Issue 17 / Home

August 22, 2022
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Turning Every Rooftop into Content

Brian Feldman

Zillow is more than just a real-estate website: It’s a window into the American dream.

According to a founding myth recorded in Forbes, the real-estate listings website Zillow was inspired by the then-new satellite imaging feature of Google Maps. One of the cofounders “wondered if they could put a price on every rooftop they saw.” That dream eventually became the “Zestimate”: a calculation of value, generated by a proprietary algorithm, that Zillow prominently displays against every address in its vast database, alongside transaction histories, monthly maintenance fees, tax assessments, nearby schools, and any other data it’s possible to scrape or otherwise obtain from public records and real-estate agencies. If you google any address in the United States, its Zillow entry will usually be listed somewhere in the first page of results.

Where once you might have had to do some research and guesswork to see how much your home cost, the Zestimate claims to make checking in on your home equity as easy as looking up the weather forecast. But why stop at your home equity? A teenager once told me that, at his school, kids would look up the Zestimates of each others’ homes, making fun of kids whose families’ estimated home values were low. I was never able to fully confirm this story as a broad trend, but a quick glance at Twitter and TikTok, which is rife with anecdotes from people whose prospective romantic partners attempted to impress them by sending Zillow links to the properties the suitors owned—and people who did their own Zillow research into the living spaces occupied by potential partners—gives me no reason to doubt it.

Yet despite the satellite-recon dreams of its founders, Zillow is often wrong, and its estimates can fall drastically short of a property’s ultimate market price. Shortly before the pandemic, Zillow began a program known as iBuying, using its vast troves of housing market data to automatically predict which houses it could buy and flip for a profit. The algorithm was off, and the company suddenly found itself loaded with properties it was unable to profitably sell. In late 2021, Zillow shut down the iBuying program after getting out over its skis, taking a $540 million write down and laying off 25 percent of its staff.

This embarrassing loss serves as a reminder that Zillow’s real business is not real estate, but advertising. Sellers and landlords can pay to boost the prominence of their listings, while brokers in a local market can target searchers (who are presumably prospective buyers or renters) with their services. What this business model means in practice is that, while it may be useful for home-buying and low-stakes social surveillance, Zillow is first and foremost a media company, and its formal role as a business that assists realtors and prospective home buyers is worlds away from its practical role as a might-as-well-be-infinite store of information that attracts attention. What makes Zillow so prominent and successful is not that it turns every rooftop into a value, but that it turns every rooftop into content.

In this house we make memes

Like any platform, Zillow has its curatorial middlemen, who can help paralyzed browsers winnow down the near-infinite consumption choices. Just as publications offer concierge services to help viewers pick “What to Watch” from vast streaming libraries and newsletters pick out the best of TikTok or Twitter, a number of Zillow meme accounts scattered across Twitter and TikTok pick out noteworthy listings. Rarely, however, do these accounts offer up great deals or beautiful homes. More often, they highlight “haunted,” “cursed,” catastrophic listings: the shockingly overpriced, the suspiciously underpriced, the bizarrely decorated, the accidentally revealing.

Jessica More, who runs the account @Zillowtastrophes across numerous platforms, told me she has a personal algorithm that can predict a good viral Zillow: a high price for a low square-footage, or vice-versa. A good “Zillowtastrophe,” according to More, makes you ask the question, “What was this person thinking?” People seem to respond more passionately to houses that have an uncanny-valley quality—one room or one detail that’s off-balance and creeps people out—rather than houses that are fully off the deep end.

More’s most-viewed video to date was a Washington home that seemed completely normal, except for the half-height hallways running between the childrens’ bedrooms, and the two half-height crawl spaces hidden off said secret passages which only locked from the outside. The use of extra space is easily explained as storage, and yet this specific implementation got viewers’ minds racing. “Haunted. You can feel the energy just watching the video,” one wrote. Another came at it from a different angle: “Bro that fucking price. What the fuck.”

Jonathan Carlson also makes content about Zillow on TikTok. Viewers send him funny, odd listings for real houses on the actual market, and he makes jokes about them, greenscreening himself against screenshots of the listing. “I get tons of submissions where it’s, like, a messy house, but I’m not going to talk about a house that’s in squalor,” he says. “That’s people’s mental health; it’s not for entertainment.” At least twice, someone with firsthand knowledge of the property he’s ridiculing has left comments on his video. “It was bizarre for me but, flip the script, it was also probably weird for them,” he recalls, “seeing someone making commentary on the rooms and the house that they built and lived in.” Zillow had successfully transformed the home into content.

A supply-side theory of Zillow meme accounts

The collation of publicly available data, as discussed above, is useful for nosy neighbors who want to know how their home’s value compares to others around them. More important than the data, however, is that Zillow features pictures. People interested in a house on Zillow can pull a listing up and see it not just from the outside, but also take a virtual tour of the bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and basements. If a house has been sold in the past decade, the odds are pretty good that you can scope it out on Zillow.

The surfeit of images is useful to prospective home buyers. But it is equally, if not more useful to social-media platforms. Modern platforms, typified by centralized, algorithmically personalized feeds, and measuring their success in engagement and time-on-site, need content to fill the feeds and draw in users. Yet not everyone is a celebrity or a natural comedian or can undergo a viral-worthy experience every day. Something else has to fill the gaps.

That’s where Zillow comes in. Zillow is an enormous store of data that users can extract fodder from as needed. In this sense, it is similar to Wikipedia (a consistent source of “did you know?” trivia), YouTube (full of archival footage one can tie to current events or timeless viral videos), or any number of streaming services whose endless conveyor belt of shows and movies can be mined for no-context “reaction” clips and GIFs. It may be that Zillow is a popular source of memes and viral posts not because of some particular voyeuristic American interest in real estate, but simply because it is there, and it has a lot of pictures.

The Zillow American Dream

On the other hand, surely Zillow’s outsized place in the firmament of internet content has something to do with a particular voyeuristic American interest in real estate. In the 2014 essay “The American Room,” Paul Ford noted that one unstated appeal of YouTube was that it let us see into other people’s bedrooms; a half-decade on, in The New York Times John Herrman saw TikTok providing a similar view of the American job, as users regularly post videos of themselves chopping vegetables, welding metal, and restocking airliners.

Zillow has some of this same appeal: It gives you the ability to peek into spaces you might not normally ever see. If home ownership is the key requirement for achieving “the American dream,” Zillow is the best record we have of what the American dream might actually look like. But where the “American Room” of YouTube was surprising for how unvarying it was—white walls, one window, popcorn ceiling—the American dream as seen on Zillow is hilariously, amazingly wide-ranging: from crumbling farmhouses on dozens of acres to manufactured housing on leased trailer-park land, from urban townhouses with original detailing to suburban ranch houses with sex dungeons, and from bloated McMansions to, well, other bloated McMansions.

Sometimes the photo lighting is good, sometimes it sucks. Sometimes a house has been staged, sometimes it’s a dump full of stained carpets, overstuffed closet shelves, and rumpled beds. Even the houses with the most baffling design decisions or the creepiest doll collections are, presumably, what someone wanted to live in, or what someone believes someone else would want to live in. Whereas a generation or two ago, we might’ve gawked at the mansions on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or MTV Cribs, now we seem to get as much enjoyment casting a voyeuristic eye on a broad swath of ordinary middle-class homes. Because they are created to sell houses, rather than to engage or entertain bored people scrolling their phones, Zillow listings have an appealing, counterintuitive authenticity. These houses were built for desires and imperatives that lived outside the platforms on which they might now go viral. Who builds or buys an impractical house for the Vine?

Then again, who exactly is building and buying houses these days? Internet natives—who are, speaking generationally, often locked out of the housing market by forces outside their control—might now see a modest two-bedroom home with a decent commute as an aspirational dream. “Older folks are much more derogatory about the homes that I share,” More, who hosts @Zillowtastrophes, observed. “Like, ‘I could never live there.’ But younger people, especially on my TikTok more than my Instagram, they find things that they like about even the worst houses.”

Zillow’s appeal as a media company is partly rooted in voyeurism and partly in escapism—two of the modern internet’s orienting values. The Zestimate value may be prominent (and may be put to cruel use by school kids), but it’s the photos that make Zillow Zillow. Who needs a metaverse when you can tour millions of real homes from your browser, and see yourself in every one?

Brian Feldman is a software engineer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 17, "Home". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.