Cluetrain, Derailed: Double Consciousness of the Social Age

For the past several years, I’ve been an alumnus interviewer for my alma mater, Yale University. Yale has a program like many other schools where people who have actually been there spend time with an applicant to try to determine not their academic credentials or their track record of achievements, but simply what he or she is like as a person, and how well he or she would fit into the campus environment.

In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed something really odd. Keep in mind that because I’m interviewing for Yale, the 17 and 18 year olds I’m talking to are among the brightest and best the country has to offer. Every single young woman and young man is incredibly smart, extremely motivated, accomplished beyond their years (one young woman had played at Carnegie Hall and had a classical record deal), and extraordinary in their composure and behavior. As a parent, I could only imagine the pride their parents must feel in these well-behaved, brilliant children.

But… in speaking to one after another, I came away thinking that these kids must have zero free time. Since I don’t have their transcript and don’t know what their SAT’s are, or anything like it, all I want to know is what these kids do for fun. They all, every single one in the past few years, do the exact same things for fun: hang out with friends, read, play music, sports…. They all go to films, not movies, telling me how much they enjoy independent cinema, or foreign films, or classic Hollywood films. And these are 17 year old boys and girls.

I’m left wondering, what, you don’t play video games? You don’t go on dates? Even though you’re 17, you don’t like going to the mall with your girlfriends to flirt with boys? No party at a friend’s house when the parents are out of town?

The Bland Smoothness of Perfection

The answer might be that these super-nerds and uber-driven kids actually don’t. They’re perfect little superhuman beings who are practicing violin when they’re not studying, and volunteering at the local hospital when they’re not practicing violin, and when the hospital is closed, they amuse themselves by reading Shakespeare. Maybe.

Or maybe, they’re just teenagers like every other American teenager, but they’re sitting there at Starbucks talking to a Yale alumnus who may or may not have the power to keep them out of those Ivy-covered gateways. So they tell me what they think I want to hear. They want to impress me with their stories of perfection. They might not even be conscious of it.

What they don’t realize is that every other 17 year old girl I’ve spoken to in the past three years is also perfect. And they don’t stand out to me. I can’t remember their names or their faces an hour after the interview, because they have left no impression on me at all. Individually, each applicant is an amazing person; collectively, they form a bland smoothness of perfection that is as hard to believe as it is difficult to remember.

Doesn’t that description fit real estate professionals as well?

The Bland Perfection of Real Estate Marketing

I invite you to go visit any real estate website right now. Google it and pull it up. Doesn’t matter whether that’s a brokerage site or an agent site.

Chances are, you’ll be seeing the same bland perfection of professionalism, focus on customer service, local knowledge, expertise in the transaction, etc. etc. and so on and so forth. Maybe the site is prettier than another one, with glamor shots of luxury homes, or gorgeous landscape photos of the area. Maybe there’s a great photo of the REALTOR and her team. Maybe there’s a snappy, easy-to-use property search. But in terms of how brokers and agents describe themselves, and get their clients to describe them, what you’re going to get is perfection.

To say this is bad is silly. It’s as silly as saying that kids applying to Yale should have a drug habit to be interesting. No, not at all. It’s wonderful that the ideal the industry holds up is such perfection of service and knowledge. And in many cases, those brokers and agents mean it, live it, and deliver perfect service every day. They should be applauded, just like my perfect Yale applicants should be applauded.

But… it’ll be hard to stand out in such a placid sea of perfection.

Authenticity in the Social Age

A while back, in the fog-shrouded beginnings of this blog, I wrote about the tension between perfection and authenticity by comparing Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly, and said:

In contrast, ‘social media’ marketing tries — Gene Kelly-like — to go for authenticity in lieu of perfect execution. The goal with blogs, for example, shouldn’t be to present a perfect face to the world, but to present a human one. It isn’t about the professional quality of the photographs, but about the opinions of the realtor who is presenting the property. It isn’t about the beauty of the market report, but about its genuineness.

Since I’ve written that, I’ve noticed something in real estate social media.

It too has become perfect.

In the past few years, we have had trainers, gurus, successful brokers and agents, and innumerable marketing experts teach the real estate professional how to leverage social media to make sure that she is “top of mind” when it comes to real estate. We have had years of studies and results from using blogs, Facebook and Twitter (and new tools, like Instagram and Pinterest and whatever else has come and gone) to “build relationships” with buyers and sellers. We have had techniques of “personal branding” hammered into everyone in the industry for years.

The result is that I open up Facebook and start scrolling through the status updates of my friends in real estate to be confronted with one example after another of perfection, perfection, and perfection.

If it isn’t a picture of some lovely meal, then it’s an inspirational quote. If it isn’t wishing someone a happy birthday, then it’s a shot of happy friends around cocktails. If it isn’t talking about a great local restaurant, then it’s a report about the local real estate market. It’s all so perfect. So perfect.

There was a time when Twitter and Facebook both were far more… raw. At least it seemed far more authentic. People had real opinions, and voiced them. We argued on Twitter. We debated on Facebook. All of that now seems like faded memory, and I realize suddenly that I’m the only one debating, offering opinions, and therefore, I am the “pot-stirrer”.

It is a sudden realization, I admit, and one that immediately results in understanding why.

The Cluetrain, Derailed

Consider how many times in the past several years we have seen and heard media report after media report of one high profile person after another losing his job for some comment made on Twitter. Consider that we take for granted that young people shouldn’t post things on Facebook that they don’t want future employers to see, since companies will and do look at your Facebook profile. Consider just how aware we have become that social networks, rather than connecting us to friends, expose us to the whole world. Consider just how expert many REALTORS are at manipulating privacy settings to guard against the impolitic, damaging slip.

How then could I do otherwise than to understand why not just REALTORS but everyone puts forth the face of perfection to the world?

In W.E.B. DuBois’s seminal The Souls of Black Folk, he introduces the concept of “double consciousness”:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

It turns out, technology, rather than bringing forth the Cluetrain vision of raw, honest human connection, has made us all a sort of seventh son, always looking at ourselves through the eyes of others.

The double consciousness of the Social Age is not a racial one, of being an American and a Negro. It is, rather, the natural double consciousness of the Private and the Public.

The politician, the minister, the celebrity — they have always lived with that double consciousness, naturally understanding what their public persona is and who the private person is. The real estate agent, unique among all professions, was the early adopter of this new double consciousness and those who had the gift thrived with social media. And now, every person of every profession had learned the new double consciousness.

The Cluetrain has derailed past the station of Facebook. We, the passengers, are waiting to see what train comes next.

The New Tribalism

What comes next?

I think we will see a new tribalism arise. We certainly see it in politics. But we also see it in real estate, even on Facebook, as private groups spring up everywhere, to create safe places for conversations with trusted others. If you’re not already part of secret private groups, just wait… it’ll happen. We see it in the fact that more and more of the elites of society simply refuse to use Facebook and Twitter for anything other than broadcasts for public consumption; you don’t really think that’s Barack Obama himself on Twitter, do you?

What people still want is real conversation, and authentic human connection. But they can’t do it in the digital fishbowl of the Internet. So they will form tribes, online and offline, with others who trust them and whom they can trust.

Today, everyone knows the Code. Everyone in the Social Age lives the Code.

I don’t know if this is good or bad; I rather think it’s neither. It’s a neutral next step. But it will mean something for society and for online communities. So it will mean something for real estate marketing as well.

When everyone has double consciousness, marketing using double consciousness techniques will no longer be effective. Bet on that.

As always, your thoughts — to the extent you want to share them in your double consciousness — are welcome.

-rsh