craigslist > about > press > morristown

from Daily Record, June 26, 2004

Web guru hails from Morristown
by Navid Iqbal

Craigslist Internet site helps people find stuff

Eileen Ranon of Morristown is looking for a roommate.

Laura Occhipinti is promoting an event at a Morristown bar. Months earlier, she found Lola, her new Chihuahua.

Ben Marashlian of Morris Plains needs a Mandarin Chinese tutor and is offering English lessons in return.

Rhonda Jacoby of Parsippany simply wants to sell old baby toys and clothes.

These Morris County residents have joined millions of others across the U.S., Canada and Great Britain who have posted free ads at craigslist.org, the San Francisco-based Web phenomenon with its roots in Morris County.

The "Craig" of craigslist is an unassuming 1971 Morristown High School graduate who left town at 18, yet harbors a "certain sentimentality" for his hometown.

"I miss the old homes and the old trees," 51-year-old Craig Newmark said via cell phone, as he rode a trolley to the craigslist office near the Inner Sunset section of San Francisco. "I was sad to see they cut down the Japanese maples on Early Street. But I like the style here, too."

Newmark's affection for both classic and trendy tastes is evident on craigslist.

Because most of its services are free -- though Bay area employers are charged a nominal fee -- the site reminds many of the Internet's early days, before popups, banner ads and spam. Some believe craigslist to be an oasis in the heavily commercialized World Wide Web.

"The Internet is like Morris County," said Mark Hashizume, who graduated from Morristown High School with Newmark. "It was once rural, but now it's developed, commercial and expensive. That's why craigslist is quite a phenomenon. It's simple, community-oriented and noncommercial. I've admired the way (Newmark) has kept his site rural.

Probably because it's free, craigslist resembles an Internet commune. Users drop by to discuss, argue, rave, rant, hook up, volunteer and carpool, emulating what happens in towns and cities across the world. Users even police themselves. If a post offends someone and is flagged, it is removed.

It's a marketplace, too: Craigslist offers want ads, jobs, apartments and personals. The site's impact has been so profound since it expanded to New York and North Jersey, Newmark said, it has hurt the business of New York City apartment brokers who find it hard to compete with craigslist's free listings.

Rather than try to turn a profit, Newmark said he believes it's more important to provide a service. The bare bones site is bereft of the flashiness of most other contemporary Web pages, yet that is part of its allure.

"I will always use craigslist," said Occhipinti, 27, of North Plainfield. "Somewhere on the site, you can read about the founder. I like him just because he created a free classified system and seems to plan on keeping it free."

Newmark is a San Francisco celebrity, both online and in the real world. He's an oft-quoted trendsetter with his share of fans and followers.

"I've seen people with craigslist T-shirts in New York," Occhipinti said.

Among Morris County craigslisters, many of whom first discovered the site by word-of-mouth, some have found more success than others.

Jacoby posted her baby toys for sale after she learned about craigslist from her father in California. Within days, she received eight responses.

Ranon searched for a roommate for some time but, so far, her search has yielded only a "frantic" divorced man with three kids who misspelled "professional."

"Craigslist has been around for years and it's free, which is my main motivation for using it to find a roommate," said Ranon, a 31-year-old lawyer who plans to keep using the site because she's "an optimist at heart."

Occhipinti said that, besides her Chihuahua, which she found in the "free" listings, she also has found roommates, dates and furniture there. Ninety percent of those drawn to events she promotes for New Jersey Young Professionals, including upcoming get-together at the Famished Frog in Morristown, heard about it on craigslist.

"Craigslist has become one of the first sites I hit every morning," said Marashlian, 29, an attorney who used the site for a year and a half for business, to find recreation buddies and activity partners. "It can be a lot of fun and offers things you can't -- or won't -- find anywhere else."

Marsashlian, like other local craigslist users, was surprised when he learned the site's founder, namesake and guru grew up in Morristown.

By his own description, Newmark was a high school nerd who grew up to look like George Costanza on TV's "Seinfeld." Newmark isn't overwhelmed by the attention his site has received, nor does he take credit for it, deflecting much of the attention to his staff of 14.

"He has a certain shyness about him," said his mother, Joyce Newmark, who still lives in Morristown. "If he does something, he never brags about it. He'll tell people about it matter-of-factly."

Newmark lived on Early Street until he was 13. Shortly after his bar mitzvah, his father, Lee, an insurance salesman, died of lung cancer. Newmark, his mother and brother, Jeff, soon moved to an apartment in Jacob Ford Village.

"Craig had it very difficult growing up," said his mother, an active volunteer with several community organizations, such as the Friendship Club of Parsippany and the Shalom Club of Morristown.

"It was an extraordinarily difficult time for me, for us," she said. "But he always had a deep sense of responsibility. After my husband died, Craig helped me take care of my parents and my aunt, who were very ill. He was helping out all the time."

Newmark said that, during his time in Morristown, he was the prototypical nerd, complete with black frame eyeglasses with white tape on the bridge and a plastic pocket protector. He was shy and called himself "socially inept."

"Yes," his friend, Hashizume, recalled, "he was a nerd."

Hashizume and Newmark graduated from Morristown High School in 1971 and enrolled together at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Newmark earned his bachelor's and master's degrees there, but Hashizume transferred after the first year and the two lost touch. Decades later, Hashizume chanced upon craigslist and read an article about its founder.

"Apparently, (Newmark's) social aptitude is about the same," Hashizume said. "My interpretation, though, was that he was more self-absorbed than he was shy."

Hashizume recalls that he and Newmark shared an affinity for Ayn Rand, the Russian writer. With some other classmates, they called themselves "The Selfish Club," evoking Rand's writings on independence. They loved photography and visited camera stores in New York City on the weekends. They would often engage each other in "intellectual discussions" on politics and cinema.

Newmark would, at times, set off on his own adventures. He remembers picking up discarded print slugs behind the former Morristown office of the Daily Record.

Though shy, Newmark apparently liked to argue. His high school yearbook recalls him as the "dictator of debate" for the Morristown forensics team. He belonged to the Honor Society and Physics Club, was an announcer for WJSV-FM, the high school radio station, and planned to become either a theoretical physicist or computer engineer.

After college, Newmark was an IBM programmer for 17 years, moving to Boca Raton, Fla., and later Detroit. He moved to San Francisco to work for Charles Schwab, where a colleague introduced him to the still-young and commercial-free Internet. Newmark has lived in the Bay Area since 1993.

Newmark sees craiglist -- already a presence in nearly every U.S. city and among the most popular English-language sites on the planet -- becoming even larger. He'd like to use its exposure to promote causes such as development in the Middle East, including working with a group called OneVoice, which is supported by many celebrities (including Jason Alexander). Craigslist staffers also run a foundation that raises money for a variety of causes in the Bay Area.

He wants to use his influence politically, too.

Newmark has donated money to the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry, "because he wants to see an honest guy in the White House" and said he supported Republican John McCain when he ran for office.

"I apparently have a constituency," Newmark said. "A lot of people tell me to speak out, but I want to be patient. I'm still learning.

In the meantime, he's getting some hands-on political experience, too.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom asked Newmark to sit on a board that collected complaints about city services. He also helped Howard Dean seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

Newmark said that once he does feel knowledgeable enough, he will take up offers to speak to college students in the United States and abroad.

Craigslist, he said, was founded to "give people a break." Newmark has tried to lend the helping hand on a broader level but, he said, he knows it will take time and hard work.

"From the perspective of what we do, is that on our site, there are a million acts of kindness every day. The world should be like that."