Will Facebook Put An End to Real-Estate Porn?

Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook has the ability to block news reports that violate its various policies, something which makes free-speech absolutists queasy given how many people rely on the platform to stay informed. But what if you just want to gawk at the homes of the rich and famous — John Stamos’s mountain views or Gloria Gaynor’s Smallville poster in her home theater or Miley Cyrus’s home she bought (near the Kardashians) which her mother decorated with a “mouth-shaped chair that literally wiggles its tongue”? OK, none of this real estate porn is exactly the sort of thing which wins Pulitzers, but its future as a journalistic endeavor was put in doubt by a recent column by Ben Smith, the New York Times media columnist, about a New York Post story blocked by Facebook.

In April, the Post published an innuendo-laden account of the real estate holdings of Black Lives Matter activist Patrisse Khan-Cullors. It seems that she purchased homes in Los Angeles, Georgia, and elsewhere, and the insinuation was that her wealth was, at best, inconsistent with her leftist values and — just perhaps — somehow ill-gotten. Khan-Cullors complained to Facebook, who, as Smith recounts, removed the article in question from its platforms. The reason why was embedded in a subsection 11 of Article 2 which covers privacy violations and image privacy rights. Facebook will remove, so says the policy, “[i]magery that display the external view of private residences if all of the following conditions apply:”

The residence is a single-family home, or the resident’s unit number is identified in the image/caption
The city/neighborhood or GPS pins (for example, a pin from Google Maps) are identified
The content identifies the resident(s)
That same resident objects to the exposure of their private residence or there is context of organizing protests against the resident (this does not include embassies that also serve as residences)

“Presumably, the only reason this doesn’t happen constantly is because nobody knows about the policy,” Smith wrote, “But now you do!”

“It certainly could have chilling effect” on real-estate reporting, says Marty Steffens, a journalism and business professor at the University of Missouri. “There’s been some interesting chilling effects on Zillow … As soon as a house is off the market a lot of the photos and details have disappeared.” Still, Steffens added, “Think of all the ways we in journalism we have decided to identify people, especially if they have common names: John Smith, Ashley Wright, There’s gotta be a bazillion and a half ‘Joshua Steins.’ Age, gender, and address. Joshua Stein, 31, Brooklyn, or Court Street, so we doxx people all the time.” (For the record, I do not live on Court Street.) The real-estate columns in the major papers already don’t list the exact addresses for prominent people — as in the examples above — but “it’s not hard to find.”

Still, Dana Schulz, who runs 6sqft, a New York real-estate website, isn’t worried. “Most of what we run is voluntary,” she says. Often the well-known person has already moved out, and is just trying to market the place. And even if they still live there, “Honestly, people want it out there for their own personal brand.” She cites Jimmy Fallon’s eagerness to let people know he was the man behind his “funky” penthouse. Not only that, says Schulz, but almost always, “the buyer information, names and images already exists out there on the internet.” So for now, at least, the bold-faced and house-proud will likely not deprive us our meager joy of peering at their mansions with a mixture of envy and awe.

But this isn’t to say Facebook’s opaque policy doesn’t constitute a danger. According to Erik Maza, style features director for the good-life-obsessed Town & Country magazine, “I’m not sure any publisher, luxury or not, would be comfortable with non-journalists making decisions about who gets to consume their content, which has already been vetted by its own trained pool of editors. There would need to be a Marty Baron type adjudicating these complaints for the policy to pass editorial muster, but it’s highly unlikely that’s how he wants to spend his retirement years. Would you?”

Will Facebook Keep Us From Looking At Real Estate Porn?