zillow nation

is zillow the most important website in america

Back in 2001, four years before Google Maps, the search-engine company released a piece of software called Google Earth. It was the second-most amazing piece of software I’d ever used at that point in my life (the first was LEGO Island 2: The Brickster’s Revenge). Previously, I’d been gifted a GPS device — a mysterious black brick with an LCD screen that spat out mysterious numbers that I guess I was supposed to cross-reference with a map? — but I had absolutely no idea how to use it in practice. Google Earth, on the other, let you click anywhere on the globe and zoom in to detailed satellite imagery. I spent a lot of time spinning the globe and clicking randomly and zooming in to blurry blocks that I knew were houses. I plugged in my address. I plugged in the National Mall. I zoomed all the way out so you could see that entire globe and then tried to zoom in on my own house by hand.

In retrospect, Google Earth was the first thing that caused me to think about the scale of things. The earth is very large and yet I could access satellite photos of practically every inch of it. Carl Sagan famously referred to the earth as a “pale blue dot” in reference to a space probe photo taken from 3.7 billion miles away, but Google Earth let users guide themselves from dot view to their own front stoop.

The Google Earth type of navigation is now commonplace and not nearly as exciting as it was 19 years ago. Smartphones let us pinch-to-zoom in and out with relative ease, and now they have 3D models of buildings too. In the meantime, advancements in video streaming (a fancy way of saying “YouTube”) have let us inside people houses instead of just staring at roofs.

In the only essay about internet culture that really matters imo, “The American Room,” Paul Ford wrote about the sameness of the impromptu studios that everyday people used for their vlogs.

You could judge those rooms and say that America has a paucity of visual imagination, that we live in a kind of wasteland. Or you could draw another conclusion, and note that America might be a little more broke than it wants to show. The painfully expensive 2,000-square foot home is furnished with cheap big sofas and junk from Target. Maybe these video stars don’t hang pictures because they are renters. Maybe they know they are going to move soon, to another part of the state or country; suburbs are the temporary worker housing for America. Maybe they moved in and just haven’t unpacked yet, and the big picture of grandma is still in the garage.

But try to see it from their perspective. Our protagonists are looking into the computer. They like what they see, find it stimulating and exciting. They are eager to participate. They see what we see when we go online. Other people’s rooms.

Since then, the tradition of scoping out the American room has expanded into scoping out the American home. There are plenty of statistics showing that younger cohorts, millennials and Gen Z, have been effectively excluded from the housing market. An erratic economy, inflation rising faster than wages, debilitating student loans. And so, depending on your age, Zillow, and other real-estate sites like Trulia and Redfin, are either a useful resource for managing property or a source of escapist entertainment. For younger people, Zillow is basically an infinite, endless episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (or Selling Sunset, if you prefer). Excluded from home ownership — a foundational part of the American Dream — kids and young adults are LARPing it online.

In terms of clout and cachet, having your own listing on Zillow is worth more than any number followers on Instagram or TikTok.

But Zillow has other uses as well. Maybe three or four years ago, I was talking to a teenager. As someone who is no longer a teenager and does not know many teenagers and does not regularly talk to teenagers, I ws using this rare opportunity to prod them about what sorts of novel things they used the internet to accomplish.

The teen told me one thing that I was never able to fully run down for a reported piece but felt true and almost certainly was for this specific person. He said that at his school, kids were looking up the prices of their friends’ houses on Zillow and comparing the price, and also, if the situation called for it, making fun of certain kids for their house’s price. I don’t know if this was bullying or good-natured teasing, but the vague scenario still stuck with me as a particularly novel and modern sort of ridicule, and one that could only exists because Zillow exists. Imagine going down to the public records archive pre-internet and requesting recent tax assessments just so you could clown on Aiden’s 3-bedroom, 2-bath.

For many people, Zillow is a database of wealth. It’s the closest thing we have to being able to pull up someone’s bank statement and make a boolean assessment of whether or not someone is rich. But Zillow and its ilk have many, versatile uses. All it takes is a quick scan of some hashtags and Twitter searches to find that online real estate listings, an omnipresent catalog of what seems like every single American room and American home, are some of the most powerful collections of metadata in our society.

Because of its versatility and usefulness, Zillow is also not immune to roiling waves of activism. After the murder of George Floyd, protesters staged demonstrations at both the Minnesota and Florida homes of officer Derek Chauvin. According to the Orlando Sentinel, “Anti-racism protesters also flooded the Zillow.com listing for the home with images of the Black Lives Matter movement, Floyd and the now-infamous image of Chauvin with his knee to Floyd’s neck.” The listing for Chauvin’s Minnesota house was also briefly hacked. For a website with almost no pictures of people, just pictures of things, the appearance of a face, or a message, on a Zillow listing makes the message all the more jarring.

This makes Zillow a uniquely powerful force in American online life. Where other social media sites are focused on people and content, directly asking the users to engage, Zillow has none of that. It has no engagement loop, no social interactions, no real network effects to speak of. It is a giant canvas onto which people project their desires and insecurities, and a constantly evolving document not just of the housing market, but of how people lived.