So, um ... I know how much you paid for your house. I also know how many bedrooms your house has, how many bathrooms, how many levels, how many square feet. I know the year it was built. I know what your mortgage payment is.
And if you rent someone else's house, I pretty much know how much that costs, too.
I don't actually want to know any of this. I am not actually, save for my obsession with that cute little blue-doored Colonial down the street, a shameless real estate voyeur. But when I was planning my visit to your place the other day, and Googled your address to get directions ... there was the link, just below the Google map, to your house's Zillow profile. (Which was situated right above nearly identical links from Trulia, Redfin, Realtor.com, Homesnap, Homes.com, Remax, and Property Shark.) I didn't mean to look, I promise. But the cost of your house—what you paid for it the year you bought it, down to the dollar—was included right in the Google returns. There was no way I couldn't see it. And now there's no way I can unknow it.
Which, awkward. I really do apologize.
You could say, of course, that it should be Zillow doing the apologizing. I was an unwilling spy, after all; it was the real estate megasite that led me to my home-value voyeurism. And now that site has gotten even more mega: It just announced that it is buying its closest rival, Trulia, for $3.5 billion. The biggest Real Estate CyberStalker Sites, combined into one! This would not seem to bode well for those of us who'd prefer to keep private things, well, private.
But you could also argue that Zillow—and today's newly minted MegaZillow—is inevitable, and not just in the sense that birds of a feather merger-and-acquisition together. Zillow and its sister sites use publicly available information. Their added value is that they simply present this information in an excessively public way. You could see what they do as some kind of violation of privacy, but you could also see it as Zillow doing what Mark Zuckerberg has claimed he wants to do with Facebook on a broad cultural level: to make us all more comfortable with sharing, gradually but also rapidly. The flip side of that goal is the breakdown of taboos. If we're all sharing pictures featuring our nakedness/drunkenness/general YOLOness, it's hard for those things to maintain the shock value they once had.
And why, actually, is it so awkward for me to know how much you paid for your house? Why is it so awkward for you to know that I know how much you paid for your house? There are, of course, complex cultural answers to those questions. But Zillow, like Facebook, may be gradually negating them. "I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year," Zuckerberg told the Web 2.0 Summit in 2008. And the year after that, his theory goes, they share twice as much again. MegaZillow may continue that work, one Google search at a time. It's hard to talk about voyeurism, after all, when everyone is looking at the same thing.