-class product anymore but an affluent product.” In February, anticipating a future in which homeownership is out of reach for more and more people, Redfin spent $608 million to acquire RentPath and its portfolio of apartment-leasing sites.

The story as written suggests that Kelman originally subscribed to the idea that Americans who work hard and follow the rules would be able to purchase a home. This has been at least an implicit idea for decades, particularly in the postwar era. He did not like commentary that suggested some were less deserving to own homes or political positions that limited homeownership. But, after the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, he realized homeownership was not available to all.

If this is correct, the Redfin pivot to apartment-leasing is an interesting choice. This could be a good business decision as rental housing is needed in many communities. At the same time, this does not necessarily line what up with what Kelman expressed. Apartments can provide housing but they do not provide the same kinds of opportunities as housing – such as building wealth – nor are apartment dwellers viewed the same way as homeowners. Americans continue to say that they would prefer to own a home.

Redfin and similar sites could play important roles in what homeownership looks like in the future. Exactly what influence they will have is less clear.

City government funded by cryptocurrency

At least one leader in Miami thinks the city can raise substantial revenue through partnerships with cryptocurriencies:

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The lofty idea is the byproduct of a cooperation with CityCoins, a nonprofit that allows people to hold and trade cryptocurrency representing a stake in a municipality. By running software on their personal computers, CityCoins’ users mint new tokens and earn a percentage of the cryptocurrency they create. A computer program automatically allocates 30 percent of the currency to a select city, while miners keep the other 70 percent.

Since the nonprofit unveiled “MiamiCoin” in August, it has sent about $7.1 million to Miami. (City commissioners agreed to accept the donations on Sept. 13.)

While the program is still in its infancy, Suarez (R) estimates the effort could generate as much as $60 million for Miami over the next year and ultimately “revolutionize” how the city funds programs that address poverty and other societal issues…

Over the past year, several financial and tech firms set up offices in the city, including Goldman Sachs, SoftBank and Blackstone, according to Suarez. In June, the crypto wallet Blockchain.com announced it was moving its headquarters from New York City to Miami, citing the city’s “welcoming regulatory environment serving as a hotbed of crypto innovation,” the company revealed in a news release. That same month, the stock-trading platform eToro announced plans to establish offices in the city.

In many ways, this is a continuation of what cities have tried to do for decades: diversify their tax base and/or become a leader in a certain industry or sector, particularly in a new area. All of this helps bring in new tax revenues, jobs, and provides a certain status for the city.

Because of its growth in recent decades plus expectations that it will continue to grow, many American cities want to attract tech companies and grow the tech sector in their own community. If cryptocurrency is the new hot thing, everyone wants that.

On the other hand, chasing after the new thing does not always work out. Some cities will succeed in becoming cryptocurrency hubs, others will not. In a few years or decades, we can better assess Miami’s efforts. How much does cryptocurrency, or any tech business, need to be anchored in a particular place as opposed to conducting their business online or through a more distributed set of locations?

Additionally, cities are also interested in ways to generate easy revenue. When I read this article, I also thought of tourism. Many cities want to play in this game because there is a lot of money involved and visitors come, spend money, and then go home and do not require the long-term services that come with population growth. But, tourism is also dependent on factors like weather, pandemics, broad economic patterns, and more. Is cryptocurrency the newest easy money?

Facebook and powerful actors

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ways powerful people interact with the platform differently compared to regular users:

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

This will likely get a lot of attention for the different approach to different kinds of users. That elite members are treated differently could get interesting in an era with an increased focus on inequality and the influence of social media.

I am also interested in hearing more about how much Facebook and other social media platforms rely on powerful and influential people. Celebrities, whether in politics, entertainment, sports, the arts, or other spheres, are important figures in society. Elite figures may not be like regular users in that they attract a lot of views and promote engagement among other users. Social media platforms want users to engage with content and elites may provide just that.

Going further, social media platforms have power users. For example, a small percent of Twitter users are highly engaged. Social media use and content generation is even across different users. Should those who generate more content and engagement operate under a different set of rules? Is having provocative users or people who push the boundaries (or even get away with breaking the rules) good for business?

This makes me wonder if there would be a market for a social media platform that puts users on a more level playing field. If we know that certain resources, statuses, and social markers lead to differential treatment, might an online platform be able to even things out?

“Creativity of the young” and the digital divide in working student play with technology into learning

I recently saw a Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Tribune that highlighted the savvy use of technology by a seven year old:

Kids can access their parents multiple ways today and vice versa. This letter suggests the observer was “captivated” by this technology use, hinting at the resourcefulness of the boy.

This response is interesting to compare to the findings of a sociology book I recently browsed. In Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew Rafalow found that schools differed less on their access to or use of technology in learning but in how they treated the student’s creative use of that technology. From the conclusion:

The students that I profiled in the previous chapter suggest that kids’ potential as budding technologists gets bifurcated as they pass through middle school. Despite the fact that digital play with peers led to the development of digital skills with online communication, media editing and production, and even the basics of programming logic, these eighth-graders reported different conceptions of whether online play was acceptable or even welcome in schools. While students at a school for mostly White and wealthy youth came to see digital play, including social media and video games, as fun and even necessary for achievement, students at schools serving less privileged and mostly students of color were taught that play at school was either irrelevant or threatening to schooling. Schools differently disciplined digital play, and in doing so, they different shaped how young people came to evaluate their own digital self-worth in these settings. (135)

Restating the argument a few pages later:

My takeaway from this project is that cultural resources are not like a currency you can hand to anyone in exchange for rewards. The students in this study varied by race-ethnticity and social class, and each developed a set of digital skills in online communication, collaboration, and digital production from play with friends online. Despite each student’s access to this knowledge, only students at the school serving wealthy and predominantly White children were given the right to treat their digital knowledge as currency to be exchanged for achievement. The school organizational context determines not only what ideal cultural resources are but also who the buyer can be to facilitate the exchange. Working- and middle-class Latinx and Asian American youth at Chávez and Sheldon had the same resources but were not permitted to exchange them for a reward. (154)

As Rafalow notes, this is what class reproduction – intersecting with race and ethnicity – looks like in today’s world. Just as Bourdieu suggested with art and music, digital technology is widely available but who it is for and how it is supposed to be used differs by group. Is digital creativity lauded and celebrated for a kid who people think might be headed for success and a creative class career or is it discouraged or punished because it is distracting from acquiring necessary skills?

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.

The rise of social media managers

More companies and organizations now have social media managers:

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Some 15 years after Facebook and Twitter opened their platforms to the public, social media is an established, mainstream career field. There are academic programs dedicated to its practice. Workers say it’s sometimes still treated as a job for rookies, both through pay grades and interpersonal dynamics from those who think it’s just not that serious. But that’s changing: Those in the field see more bargaining power and more full-time roles than ever before.

Many social-media specific jobs still offer lower salaries than comparable fields like marketing. The average annual salary for marketing managers is $102,496 and $109,607 for marketing directors on Glassdoor, according to a spokesperson for the jobs website. Meanwhile, the average annual salary is $67,892 for social-media directors and $47,908 for social-media assistants…

But Ms. Visconti notes that the field has become more professionalized in recent years. When she got her undergraduate degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2015, she says, “It definitely wasn’t seen as a career path.” Today, following work for clients including Hyatt and Puma, she believes she can dedicate her whole career to social media. “What I love about it is that it’s the way to connect most directly with consumers,” she says…

“In the beginning, it was all about the need for businesses to create content specifically for social media, which was an insight that I had somewhat early,” he says. “Now it’s much more about understanding how algorithms work, and I just don’t understand things like what time of day to publish a TikTok video on a deep level.”

My colleague Peter Mundey and I found similar things in our 2019 study “Emerging SNS Use: The Importance of Social Network Sites for Older American Emerging Adults.” These 23 to 28 year olds found that social media could be part of their work life. We found: “Mentions of job-related activities from the Wave 4 respondents included corresponding with potential employers via Facebook, making professional connections through LinkedIn and showing work-related activities and progress through other SNS platforms, helping firms promote themselves via social media and responding to other users, and even working for social media companies.” We found that this work was not necessarily for everyone, even if older emerging adults were regular social media participants.

There could also be an interesting study in here about the development of a new career, role, and/or industry. Marketing, for example, is well known and emerged over decades in the twentieth century. Social media manager is new, utilizes newer technology, is more familiar to younger members of the workforce, and is developing its own professionalization processes. Will it firmly established in terms of status, pay, and training within a decade or two and how will that happen?

Agglomeration, working from home, and the character of places

Why do certain industries cluster together in one location? Social scientists have answers:

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Economists believe agglomeration — like the clustering of tech in the Bay Area — has historically been the result of two main forces. The first is what they call “human capital spillovers” — a fancy way of saying that people get smarter and more creative when they’re around other smart and creative people. Think informal conversations, or “serendipitous interactions,” over coffee in the break room or beers at the bar. These interactions, the theory says, are crucial to generating great ideas, and they encourage the incubation and development of brainiac clusters. The other force is the power of “matching” opportunities. When lots of tech firms, workers and investors clustered in Silicon Valley, there were lots more opportunities for productive marriages between them. As a result, companies that wanted to recruit, grow or get acquired often gravitated to places like the Bay Area.

However, remote work could actually improve certain matching possibilities. Companies can hire smart people anywhere in the world when they drop the requirement that they physically be in a central office. Not only that, they can pay them less. Moreover, killing the office can significantly lower costs for companies, which no longer have to pay for expensive real estate.

So, in this theory, the future of work and the economic geography of America really hinges on whether companies can create those “human capital spillovers” through computer screens or in offices in cheaper locations.

This is a phenomenon with a pretty broad reach as cities could be viewed as clusters of firms and organizations. What has been interesting to me in this field in recent years is how places like this come to develop and what it means for the character of the place.

Take Silicon Valley as an example. This is the home of the tech industry and, as the article notes, the big firms have committed to physically being there with large headquarters (including Google, Apple, and Facebook). These headquarters and office parks are themselves interesting and often a post-World War Two phenomena as highways and suburbanization brought many companies out of downtowns to more sprawling campuses. At the same time, the impact of all of this on the communities nearby is also important. What happens when the interests of the big tech company and the community collide (see a recent example of a Facebook mixed-use proposal)? What did these communities used to be like and what are they?

This is bigger than just the idea of employees working from home. This potential shift away from clustering would affect places themselves and how they are experienced. If thousands of workers are no longer in Silicon Valley, what does this do to those communities and the communities in which more workers are now at home? Silicon Valley became something unique with this tech activity but it could be a very different kind of place in several decades if there is new activity and new residents.

The same could be said for many other communities. What is New York City if Wall Street and the finance industry clusters elsewhere or disperses across the globe? What happens to Los Angeles if Hollywood disperses? And so on. The character of places depends in part on these clusters, their size, and their history. If the agglomerations shift, so will the character of communities.

Facebook proposing sizable mixed use development for itself and the public near its HQ

Next to its big headquarters, Facebook wants to construct over 1,700 apartments, 200,000 feet of retail space, and over 1 million square feet of office space:

The most recent plans, which were updated in May, show the development will be built where a single-use industrial and warehouse complex currently stands…

It will feature 1,729 apartments, including about 320 that will be affordable housing and up to 120 units designated for senior housing…

The plans for the new city also feature a supermarket, pharmacy, cafes and restaurants and a 193-room hotel.

The 200,000 square feet of planned retail space will be built around a 1.5-acre town square.

Separate to the town square will be a four-acre public park, a two-acre elevated park similar to New York City’s High Line and other public open spaces.

In addition to the housing and retail spaces, Facebook also plans to have 1.25 million square feet of new office, meeting and conference room space for the social media company.

There are multiple interesting elements of this proposal:

  1. This has numerous benefits for Facebook. It will have new office space built to its specifications. It will have some housing space for workers. It worked with the municipality to make changes.
  2. All of this happening in the aftermath of COVID-19 where it is not entirely clear how many workers will return to the office. Adding this amount of office space suggests Facebook thinks it – or some other firm – can use the space.
  3. This kind of mixed-use development is popular in many places. For example, New Urbanists promote such developments for their numerous advantages. Is Facebook explicitly building on this line of reasoning or does it have other reasons for this kind of development?
  4. Once the land is developed in this way, what role will Facebook play moving forward in overseeing the space? This will be an ongoing tension between the company, residents, and the municipality.
  5. This is an expensive area in which to develop land. Facebook has the resources to pull this off when others could not. In the long run, will this viewed as a net gain for the larger community or is it best for the company?

Since the project is under review by Menlo Park, it will be interesting to see how this continues to play out.