Touring the most expensive American homes on YouTube

There is an appetite for seeing the homes of the rich and famous. See the popularity of showing these homes on YouTube:

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Mr. Yilmazer, 31, isn’t a wealthy buyer, nor is he currently a real-estate agent. Rather, he is one of a handful of real-estate YouTubers, amateur video hosts and producers, who are bringing regular people, via their laptops or cellphones, inside the mansions of the megarich. With more than 820,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, Mr. Yilmazer’s videos rack up millions of views and inspire tens of thousands of comments…

In some ways, real-estate YouTubers like Mr. Yilmazer are providing today’s answer to the MTV Cribs phenomenon of the early 2000s, offering the masses a rare glimpse at how the 0.1% really live. But rather than getting a peak through the eyes of a movie star or a suave celebrity real-estate agent, like on shows such as Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” they’re seeing these houses through the eyes of a regular guy just like them…

Mr. Yilmazer said he is bringing in between $50,000 and $100,000 a month in revenue from his YouTube channel in ad revenue alone, putting him on track to bring in more than $1 million this year if the growth of his channel continues at its current pace. Those are just the revenues provided by YouTube for allowing their automated ads to stream on the channel without any effort from Mr. Yilmazer’s own small team. On top of that, he and his team can make money from dedicated sponsorships—Mr. Yilmazer will personally feature a particular company’s brand in his videos for a fee that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars—and the money real-estate agents offer him to feature their listings on his channel. He said he often won’t charge if a property is particularly spectacular and will drive viewership to his channel. If a property is less impressive, he charges a fee, which typically runs into the five figures…

Still, not everyone is sold on letting YouTubers have free rein in their properties, since some agents believe that prospective buyers would prefer that their future homes not be splashed all over the internet.

It is the Internet, expensive real estate, and making money all in one. What could more American than that in 2021?

The money angle is very interesting to consider. The owner of the big expensive home could benefit from more exposure (though the article notes that not all big home owners think the YouTube views benefits them). YouTube gets original content that plenty of viewers want and they can monetize the content through advertising. The presenter can develop a brand and bring in a good income. Does anyone lose here?

One potential downside: how Americans view homes. If people consistently see large luxurious homes on television, as sociologist Juliet Schor argues in The Overspent American, or on social media, does this ratchet up their expectations about what they should be able to acquire? The biggest homes are out of the reach of almost everyone yet some of the individual pieces or features might find their way to a more attainable range.

Paying to dirty and clean up your (Sims) house

Players of The Sims can now pay for the ability to dust and vacuum their homes in the game:

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In March, EA released new ways to enhance your Sims 4 experience called “kits,” which are more scaled down and less expensive than the game’s other downloadable content packs. Two of those kits, Country Kitchen and Throwback Fit, are pretty straightforward furniture and clothing packs that add new customization options to the game. In The Sims, you are essentially keeping these virtual people alive and designing their entire existence, from clothing to homes—these kits just offer a little more variety. But Bust the Dust is a little different than the rest, in that its primary purpose is to make your Sims’ lives dirtier. “Dust off the vacuum and tidy up in The Sims™ 4 Bust the Dust Kit!” the kit’s description boasts, making a mockery of the exclamation point by using it to try to sell one of the very worst IRL chores…

What makes Bust the Dust unusual is not just that it adds the new element of household grime to the game, but that it also only adds the new element of household grime to the game. Roaches and dog poop are very minor features of the aforementioned expansion packs, and even a more narrowly focused pack like Laundry Day, which gives your Sims the ability to wash their clothes, comes with a bunch of furniture and some new looks.But Bust the Dust isn’t interested in bells and whistles. It’s just … dust.

Maybe that’s not totally fair. The kit also provides vacuums you can buy (to bust the dust) and new character aspirations (so your Sims know how to feel about the dust and busting it). But mostly, paying $5 gets you a bunch of virtual dust, which accumulates over time on the floors of your Sim’s house, both in a thin coating and in interactive clumps around the room. Early reviews last month complained that the dust accumulated way too quickly—within a matter of in-game hours—but it took around two and a half in-game days for my house to go from clean to dusty. My Sim was thrilled when this happened, because it made the house feel “homey,” and presumably because Sims can’t have asthma. Around this time, a dust bunny moved in and became a kind of companion that you can feed (it eats dust) and pet (which again, is sentient dust).

One of the marks of adulting is the need to clean up after yourself. Dishes need to be washed. Laundry needs to be picked up, cleaned, and put away. Bathrooms need scrubbing. Dusting and vacuuming need to be done.

So why try to replicate this in a game? I suppose this is the point of the franchise: to simulate daily life. The various Sim titles over the years have replicated city building, ant life, towers, and more for multiple decades. Isn’t cleaning up part of daily life just as building water pipes?

Perhaps the odd thing here is paying for the luxury of doing this. The “Bust the Dust” is an add-on. And was this the plan all along: to get more money from users for the ability to clean? There are some people who like to clean. Some who will want the complete simulation. Others will want the twists here (you can feed the dust bunnies?). Some might have never known they wanted this until it became an option.

The commodification of the world continues: you can play a computer game where you pay to dirty and clean your house. Does it inspire players to stop the game and clean their own house? Does it stimulate the imagination? Maybe it is just fun to take what is often a mundane task and play it out on a screen.

Selling the perfect bookshelf to Zoom users

With all the videoconferencing taking place during COVID-19, the business of selling books to people for their backdrop picked up:

Books by the Foot, a service run by the Maryland-based bookseller Wonder Book, has become a go-to curator of Washington bookshelves, offering precisely what its name sounds like it does. As retro as a shelf of books might seem in an era of flat-panel screens, Books by the Foot has thrived through Democratic and Republican administrations, including that of the book-averse Donald Trump. And this year, the company has seen a twist: When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Books by the Foot had to adapt to a downturn in office- and hotel-decor business—and an uptick in home-office Zoom backdrops for the talking-head class.

The Wonder Book staff doesn’t pry too much into which objective a particular client is after. If an order were to come in for, say, 12 feet of books about politics, specifically with a progressive or liberal tilt—as one did in August—Wonder Book’s manager, Jessica Bowman, would simply send one of her more politics-savvy staffers to the enormous box labeled “Politically Incorrect” (the name of Books by the Foot’s politics package) to select about 120 books by authors like Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher, Al Franken and Bob Woodward. The books would then be “staged,” or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers, on a library cart; double-checked by a second staffer; and then shipped off to the residence or commercial space where they would eventually be shelved and displayed (or shelved and taken down to read)…

Located in Frederick, Wonder Book’s 3-acre warehouse full of 4 million books is a short jaunt from the nation‘s capital. While the company ships nationally, it gets a hefty portion of its business from major cities including Washington. And, over the past two decades, Books by the Foot’s books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols, objects with the power to silently confer taste, intellect, sophistication or ideology upon the places they’re displayed or the people who own them…

Another force at work, however, was the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop. When workplaces went remote and suddenly Zoom allowed co-workers new glimpses into one another’s homes, what New York Times writer Amanda Hess dubbed the “credibility bookcase” became the hot-ticket item. (“For a certain class of people, the home must function not only as a pandemic hunkering nest but also be optimized for presentation to the outside world,” she wrote.) And while Roberts makes an effort not to infer too much about his clients or ask too many questions about their intent, he did notice a very telling micro-trend in orders he was getting from all across the United States.

A lot could be said about books as status symbols. In certain circles, books imply a certain level of education, curiosity, and acquisition. Books and refinement and culture go together. Just having the books present is meant to impress in the same way a flashy car might be impressive driving down the street or the same way a McMansion looks to impress people passing by with its facade.

Think about the supply side of these books. There are companies that can acquire many many titles for relatively cheap. They can store all of these books until someone is willing to pay a decent price to put those books in their spaces. These books with all of their accumulated knowledge and status are simply another commodity that can be moved around to boost someone’s status when needed. And when COVID-19 ends or video conferencing slows down? The books can be discarded until needed again as a status symbol.

An interesting contrast would be between certain commentators and networks. I have seen at least a few bookshelves behind sports commentators. They often have a few books but also more prominently features sports equipment or trophies. The bookshelf is not just about education; the books are mixed with symbols of achievement or fandom.

Without asking how the books in the backdrop were acquired, viewers or other participants might ask about favorite books or how many books have been read. I have been asked this multiple times in the last few years, whether with bookshelves in my office and at home. It could be interpreted as an invasive question – taken as a challenge about whether the books are just there as status symbols – or provide an opening for the person to explain more about their reading (and the connected education and status) and/or share about books that really matter to them.

Online real estate shift during COVID-19 reinforces the private nature of American homes

The ways in which COVID-19 has pushed more real estate activity online – virtual tours, making offers without physically seeing a home – doubles down on the private dimensions of residences in the United States. Here is my argument:

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Already, Americans tend to see their homes as castles, refuges from the outside world, spaces where they can do what they want, settings in which they tend to their immediate family and consume a lot of media, financial investments for their future. Add this to suburbs devoted to homeownership and driving and the home is truly a private place.

The downside is this: there is often limited community and civic engagement. Neighbors get along by pleasantly or passively leaving each other alone. Private spaces are very distinct from public spaces and public spaces where a true diversity of people might actually mix, whether a shopping mall or a library, are relatively rare. Trust in institutions is low and participation in community groups has declined.

Putting homes for sale on the Internet just further reduces the community or neighborhood element of a residence. If you look at enough real estate pictures, you see some patterns: lots of interior shots but limited images of how the residence interacts with surrounding spaces or what may be just down the street. For example, you may get a shot of a backyard but it is often facing the rear of the house, not out into the neighborhood. Or, you might get a pleasant image of the downtown of a community or a local park or a common room within an apartment building without much sense of how those spaces are used.

This is similar to how HGTV often shows homes. There may be sweeping shots of a neighborhood or location but the focus is always on the single housing unit. The interior and its features are the focus. The neighborhood or surroundings do not matter unless it has to do with proximity to work or family or to note the character of surrounding buildings (which is often connected to property values and the perceived niceness of the location).

There are some tools that could help potential homebuyers check out the neighborhood and community. A virtual house tour could be followed by a Google Street View drive through the nearby blocks. Instead of just relying on walkability and school scores on real estate websites, a potential buyer could go to local websites or message boards to try to get a sense of community life. Yet, any of these Internet attempts pale to talking to people in the community and experiencing the surrounding area. People should make some efforts to get to know their community before they consider moving there.

Seeing homes and residences as commodities that can be evaluated solely through the Internet downplays civic life or at least pushes it into the background. Divorcing a home from its surroundings can be done but it is impoverishing in the long run for property owners and communities. When we emerge from a COVID-19 pandemic, I hope the online aspect of real estate does not hamper efforts to rebuild community and social life when such work is sorely needed.

Considering the environmental and material costs of Internet music

A new book considers what it takes to record, produce, sell, and consume music in today’s world:

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Listening to music on the Internet feels clean, efficient, environmentally virtuous. Instead of accumulating heaps of vinyl or plastic, we unpocket our sleek devices and pluck tunes from the ether. Music has, it seems, been freed from the grubby realm of things. Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” thoroughly dismantles that seductive illusion. Like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy. Devine writes, “The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras.” He supports that claim with a chart of his own devising, using data culled from various sources, which suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions—some forty million more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000. Given the unprecedented reliance on streaming media during the coronavirus pandemic, the figure for 2020 will probably be even greater.

The ostensibly frictionless nature of online listening has other hidden or overlooked costs. Exploitative regimes of labor enable the production of smartphone and computer components. Conditions at Foxconn factories in China have long been notorious; recent reports suggest that the brutally abused Uighur minority has been pressed into the production of Apple devices. Child laborers are involved in the mining of cobalt, which is used in iPhone batteries. Spotify, the dominant streaming service, needs huge quantities of energy to power its servers. No less problematic are the streaming services’ own exploitative practices, including their notoriously stingy royalty payments to working musicians. Not long ago, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s C.E.O., announced, “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans.” In other words, to make a living as a musician, you need to claw desperately for attention at every waking hour…

Devine holds out hope for a shift in consciousness, similar to the one that has taken place in our relationship with food. When we listen to music, we may ask ourselves: Under what conditions was a particular recording made? How equitable is the process by which it has reached us? Who is being paid? How are they being treated? And—most pressing—how much music do we really need? Perhaps, if we have less of it, it may matter to us more.

A full consideration of the ethics of music production and sales could raise a number of concerns. In addition to the environmental issues, how about how musical acts are treated? Who profits from streaming? How many people in the music industry come out in the end as better people?

In a non-COVID-19 world, it seems like an answer would be to support local live music. Even though live shows take up space and energy, if the musicians do not have to travel far, the audience is taking it all in without any recording and equipment for listening on their own standing in the way, and there is a positive collective spirit, this might be the ideal. This shifts the attention away from music as a commodity – I can own or stream a tremendous amount of music – versus music as an experience. Alas, this might be hard to do even without a pandemic given propensities toward large tours (particularly the mega-tours of the most famous acts) and lots of travel.

Thinking beyond music, this line of argument highlights how many of the direct outcomes or effects of consumption or actions are even further removed for people when information, products, and experiences are put through the Internet. If I am streaming, I may know the data comes from somewhere. But, how many people have seen a data center, let alone have some idea of what is involved?

Selling and buying a home with iBuyers

Tech actors now in the real estate business continue to try to shake up the process:

They work like this: These companies, dubbed “iBuyers,” make cash offers for your current home at an algorithmically determined “fair market price,” allowing you to take the money, buy your next home, and move out at whatever date works best for you. The transaction closes in a matter of days.

The companies then clean and fix up your old house and sell it on the open market, collecting a fee from the seller. And because the price at which iBuyers buy the house is usually not the maximum the house would fetch if it was sold traditionally, they likely make a small gain on the sale price…

Perhaps the most striking evidence of iBuyers’ influence on the real estate industry came from Keller Williams CEO Gary Keller in January. When discussing the company’s intent to launch an iBuyer program later this year, Keller told Inman “I feel like I have no choice now.”

After posting $1.33 billion in revenue in 2018, Zillow announced a three- to five-year revenue target of a whopping $22 billion, $20 billion of which was projected to come from buying and selling homes.

It will be interesting to see how much iBuyers are co-opted or acquired by traditional real estate actors or whether they will stand on their own. And will this lower costs for consumers and/or give them advantages or will it consolidate power and knowledge into different hands?

Does all of this threaten to keep moving real estate toward a commodity? This appears to be the road we are already on with the shift from thinking about American homes as places to live and anchors in a community to seeing them primarily as investments and critical parts of retirement portfolios. Imagine doing more and more of this without seeing the homes in question and with lenders and middlemen who have little knowledge of the particularities of a neighborhood or community. Algorithms can do a lot – and possibly even reveal patterns humans tied up in local details have a hard time seeing – but they may have a hard time imparting the aesthetic and lived experience of homes and locations.

Going further, iff more people are moving toward less civic engagement, more engagement with screens, and social ties primarily chosen based on family, friends, and interests (some evidence to back all of these up), perhaps it may not really matter exactly where people live as long as it is relatively close to what they want. Why would you need to visit a place or pick a specific home or neighborhood if those local ties and interactions matter little?

Would less door-to-door trick-or-treating and more community Halloween events decrease or increase social interactions?

If Halloween is indeed evolving away from neighborhood trick-or-treating (good discussion here), are the replacement or alternative or additional events in downtowns, at churches, and activities organized by other groups leading to more or less community and social interactions? Thinking out loud:

-Going door-to-door often involves interacting with people who are near you in physical proximity. Even if neighborhood interactions are declining, people would be more likely to run into each other at other times just because they live near each other.

-Going to centralized Halloween events in other locations means more people might gather together. But, their interactions might be limited. Perhaps it depends on what commonalities people at the event may share – a church event could involve a number of core community members as could a downtown event where local luminaries or figures are involved. On the other hand, community or organized events could involve more people just dropping in and out after acquiring candy and a lower likelihood of later interactions.

In both cases, the practice of getting candy could do little to build community if (1) candy is the only goal and (2) the likelihood of subsequent interactions is limited. It would be easy to turn Halloween into an exercise is gathering a commodity with few opportunities to interact with people.

And more broadly, how much is Halloween a family or community holiday compared to other big celebrations like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th?

Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

Home swapping about community life, sustainability

A new study about people who swap homes are motivated by several factors:

‘My House is Yours’ is the first in-depth study of people using home exchange to travel the world. It was carried out by the University of Bergamo and based on a survey of 7,000 members of the HomeExchange.com website…

Researchers Francesca Forno, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Sociology of Consumption, and Roberta Garibaldi, Assistant Professor of Marketing and Tourism Marketing concluded that “people are turning more and more to models of consumption that emphasise community over selfishness”, and that home exchange “may help to make our societies work better towards a sustainable future”.

“Swapping houses is one of the most significant boundaries of modern tourism, because it incorporates some of the dynamics that characterise the tourist of the new millennium: the increasingly felt desire to travel several times a year, even with limited budgets, the need to organise tailor-made trips as personalised as possible and the desire to make the trip an authentic experience … not only to know a new country with all its attractions, but also to immerse yourself in a new culture,” they said.

The tourist of the new millennium also has a home to swap in the first place.

Additionally, it sounds a like more “ethical tourism” where the tourist seeks to not contribute to the inauthenticity of a place (tourist traps/hotels/resorts, menial jobs, etc.) and would rather move in and out unobtrusively. The 21st century tourist wants to soak up an authentic location and leave it the same or better than when they came. This could have quite an impact on places with lots of tourists, possibly aiding a resistance to a globalized/Westernized set of tourist experiences.

It’s too bad we don’t have a reaction from the tourism industry in this article. Are hotel chains worried or is this something that be marketed and commoditized?

Using algorithms to judge cultural works

Imagine the money that could be made or the status acquired if algorithms could correctly predict the merit of cultural works:

The budget for the film was $180m and, Meaney says, “it was breathtaking that it was under serious consideration”. There were dinosaurs and tigers. It existed in a fantasy prehistory—with a fantasy language. “Preposterous things were happening, without rhyme or reason.” Meaney, who will not reveal the film’s title because he “can’t afford to piss these people off”, told the studio that his program concurred with his own view: it was a stinker.

The difference is the program puts a value on it. Technically a neural network, with a structure modelled on that of our brain, it gradually learns from experience and then applies what it has learnt to new situations. Using this analysis, and comparing it with data on 12 years of American box-office takings, it predicted that the film in question would make $30m. With changes, Meaney reckoned they could increase the take—but not to $180m. On the day the studio rejected the film, another one took it up. They made some changes, but not enough—and it earned $100m. “Next time we saw our studio,” Meaney says, “they brought in the board to greet us. The chairman said, ‘This is Nick—he’s just saved us $80m.’”…

But providing a service that adapts to individual humans is not the same as becoming like a human, let alone producing art like humans. This is why the rise of algorithms is not necessarily relentless. Their strength is that they can take in that information in ways we cannot quickly understand. But the fact that we cannot understand it is also a weakness. It is worth noting that trading algorithms in America now account for 10% fewer trades than they did in 2009.

Those who are most sanguine are those who use them every day. Nick Meaney is used to answering questions about whether computers can—or should—judge art. His answer is: that’s not what they’re doing. “This isn’t about good, or bad. It is about numbers. These data represent the law of absolute numbers, the cinema-going audience. We have a process which tries to quantify them, and provide information to a client who tries to make educated decisions.”…

Equally, his is not a formula for the perfect film. “If you take a rich woman and a poor man and crash them into an iceberg, will that film always make money?” No, he says. No algorithm has the ability to write a script; it can judge one—but only in monetary terms. What Epagogix does is a considerably more sophisticated version, but still a version, of noting, say, that a film that contains nudity will gain a restricted rating, and thereby have a more limited market.

The larger article suggests algorithms can do better at predicting some human behaviors, such a purchasing consumer items, but not so good in other areas, like critical evaluations of cultural works. There are two ways this might go in the future. On one hand, some will argue this is just about collecting the right data or enough data. Perhaps we simply aren’t looking at the right things to correctly judge cultural products. On the other hand, some will argue that the value of an object may be too difficult for an algorithm to ever figure out. And, even if a formula starts hinting at good or bad art, humans can change their minds and opinions – see all the various cultural, art, and music movements just in the last few hundred years.

There is a lot of money that could be made here. This might be the bigger issue with cultural works in the future: whether algorithms can evaluate them or not, does it matter if they are all commoditized?