from CWRU Magazine, Spring 2002
The Web He Weaves
By Jolie Lewis
"Craigslist," the brainchild of alumnus Craig Newmark, seeks to preserve the human voice on the Internet.
Craig Newmark is a man who, in the height of the dot.com explosion, refused to get rich off his website and instead found creative ways to direct cash into worthy causes. He is reputed to be one of San Francisco's most sought-out dinner guests, though he dismisses such claims as journalistic hyperbole.
His five-word-max Webby Award acceptance speech was: "Hey, Mom, I love you!" He pours endless energy into fulfilling his vision of community on the Internet. He loves South Park and The Simpsons, and he identifies strongly with Scott Adams's character Dilbert. He is good-natured and generous. He is an unrepentant nerd.
You need not ever have met Craig Newmark to feel as if you know him. Pick up any of the dozens of Bay Area articles written about him. Journalists there have much to say about his personality, his jokes, his ideals, and his booming website, a no-frills, neighborly venture called craigslist (http://www.craigslist.org/).
The site gets millions of hits each month as people look for jobs, talk about issues, or search for a date or a bit of humor. While the site has generated rave reviews and awards, what's more important to Mr. Newmark, however, is how the site symbolizes the potential of the Internet. "I see the Internet as a great democratizing media," says the forty-nine-year-old idealist. "I think people will be able to use the Internet to save the world."
From the moment Mr. Newmark clicked "send" to e-mail friends about some upcoming events in the Bay Area back in 1995, the phenomenon that would become craigslist took on a life of its own. Friends told friends, and, before he knew it, so many people wanted to read and add items to his electronic mailings that his carbon-copy distribution list broke. He set up a listserv, a sophisticated e-mail distribution system, and when interest outgrew that, he started writing Perl code for a Web page. Maintaining the site grew so demanding, he gave up a lucrative consulting career. Next thing he knew, he had a staff of eight working out of two rooms in his apartment. Reporters started calling, the Web page started drawing national notice, and practically overnight Mr. Newmark became something of a minor celebrity. In short, craigslist took over his life.
The website is akin to a community center, a discussion forum, and real-time classified ads rolled into one. It has a listing that offers a free desk to anyone who shows up in the next ten minutes to haul it away. Other people look for dog sitters, arrange rides to Los Angeles, or try to give away packing peanuts. Postings are free, except for job listings, which, at $75 apiece, support the site.
Comments Jim Buckmaster, chief technical officer and president of craigslist, "Sometimes we get e-mails where people tell us they found their entire life on craigslist," referring to those who used the site to find everything from their jobs and apartments to pets - and even spouses. "Basically, Craig has asked for nothing in return."
Mr. Newmark has been described as puckish; the same might be said for his website. A "professional slacker" and an "action figure guru" have posted resumes. Someone wants to swap a commercial-grade bug zapper for a couple of six packs of Bass Ale. An apartment listing offers obnoxious neighbors, a view of fog, and numerous species of small rodents, all for the nominal price of $2,500 per month.
Craig Newmark grew up in Morristown, New Jersey. He was, by his own acknowledgement, a consummate nerd - thick-rimmed, taped glasses; plastic pocket protector; marginal social skills; the works. He chose Case Western Reserve University in 1971, because he wanted to study physics and because he had a distant cousin teaching at the medical school. He soon discovered he wanted to focus on computers, and, with the help of his advisors, Frank Bradshaw and Ranan Banerji, he built a computer science and software engineering major before there was one.
His bachelor's degree (1975) was in undergraduate studies and his master's (1977) was in computing and information sciences. Mr. Newmark looks back at his years at CWRU with some mortification. The guy he is now considers the guy he was then unpleasantly arrogant.
"In October 1972, I was taking a class, something like language and thought in action. I realized it couldn't be everyone else who had a communication problem - it had to be me," he says. "Slowly, I started socializing myself. It's been a slow, occasionally painful process: I had to admit that, in many respects, I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was."
The result of his personality makeover is a community-minded philanthropist who tries to see things from other people's perspectives and wants to help schools and nonprofits. Yet the nerdy image remains. He embraces it, and so does the media. A writer at the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed him the "Web's most beloved wonk." Salon.com featured a story describing how the crowd went crazy for their "hometown geek-boy" when craigslist won a Webby Award. And a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian did a piece (following an April Fool's Day press release from craigslist denying the existence of Craig Newmark as anything more than a popular icon) joking that anyone who thought they had met him had been "fooled mightily" by former Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander.
All the hype strikes Mr. Newmark as surreal. "It's pretty flattering, but I've learned that I don't have a big need for all that attention. But it helps our cause, which is ultimately to give people a break, and it impresses my niece and nephew. I'm the cool uncle."
Back when craigslist was still a mass e-mail, people started asking if they could use it to sell things or post jobs. Mr. Newmark said yes. When the housing market got tight, the idea of apartment listings surfaced. Mr. Newmark said yes. Discussion boards? Personals? Yes, yes. Mr. Newmark can't emphasize enough the importance of customer service, which is to say, the importance of saying yes.
An online feedback forum illustrates his dedication. One day in February, a seemingly normal Craig day, he posted responses to user comments at 8:48 a.m., before and after lunchtime, in the afternoon, and again at half-past-midnight. One user finally wrote: "Damn, Craig, go to sleep!" He posted a sheepish answer and disappeared from the conversation. He was back the next morning by nine.
Bryan Goski, a customer service representative at craigslist, says of Mr. Newmark: "He's a really interesting mix of tech geek and someone who's just really big-hearted. He really believes in being on the front lines. It keeps him in touch with the community."
Mr. Newmark has staunchly refused to entertain proposals for banner ads or a buyout. In a time when the Internet is becoming more dominated by large sites that speak with a corporate voice, he says, craigslist offers an alternative, a human voice.
Mr. Buckmaster, who landed his job at craigslist by posting his resume there, enjoys the irony that Mr. Newmark, the dot.commer who never put money first, is still around while other sites floundered. "I don't know of any other Internet company where the founder could have cashed in but just plain decided not to, because it might result in a less useful and generous website for the people using it. That's unheard of."
Mr. Newmark is scrolling through yesterday's e-mails when he finds a thank-you note from Room 22 at Spring Valley School in San Francisco. He seems a little embarrassed talking about it, but he has recently made a personal donation as part of a program he set up in early 2001 to help teachers, who often have to buy their own classroom supplies. The Wishlist Program for Schools and Non-Profits invites teachers to post their needs online at craigslist. Donors place electronic orders with a local business, Cole Hardware, and have the supplies delivered.
Teacher Monica Chavers, whose bilingual second-graders received markers, dry erase boards, and cute little plastic reading chairs through Mr. Newmark's donation, says she will be able to use the supplies year after year. "I think it's fabulous," she says of the Wishlist. "The kids were really excited. They were like, why is this man giving us stuff?"
Teachers received about $30,000 in supplies in the program's first year. In another philanthropic turn, craigslist established the Craigslist Foundation to connect nonprofits and the community.
Mr. Newmark is equally generous with his own time. He donates consulting services to nonprofits. He makes frequent community appearances. He serves on the boards for such groups as the Haight Ashbury Food Program, and the Accessibility Internet Rally program of the Center for Applied Special Technology, whose mission is to expand opportunities for people with disabilities through computer technology.
Mr. Newmark has so far capped his earnings from craigslist at what he thinks he would have made as a consultant. He lives in an Edwardian flat he describes as nice but not fancy. He has money enough to enjoy the Chinese, Indian, and Thai eateries near his office. His 1992 Saturn is now playing second fiddle to a new Toyota Prius electric-gas hybrid. And he has all the tech toys he could want, including an IBM Thinkpad X21, a digital video recorder, and a good headset so he can talk to reporters without getting a crick in his neck. "Beyond that, what do I need?"
Mr. Newmark moved to San Francisco in 1993 to work on system security for Charles Schwab, leaving behind seventeen years of systems engineering and programming at IBM offices in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Boca Raton. During his free time, he explored his new city and discovered two groups that were blending technology with storytelling and art. He spread the word in e-mails. Once he started a listserv, he needed a name. Friends convinced him to call it what everyone else had been calling it: craigslist. It was personal and quirky and appealing.
After two years at Charles Schwab, he opted in 1995 for a buyout and began consulting independently (Bank of America and Sun Microsystems were among his clients). Four years later, craigslist had boomed to the extent that he could no longer juggle work and hobby. With enough money saved to coast if necessary, he plunged into craigslist full time. The next year, the company moved from his apartment into its own office in San Francisco's Inner Sunset neighborhood. The website is now in twelve US cities, plus two in Australia and one in Canada, and was expected to log 120 million page views in February. With a staff of seventeen, Mr. Newmark says his role has shifted from the technical to that of spokesman and visionary.
Accolades have been rolling in. First came a host of local awards, then, in spring 2000, Forrester Research Inc. named craigslist the nation's most efficient job-recruiting site, beating out more widely known websites like monster.com and HotJobs.com. In July 2001, craigslist won a Webby Award for Best Community Web Site. Presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, Webby Awards are a top honor for achievement in technology and creativity.
If Craig Newmark weren't connected with his website, if instead he worked as, say, a customer service agent somewhere, and if he heard about craigslist one morning in a coffee shop, he would first want to investigate job and apartment listings. Just in case there was something better out there. Then, he says, he would "look around for something to satisfy my romantic needs." Despite being named one of the ten most eligible men in the Silicon Valley by Women.com in 2000, Mr. Newmark remains a bachelor, willing to take his time to find what he wants in a relationship.
Never mind the hypothetical. Mr. Newmark is craigslist, and what he really needs right now is a place to park. "My neighborhood is parking hell. The only way to find a permit is to know someone leaving."
He starts searching the site.