from San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 2001
Web's wonder boy
By Jane Ganahl
Craigslist's Craig Newmark Founder of online community bulletin board posts winner
It's T-minus 24 hours before the fifth annual Webby Awards, and nominees are milling nervously about during a reception at Foreign Cinema, a posh Mission District eatery. Famous newsman Sam Donaldson is there, but more attention is being paid to a gnomish, balding man trying to have a quiet martini on the patio.
He is soon holding court -- the only person sitting down -- while the group around him hangs on his every word. One man just outside the circle whispers to a reporter, "Excuse me, could you tell me, is that Craig Newmark?"
Besides the crowd, one clue that this is indeed the Web's most beloved wonk is the pocket pen protector he's wearing. The one that reads: CRAIGSLIST.ORG.
Newmark's fame and that of the Craigslist site are interchangeable. The no- frills bulletin board, broken up into easy-to-read categories -- jobs, housing, community, etc. -- began as Newmark's personal mailing list in 1995, which he used to alert friends to happenings around San Francisco.
A classic example of a good idea that caught on, Craigslist has flourished while dot-coms drop like flies, expanding to 12 other American cities and Sydney, Melbourne and Vancouver.
The number of page hits on all the Craigslist sites combined has soared to 60 million each month -- 20 million in the Bay Area alone -- with 170,000 new classified postings and 54,000 postings on discussion boards. It's a meaningful step toward what Web pioneers envisioned: a global community linked by e-mail and the human desire to connect.
"What Craig does is the Web at its best," says Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webbys. "He took the intimacy of a community coffeehouse and put it online, and made the world a smaller place."
Adds Rob Labatt, research director for GartnerG2, "People have needs, and he's providing the means to fulfill those needs. That's why (Craigslist) is so successful and popular. And just as we spend 80 percent of our time driving within five miles of our house, the information we need to carry out our life is probably mostly local as well."
Newmark, 48, has been Craigslist's beneficent guiding light for six years -- which, he points out, is "an eternity in Web time." He is best described as a virtual Moses who leads followers through the wilderness of the Web, an altruist who refuses to get rich off his brainchild, and -- it must be said -- a hopeless nerd.
After chatting with his admirer at the pre-Webbys party, Newmark discusses the white plastic flap protruding from his pocket.
"That's just a tip of the hat to the good old days," he says. "The days of thick black glasses taped together in the middle, of pocket pen protectors, which, I must say, I once thought were the coolest things ever invented."
Some admit their nerdish tendencies; Newmark revels in them. The New Jersey native got both his undergraduate and master's degrees in -- what else? -- computer science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
He'll happily tell you that he drives a '92 Saturn ("It's a muscle car," he quips), that he's very tight with his mom, and that he once decided to take ballet classes "to meet interesting women" -- and wound up in the hospital with a hernia.
Newmark, who is really quite stylish in his retro "Swingers" attire, has never been married, although he is rumored to have a slew of female admirers -- a side effect, no doubt, from being named one of Women.com's Men of Silicon Valley last year.
"Really? Is there that rumor?" he asks eagerly. "I only wish it were true."
Newmark also professes to being "a reluctant schmoozer" -- preferring to stay home and watch "South Park" and "The Simpsons" -- yet is frequently sighted at events around town (Vanity Fair was right when it named Newmark as one of San Francisco's most in-demand dinner guests).
He forces himself to circulate in the name of Craigslist outreach, but it's a struggle for Newmark, who spent his entire professional life as a programmer -- for IBM and Charles Schwab, among others -- before quitting to take on Craigslist full time.
"I was always kind of socially retarded, still am," he says, smiling as he relaxes in the rented Cole Valley flat that's been his home for 10 years. He has a few expensive-looking pieces of furniture (and a flat-screen TV), but his decorating is definitely spare and understated, like the man himself. And his tchotchkes -- like the taped-up glasses that adorn the mantle of his nonfunctioning fireplace -- reflect his history.
"I still feel a strong connection to engineers, programmers, scientists. They're who I identify most with."
Perhaps he could start a Nerd Pride movement?
He laughs. "I could be the first president. No, I wasn't as bad as being in the (audiovisual) club, but I was on the debate team. I would qualify."
If Newmark is the Web's most popular wonk, he's also become one of its few heroes -- simply by sticking to his vision: create a community, employ a democracy, donate to charity.
"Participating in this kind of community humanizes people. It's hard to hate someone when they're just trying to sell a used sofa," says Newmark, shrugging. "I think everyone starts off wanting to help the world, wanting to give everyone a break. And then they get stuck in doing business they're not proud of."
That seems to be a scenario that will never happen to Newmark. He has dumbfounded the moneymakers of the Net by refusing to sell anything about Craigslist -- not the huge mailing list, nor banner ad space. And especially not the site itself.
"We have gotten many feelers, which we've all turned down. And one offer I could have retired on! But it just wouldn't have been right. They would have taken over Craigslist and changed it. Craigslist is a democracy, and I realized no one would go for it."
Fending off potential millions? Isn't that anti-American? Or at least anti-Net?
Newmark shrugs. "I have no objections to being rich, and I'm sure not anti- commercial, but we made a conscious decision about what Craigslist was all about. And it's not about making money," he says.
Not that Craigslist couldn't use the infusion of cash. The company did make money -- about $60,000 -- during the last fiscal year, most of which was donated to charities. But like every other Web site, Craigslist suffered some serious blows when the economy went south. The only way the site currently makes money is off its job postings, and revenues dropped by about 30 percent in the last year.
"We're still solvent but feeling a little queasy," he admits. "So we're putting it to our readers and asked where people thought we could make some money, what we could charge for. Some think it would be OK to charge for enhanced resumes or more in-depth personals. Others think charging for car ads would be OK."
The buzzing, cluttered Craigslist office on Ninth Avenue in San Francisco employs 20 people, all of them paid. (Newmark won't say how much salary he draws, although he will say it isn't as much as he got as a programmer.) Craigslists in other cities are run entirely by volunteers.
Newmark, not surprisingly, does not consider himself anyone's boss.
"I never saw myself that way. I see myself as providing guidance, to advise and to nudge. Yes, I've had to fire people, and it was terrible. I hated it."
Employee Steve Scheer says, "Craig's less of a boss and more of a leader, in that he leads by example. I personally strive to be more like him in terms of his attitude toward helping other folks."
That would include the new nonprofit Craigslist Foundation, which will become the umbrella for the batch of charitable endeavors already under the Craigslist roof.
It seems Newmark is lacking only two things in life. A wife is one, and as he optimistically notes, "since George Costanza has made short, balding Jewish guys a hot property, and since Julia Roberts is back on the market, maybe there's hope."
And the other is a Webby. "The Webby is king," he noted a few weeks back. "Our big objective is to change the world. And winning one would really help us put the word out."
Twenty-four hours later, Newmark was stepping up to the podium to accept the Webby for Best Community site. He had to wait a minute for the thunderous applause to die down before he could deliver his five-word-maximum acceptance speech.
"Hey, mom, I love you!"
A nerd to the end.