from USA Today, September 28, 2004
Web board craigslist makes a name for itself
By: Janet Kornblum
Craig Newmark knows he's a nerd.
In high school in the late '60s, "I really did wear a plastic pocket protector, wear thick black glasses (taped together) and have marginal social skills," he says.
His glasses are a lot more high-fashion today. But he still loves gadgets more than clothes and is more comfortable in front of a computer than in the spotlight.
Which can make his life difficult these days, because Newmark, 51, is the founder of craigslist.org.
In the Bay Area, craigslist probably comes up in conversations thousands of times every day. And increasingly, it's being talked about in places as far-flung as New York, Boston, Colorado and London.
Craigslist is a giant Internet bulletin board where people buy and sell their stuff, trade humor and political wisdom, look for dates, seek home repair advice, share their poetry and often just rant.
Some call the site a public forum. Others call it a classified market. Many call it an obsession.
Free and freewheeling
"It's like a bulletin board you find in a supermarket where people post things up. It's like the 21st-century version of that," says VH1 casting producer Joseph Morganella, who on craigslist has found cast members for his TV reality show about pop culture, VH1's Totally Obsessed. Reality shows love the site as much for its freewheeling postings as for its large audience, which has grown 799%, from 401,000 unduplicated U.S. visitors a month in August 2001 to 3.6 million in August 2004, according to Web measurement company Nielsen//NetRatings.
One reason the audience is so large is that everything's free — unless you happen to be an employer advertising a job in San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles. (Craigslist charges companies $75 to post jobs in San Francisco and $25 in Los Angeles and New York.)
And just about anything goes — as long as you're not a spammer or con artist, and you don't post anything overtly racist or sexist or homophobic.
Craigslist was born in 1995 when Newmark, then an IBM engineer and computer programmer, started e-mailing his friends about some local arts events. People kept asking to be added to the list and soon it was too big for e-mail.
So Newmark put it on the Web. He was going to name the new site "SF events." But a friend told him that he should call it what everyone else on the list already did: craigslist. The name stuck.
And despite his best intentions, he says, it kept growing, and over the years has morphed into a real business.
While start-ups came and went, craigslist quietly rode the waves of the dot-com boom, survived the downturn and continued to grow. In 1999, it became profitable, and in 2000 Newmark hired Jim Buckmaster, now CEO. Craigslist has 14 employees and brings in about $10 million a year in revenue — all from job postings, Buckmaster says.
Craigslist is the default place to look, whether you want to find an apartment, sell your car or find a new lover. You can vent about elections, that woman who jilted you or your neighbor who had your car ticketed when you parked a little bit in her driveway.
A sense of community
"You can find anything you want," says Miguel Escobar, 28, a TV editor from Los Angeles. "You can go in there and think of something from your head, and it'll be there."
It's kind of a big library of everyone else's knowledge," adds Denise Kelsey of San Rafael, Calif., who has found soccer buddies on the site and learned from fellow posters that cognac and brandy are not the same thing.
To her, craigslist "is getting back to that sense of community that we've lost in America," she says.
Whatever your initial mission, once you start clicking, you might find yourself hooked. Browse a community forum — or better yet, a dating area — and you won't just find people posting ads and seeking soul mates. You'll find discussions about topics ranging from mating and dating habits, such as who pays on a first date and when commitment is expected in a relationship, to those that can't be repeated in a family newspaper.
Postings range from the innocuous — "Mahogany End Tables, $150" — to the metaphysical — "What do you think God is doing tonight?" Mixed in are postings like one titled "Trying so hard to get over you." It starts, "Just when I think I've made it over you, something reminds me of you, your charm and beauty, then woosh, I'm back in the tunnel of love." Some just need to vent. "RANT: people who bring their little dogs into stores."
Newmark, a New York transplant who bears a resemblance to Seinfeld sidekick George (Jason Alexander), is still so involved in the company that he hasn't taken a vacation in five years.
Both he and Buckmaster vow they will never charge individuals for postings. On any given day, people post about 110,000 ads on the sites' various boards (ranging from Personals to Housing, Community, For Sale, Services and Jobs) and carry on 40,000 conversations in craigslist discussion forums.
The site has expanded to include separate sections with listings for 57 cities — 48 in the USA, three in Canada, three in the United Kingdom, two in Australia and one in Ireland. They all look alike, but have local listings. Most recently, craigslist made news when Internet auction giant eBay purchased a 25% stake from a former employee.
Despite its recent growth, craigslist still doesn't advertise. It retains its feeling of being slightly outside the mainstream and slightly underground, staying true to its original populist values.
"It started as an online classified site that drew people together," says Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It maintains that identity — and that's key. Online communities change over time, but craigslist's really didn't."
Looking at the site, you'd think you'd stepped into a time machine that has shot you back to the Web's pre-commercial days.
There are no fancy graphics. No flashy animation. No banner ads. There's hardly even color. It has all the appeal of an elementary school mimeograph.
And that's by design.
Simple and fast is good, Newmark says, because it makes the site easy to use.
Newmark starts first thing in the morning and constantly monitors postings, checking out items that other people have flagged as inappropriately placed or just plain inappropriate.
"I have a sense that we're helping people make life better," he says. "I like that we provide a culture of trust, one that's very useful and very effective."