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from National Post, May 1, 2003

Craig's here
By Lisa Gabriele

The free Web site craigslist.org now includes Toronto so if you need a nude maid or forgot your backpack on the subway...

As some of you already know, an uncontrollable foreign entity has infiltrated our borders. It arrived sometime in early April, with no warning or fanfare, and has been spreading across the country like a virus. No, not SARS. It's "Craig's List," the San Francisco-based Web site founded by a mysterious, altruistic man named Craig Newmark.

Craigslist.org is a free, community-run site with bulletin boards in 23 cities across North America, which now includes Vancouver and Toronto. People have found apartments, 1972 Mavericks, toasters, Siamese kittens, nude maids, backpacks left on the subway, birth mothers, boyfriends, and afternoon quickies on craigslist.org.

Unlike other market-driven sites, craigslist.org is entirely free, as well as completely anonymous. For this reason Newmark has been called the Father of Freebay. Esquire magazine declared it the "single most useful commerce site on the Internet," with more than 1.5 million original hits a month. The system requires no formal registration, and its e-mail relay program promises anonymity with all exchanges. Newmark doesn't advertise, nor does he allow banner ads, or spammers to pollute its utilitarian, and frankly unattractive, site.

"I like to think it's a place where people can get help with their everyday lives," said the elusive Newmark, while fetching a morning coffee. "But it's also a site that has given everyday people a voice, which you don't really find on traditional commercial Web sites."

In 1994, the site began as a "local events" listing Newmark, now 50, regularly sent to friends. Craigslist grew by word of mouth. He now employs 13 people and pays for the site by charging companies posting ads for employees.

Newmark agrees that part of its particular appeal lies in the fact that any Luddite can navigate it. "Also, each site tends to take on the personality of the cities themselves," Newmark says. "For instance, in New York, people are pretty direct, and it's reflected on the site."

That's an understatement.

When you ask a New Yorker how they got their apartment, car, fiancee, or that hickey, many will say craigslist.org. And even if you're not looking for a lawnmower or true love, "Casual Encounters" is a must-read category if you've got any time to kill. Hook-ups are lasciviously specific and generally of the "right now" variety. "What Are You Doing Tonight?" "I'll be at Max Fish's Between 9-12, Red Cowboy Hat, Introduce Yourself."

But other ads are downright hilarious. The intentionally irreverent ones are written in a style that's a mix of McSweeney's, the front section of Harper's, and Penthouse Forum. "Be my Fake Boyfriend for Passover" is a charming and entirely genuine posting. Another guy wrote his ad from the perspective of his penis. His headline: "A most articulate fellow, wouldn't you say?" Then there's this, a sure fake, but great reading nonetheless: "To The Gorgeous Blond Third Row From The Back ... the hottie in the red and black dress at my wedding on Saturday ... was it me or were you scoping me out?... Sorry I couldn't write sooner but this is the first time I've been online during my honeymoon."

There are the fetishists and freaks and then there are the silly romantics, like the guy who wants to read Dostoevsky to his "dear young lady" while she takes a bath. Other headlines: "Will Drive Your Car Into the Ocean," "Where Are You My Period?" "To the Bitch Who Stole My Sandwich," "Commitment Phobic? I'm the Girl for You," "To The Cabbie Who Stole My Toaster" -- all laugh out loud time-wasters, written for free, entirely for readers' edification.

The site attracts its share of stalkers and scammers but Newmark, a strict advocate of privacy laws, has a policy not to get involved unless there's a court order. For other disputes, like when real estate brokers post apartments on the site claiming no fees, only to pull a bait and switch, Newmark will pick up the phone.

"I'll personally tell them to stop. Or else. And we get the word out about them. It usually works," he says, sounding like a benevolent dad. "But the site's really only policed by the community that uses it. I might referee here and there."

But sellers, singles, voyeurs and perverts notwithstanding, the site also boasts remarkable acts of charity and altruism. Last month a regular poster lost a child to SIDS and was flooded with condolences. Another woman on craigslist recently thanked a man who gave her money to cover a hefty veterinary bill.

The site's been up and running in Vancouver and Toronto for a month, though so far it's remained strangely bare. But Blake Kovrig, a Toronto musician who recently posted a plea for feedback on songs he's written, is optimistic it will eventually take on the flavour of the most creative types in the city.

"I found out about the site from a friend who is a musician in NYC." So far he's received "a ton" of responses from people who've checked out his Web site after reading his posting. "I think although a bit more conservative, Torontonians will embrace the ease and usefulness of the site. It's like an amoebae [sic]...and a great way to promote music, art as well as yourself."

"Double Tall Latte," an anonymous Canadian poster in NYC (who's looking for a quick hook-up there) is equally hopeful. "Toronto has the capability to become as raunchy as some U.S. cities. There's a pretty kinky underbelly there."

"Al," who placed a personal on Toronto's site, looking for The One, is less philosophical. "I'm just on a mission to find the one. The one I dream of. The yin to my yan [sic]. The one who will put me in my place and I will like it."

OK, so it might take some time.

"To tell you the truth, I checked out the sites this morning and I'm not sure why it hasn't caught on in Vancouver or Toronto yet," says Newmark. "But I'd give it a year. When it catches on, you see wit reflected in the personals. There's an easy back and forth. People open up."

His advice is to just use the site as you'd use any site when you're looking to buy, sell or meet someone. "We're here forever, and we're just trying to help people meet people who can help them."

Maybe he can find "Al" a ghostwriter. Anyone interested?