from New York Times, January 23, 2003
A Web Site as 18-Ring Circus of Supply and Demand
By Bill Werde
Lisa Hummel is 36 and lives in San Francisco. She found her husband at one of the most frequented spots in the Bay Area: Craigslist.org.
She started using the site five years ago, to find a roommate. Then, when she was moving into a new apartment, she used Craigslist to find moving boxes and, after she moved, to give them away. She needed a new stove, so she found one on Craigslist (and used it to find a home for the old one), and since she needed someone with a truck to help deliver the range, she found that on Craigslist as well.
A couple of months after she moved, she found the courage to answer a personal ad (on Craigslist, of course; "it was obviously from a very smart and unusual person") and met the man she married last October. Recently she was getting e-mail about a television she was selling. On Craigslist.
In short, where there is supply and demand, Craigslist is often the connection. Apartments find tenants. Recruiters find the employable. Buyers find sellers, and vice versa - and throughout, the adventurous find adventures. What began as e-mail to a few San Francisco friends is now a site viewed by more than 500,000 visitors a month on Craigslists tailored to 18 cities.
In New York (newyork.craigslist.org), the past few weeks have yielded postings for a vegetarian Scrabble get-together, an "Outies Bellybutton Club" and someone looking to trade a red 1996 Dodge Neon for Nikon camera equipment. A man in Boston (boston.craigslist.org) who was wearing a green argyle scarf is looking for the woman in the purple sweater and glasses who was on the Red line to Porter around 2 p.m. last Wednesday (he regrets not trying to speak with you more).
A posting by a San Francisco woman at the Los Angeles site (losangeles.craigslist.org) said that she would be flying south in a couple of weeks for some Botox and a peel. In return for someone's driving her around, she offered to buy the volunteer $150 worth of cosmetic work.
In the Bay Area, where Craigslist (craigslist.org) began in 1995, each day brings hundreds of postings - on a recent Wednesday, 993 new listings for apartment rentals, 315 job opportunities, 98 new posts from women seeking men, 246 posts in search of specific items, 973 looking to sell, and on and on.
What is important about the numbers is that they represent traffic, and once traffic reaches a certain volume - the level varies from city to city- those who post have confidence that their message, regardless of how specific the request or obscure the fetish, will be viewed by plenty of interested parties. "I had more than 20 responses yesterday," related Cassandra Cockrill, 41, the woman seeking a Botox buddy.
"One guy said he just likes driving and would do it for free,'' she said. "Other people said business is slow, and if I paid them directly, then great." She finally settled on a Santa Monica woman who lives near the airport and wants some cosmetic work.
The more people who find success, the more people who use the site, the more people who find success. It is a cycle that Craig Newmark, the list's founder, has ridden to an average of seven million page views a day in the Bay Area. Now the sites for Boston, New York and Los Angeles are quickly approaching critical mass as well.
Their success in some ways runs against the grain of dot-com wisdom. Craigslist does not require registration, and an e-mail relay system allows posters to remain anonymous yet receive responses. The site does not advertise or accept conventional advertising. It charges a fee only to post job listings, and then - so far - only in the Bay Area. The income from job postings supports a staff of 14, including Mr. Newmark.
While other community sites spent heavily on slick production, Craigslist is hardly designed at all. Sometime in 1996, with more and more people using the Craigslist e-mail to locate or offer goods, services and news of forthcoming events, Mr. Newmark took his operation to the Web. A programmer who spent 17 years at I.B.M., he wrote some code that could automatically transfer e-mail postings to a Web site. The resulting columns (and columns) of blue hypertext links may not be pretty, but they get the word out.
Mr. Newmark, 50, fancies himself a nerd, telling journalists about his glasses and pocket protector and affinity for Dilbert. But he is somewhat of an idealist, ever working to prove that his vision of community is as prone to growth as his business.
He has made philanthropy a built-in mission of Craigslist. His Wishlist program (wishlist.craigslist.org) allows donors to purchase supplies for teachers; to date, Mr. Newmark estimates the program has raised $40,000.
The site's growth has not been without its troubles.
Craigslist details its own mission as "being inclusive, giving a voice to the disenfranchised, democratizing." Mr. Newmark and his staff do not scan the list for errant or potentially illegal posts. Rather, they rely on the users to flag messages that need to be removed. As the site has grown, that system has been put to the test.
In the last month, Mr. Newmark has had to deal with a call from the F.B.I. about a posting offering to sell plutonium; a harassment case in which a New Jersey man encouraged people on the message boards to jam the phone lines of his former employer; a marketing company that sent mass e-mailings to Craigslist users without permission; and a man in Kiev who tries to market nonexistent computer equipment.
"The Ukrainian scammer," Mr. Newmark said with a sigh, "he's a regular. Today I made a contact at Western Union to try and prevent him from being paid. Maybe it will work. I have no training in this. All I have is a little common sense, and I'm persistent."
Some unwanted guests require more than persistence. Capt. Tim Hettrich, the chief of vice and narcotics for the San Francisco police department, said he checks Craigslist every day as part of his job; this month his department arrested two men on felony drug charges after the police responded to an ad offering methamphetamines.
Captain Hettrich said the site had "some sort of moral responsibility, if not a real legal responsibility," to delete postings that directly or implicitly solicit prostitution, drug deals or other illegal activity.
Partly in response to the arrests, Mr. Newmark's staff is working to increase the speed at which offending postings are removed, but no major policy changes are planned. "If the police call and tell me that they'd like us to do a few things to prevent crime - well, if it doesn't break our principles, especially privacy, we'd consider it," he said.
He needed to wrap up the conversation. There was a flame war going on in the gay forums in the Bay Area and a rash of postings by real estate brokers in New York's no-fee section instead of in the area reserved for them on the site.
"We're trying to figure out how to run the site as a commons, yet avoid the tragedy of the commons," Mr. Newmark said. "We still have a ways to go. There's always going to be something. But we're pretty proud of this."