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Co-ops, Condos, HOAs & Social Media Many Communities Say “No Thanks”

Fans of the TV show “Seinfeld” may recall an episode in which the character Kramer posts the names and photos of all the residents in his building in the lobby so everybody can get to know each other better—maybe even (gasp) say “hello” to each other in the lobby or elevator. Kramer’s neighborly initiative didn’t work out too well for Jerry, who didn’t want to participate and was then ostracized by his neighbors for being a curmudgeon. 

Turns out that “Seinfeld” episode, satirical though it may have been, is a pretty good summation of why most co-op and condo communities don’t maintain a presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter, preferring other tools for building cohesion and camaraderie between neighbors. 

The Tried-and-True

While there are some communities that have tried social media as a means of community communication, most have remained ‘old-school.’ “We have a Facebook page that was started by one of my neighbors,” says Dana Greco, a longtime resident of a large, active co-op community in Riverdale in the Bronx, New York, but “nobody posts anything. There’s just not a lot of newsworthy events. We have a brief newsletter perhaps twice a year, and we also have a bulletin board for those in need of assistance from neighbors, or who want to sell something.” In the age-old tradition of many multifamily buildings, she says, “most of our news comes from gossiping with the doormen.”

According to Gayle Goodman, director of communications for New York-based management firm Gumley Haft, managers have many channels of communication through which to reach their client communities. “As managers, we are proactive in our communications with shareholders and unit owners. Not everyone in our buildings uses social media, [so] we disseminate information by multiple methods so residents can get their building news in the way they prefer. When there is news—whether it’s regarding COVID regulations, water shutdowns, or notice of annual meetings—we use email notifications, BuildingLink (more on that below -Ed.) and snail mail, as well as signage and distributing materials in the lobby, when appropriate. Residents are always invited to communicate with their property management team about issues or questions of concern. When these issues are not already under discussion by the board, we will bring new matters to their attention.” And while Goodman’s company doesn’t currently use social media for communications with client buildings, she acknowledges, “that could change in the future.” 

In the writer’s own building, a 54-unit co-op in Upper Manhattan, New York, with a large community garden in back of the building, communications are even more basic; there’s an old-fashioned cork bulletin board in the hallway that leads to the garden. If anyone has a message about anything for their neighbors, including using the backyard for a private event, it gets prominently posted there in bright, bold magic marker.

Zachary Kestenbaum is CEO of the aforementioned BuildingLink, a company that provides many forms of computer and smartphone-based community and management apps for multifamily properties, including co-ops, condos, and HOAs. He says he has come across buildings and associations that have tried popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram as tools for community-building. According to him, these efforts usually take the form of private Facebook groups, but “they don’t work for several reasons. First of all, it’s a separate platform that’s not integrated into the life of the community, so there’s very little engagement—a low level of participation and community penetration. Second, these forums are free-form and not moderated, so anything can get posted—and that’s a minefield. Groups form that can cause conflict within the community, or make existing conflicts worse. It devolves quickly into a situation that’s not representative of the community as a whole, and people get turned off.”

Where Real Estate & Social Media Meet

Where do the worlds of real estate and social media interact? Josh Schuster, founder and managing principal of Silverback Development, a New York-based property developer of residential and mixed-use properties, including condominiums, has had considerable experience trying to integrate the two in his business.

“Social media is a broad term,” he says. “For many people, three names come to mind when one mentions social media: Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. But we also have social media in terms of commentary. We live in an age of storytelling.  Yelp, Google, Tripadvisor are good examples of this. Today, everyone thinks their opinion is important. Platforms serve as bullhorns for users, and everyone today wants to be heard and praised at an amplified level. If you go to a restaurant, or buy a product online, you will always be asked to leave a review.”

Schuster explains that in the world of residential real estate, no one buys into a building and then goes onto a commentary platform to proclaim how wonderful and amazing their new community is. However, he says, “if folks are unsatisfied with the place, they will use social media commentary platforms to complain. So most of the time, it’s negative commentary. And that’s a problem, because it’s unfair and the sponsor or developer is unable to respond or react.”

Viable Alternatives

Is there something in between scathing reviews and gossipy posts online and magic-marker notes thumbtacked to a cork board in the hallway? Yes.

Kestenbaum explains that companies like his have alternatives that provide communities with a way to communicate electronically while sidestepping many of the drawbacks of the big social media platforms. “For example,” he says, “we have a module that’s part of BuildingLink’s product that has multiple features, including a bulletin board that every resident has digital access to. They can post items there—looking for a babysitter, or selling a couch, say—and it’s fully moderated by the building’s managing agent for appropriate behavior and content. One interesting thing that occurred during COVID was that in many buildings, residents used the bulletin board to help each other out with things like doing grocery runs for high-risk neighbors, or to raise money for sick staff members. Some residents who had relocated to second homes during the initial wave of the pandemic even offered their apartments to neighbors for quarantining.”

The company’s services also include email and newsletters—usually sent monthly—to supplement the virtual bulletin board with general news and updates. The bulletin board is more real time. In terms of community-building, BuildingLink has a calendar feature where property managers can put up events for residents to see and RSVP for attendance. By addressing specific functionality needs and steering clear of open-forum chat boards or private groups, “these platforms short-circuit the nastiness social media is so well known for,” says Kestenbaum.

According to Neil Golub, director of sales for Carson Living, Inc., a provider of online services ranging from virtual doormen to maintenance and billing services for residential buildings, any online communications module for co-op and condo communities should include the same fundamental components: “There should always be a marketplace to post items for sale,” he says, “and a space for announcing community events. It should be monitored, and must never turn into a gripe board. A cutting edge app of this type would also include something akin to a newsfeed for the community—again, properly moderated, of course.”

Disconnecting the Megaphone

The nastiness pointed out by Schuster and Kestenbaum that so often infects social media discourse can hurt more than just feelings. In the world of real estate, a long list of complaints about a building on sites like Yelp may make a prospective buyer think twice about purchasing a unit in the building or HOA—and that’s the last thing any co-op or condo community wants.  

To prevent frustration over internal issues like maintenance needs or a less-than-responsive board from getting aired out in public, says Schuster, “we are working on a project right now called Antenna that will offer a whole new dimension to online-based community interaction. Residents will be able to leave comments on a closed social platform that can then respond to their problem, so it doesn’t get to the point where they just leave an angry, negative review” on a public forum. 

“For example,” Schuster says, “say the owner of a recently purchased condominium finds that his or her air conditioning unit isn’t working. Maybe they moved in during the winter and never checked it. Now it’s hot. So they call the super, and then perhaps the management, who may say it’s not their problem, or that it’s a construction problem and you need someone in the trade to correct it.  But the owner of the unit has no idea who to call. This new app will function like a customer hotline. Antenna will link your address and identity to determine whether it’s a sponsor problem, a management issue, etc., and then determine who can help you. It’s algorithm-based, and designed to short-circuit the negative complaint loop. It allows everyone to get to the right person before [an issue] gets to the point of a negative complaint that lives forever on the internet.”

And that, perhaps, is the most important thing for condo owners and cooperators to remember: Writing a scathing review of your building, or publicly venting your spleen at your board or management, may give a fleeting sense of satisfaction in the moment, but everything on social media lives forever—and could eventually erode not just community spirit between neighbors, but the actual value and saleability of your own unit.

A.J. Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter with CooperatorNews, and a published novelist. He can be reached at alan@yrinc.com. 

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