[Paleopsych] NYT: High Rise, High Tech: Online Rant Control

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Tue Jan 18 15:36:10 UTC 2005

High Rise, High Tech: Online Rant Control
NYT December 2, 2004

WHEN it comes to apartment buildings, New Yorkers are
famously crabby, bickering over everything from pet
regulations to lobby décor.

Complaints normally voiced in co-op meetings or whispered
in elevators have found a raucous new outlet as residents
in a growing number of buildings turn to online message
boards to share gripes and gossip.

Tenants do not have to wait for that chance encounter in
the hallway to vent. Now they can rant and bicker 24 hours
a day, with an audience of dozens or even hundreds of

Discussions run from the practical (renovation advice) to
the droll. (On one board, correspondents complained about a
local bakery prone to giving change only in nickels.) A
premium is placed on a witty turn of phrase, but for
novices it can be tricky to figure out where the tongue
ends and the cheek begins. For regulars, that is part of
what makes the message boards addictive reading.

Each forum's moderator - usually its founder - tries to
keep debates within the bounds of civility. But the virtual
communities are by nature anarchic. As a result, residents
cloaked with a screen name can push their neighbors'
buttons with glorious impunity. (Screen names are chosen at
sign-up. Many people opt for pseudonyms, and thick skins
are counseled.)

"It's like a little neighborhood talk show," said Dorie
Lederfajn Paparo, 33, a regular contributor to the message
board at Co-op Village on the Lower East Side, which gets
as many as 100 postings a day.

At the Crest, a new rental development at 63 Wall Street,
tenants set up an online forum last summer to share
grievances about perceived building flaws like cracked
floors and collapsing closet shelves. Within a few weeks
the site was buzzing with complaints. "Does anyone have
part of their closet in their home office opening to a wall
instead of regular closet?" one correspondent asked.

Another complained: "My apartment is damp. Like my bath
towel doesn't dry out from day to day."

The grouchy confab on the Crest's online message board, and
e-mail messages from residents, led Craig Newmark, the
founder of Craigslist (www.newyork.craigslist.org), a Web
site that is used to hunt for jobs, merchandise and real
estate, to ban Crest listings in September; the problems
were largely fixed in October, and listings resumed.

Executives at Metro Loft Management, which manages the
Crest, said the problems would have been resolved in any
case, but they acknowledge that the message board got their

Though no official count exists, at least several dozen New
York buildings have set up online message boards, and the
number is growing.

The kind of mutinous mood stirred up online at the Crest
can spell trouble for management companies and co-op boards
accustomed to controlling information. But residents
empowered and entertained by the new medium are unlikely to
tone down their invective, and at least some managing
agents and landlords are listening in.

At Citylights, a 522-unit co-op in Long Island City,
Queens, residents use the message board to complain about
the co-op board, said Peter C. Iorlano, 31, who lives
there: "If they saw them in the lobby, they wouldn't say
anything, but through the power of the Internet they get a
little bold."

"People don't say, `Gee, the elevators work well today,' "
he added. "You see people how they truly are."

Beneath the wry banter, though, the spirit is often
generous, and the messages can contain invaluable
neighborhood tips and information about the building,
including ways to handle temperamental radiators or how
much to tip the super.

"It can be really hard if you're not an extreme extrovert
to develop a sense of community in this city," said Evan D.
Macbeth, 29, a computer consultant who lives at the Crest.
"A lot of people are not extroverted in person but are very
friendly and communicative online. Message boards foster

Most forums are open to the public, so residents who want
to read but not post anything (lurkers, in Internet
parlance) can stop by. And they do: moderators say traffic
reports show up to 10 lurkers for every resident who posts
a message, indicating that even those who do not speak up
are intrigued by what their neighbors have to say.

Open access means that some visitors - and even some
posters - do not even live in the building. One
self-identified potential Crest resident polled members
about whether they would move in if given the chance to do
it again. Though the poster, Joe Hecht, 31, said he got the
sense that conditions had improved at the building, enough
concerns were raised to discourage him from signing a
lease. That sort of newfound vox populi, mostly
unaccountable by its very nature, strikes some in
management as less than responsible.

"It's completely anonymous, so people post whatever they
want," said Jack Berman, 38, a principal at Metro Loft. "If
you're trying to be proactive, why hide behind a fake

The prospect of eavesdroppers has caused some residents to
make message boards private. Kyle Merker, 43, who works as
a consultant for nonprofit organizations, started a private
e-mail list for the Cass Gilbert at 130 West 30th Street
shortly after he moved in last spring. (Unlike message
boards, e-mail lists deliver messages directly to users'
in-boxes, an arrangement favored by smaller buildings
without enough volume to sustain robust message boards.)

"We want to solve problems with our developer, but not
create any friction," Mr. Merker said. "They know it
exists. It's not like it's a secret society or anything."

Some co-op board members, like those at Citylights, know
about their building's message board but elect not to post
on it for fear that their remarks might deviate from the
board's official position. "They all read it, but they
can't post on the board because they think they'll be held
too accountable for off-the-cuff opinions," said Jake
Atwood, 32, who runs the Citylights board.

But others on the management side are finding benefits.
Rose Associates, the management company for 3 Hanover
Square in downtown Manhattan, created its own private
message board for tenants on the building's Web site.

Jon McMillan, the director of planning for Rockrose
Development, which has begun site preparation for a
3,242-unit development in Long Island City, said he
regularly reads Citylights' message board to see what its
residents are saying about his firm's project. "It's one
way to understand what the concerns of the community are,"
he said. "The people in Citylights look out over our site.
We dig a little hole and they all see it and start talking
about it."

With the problems at the Crest mostly resolved, meanwhile,
tenants are fashioning new uses for their forum,
CrestTenants.com. "People are meeting over the board," said
Lorelai Wu, 24, a freelance artist who manages the site.
Recent activities organized on the board include a game
night and the creation of "dog-walk Wednesdays."

Terri Wu, 31, a research scientist who lives at Citylights
and participates in the message board said, "The board's
focus is community, real estate, and how the area is

So far it has not been used for that Internet favorite, the
singles hookup. "Well, it could," Ms. Wu said. "You never


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