Craig Newmark talks about Craigslist: “The Internet allows us to tell our bosses things”

Craig told us that he’d talk a little about Craiglist and what he learned that may apply to other things. He promised us a short talk so that there’d be time for questions for the panel. To begin with, he began by answering (without being asked) one of the usual questions: they aren’t interested in selling the company! He said that it works for them, they are helping out people in different parts of the world, and it feels right at the moment.

Craig started things with Craigslist in 1994. He was working at Charles Schwabe, and he could see that there were lots of people helping each other out online, so in early 1995 he decided to reciprocate. He set up an events list with events around San Francisco, and 1995 in San Francisco was a good place to be. The list started off as an e-mail CC list, but after so many names were added, he couldn’t use a CC list anymore, so he started using a listserv mailing list, and found he had to give it a name. He was going to call it “SF Events”, but people told him that they had already started calling it Craigslist. The name stuck, and as a website by the end of 1997, it was getting about a million page views per month, not just from Craig. Microsoft Sidewalk asked about running banner ads on the site, but Craig was still making a living as an overpaid programmer, so he found banner ads kind of stupid.

He kept plugging ahead, running things on a volunteer basis, but in 1999, people informed him gently that the volunteer effort was failing. In that year, he asked people how they should pay the bills and do better. The response was to charge the advertisers who pay too much money for less effective advertising: jobs, house sales/rentals, etc. That’s what they did: job agencies are charged for advertising in 17 cities in the US.

Craig said that you must listen to what your community is saying. Craigslist is driven by what the community is saying, but listening is tough. This was borne out in 2000 when people helped Craig understand the degree to which his skills as a manager “sucked”. He hired Jim Buckmaster, and Jim now runs Craigslist, whereas Craig’s job is customer service primarily. By responding to people and extending trust to the community, they have built a community of trust. Craig says that he believes people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and good. The problems on the Internet are a small fraction of those in real life. Craigslist gives something like a neighborhood watch-type functionality to the community so that people can flag ads for removal, and if there’s enough flags, the ad is removed immediately. They say that democracy may be lousy but it’s the best we’ve tried.

Another lesson from Craigslist is that Internet allows us to do the things that we could always do, so in that sense it’s not that big a deal. Now we have efforts in microfinance online that can augment those in the real world. The Internet is ubiquitous and extends pretty far to connect people of like minds: people working together towards common goals. He gave the examples of DonorsChoose.org for helping with classroom project requests and Kiva.org for lending to microfinance institutions across the world. The Internet does allows us to do these things in a far more pervasive way.

Craig said he was speaking about the future of media in Washington recently. If you have someone who wants to know the truth, make them laugh, or they’ll kill you. His theory is that the future of media is similar to real life in that we rely on the people that we trust in our daily lives and it’s the same on the Internet. The battle for democratizing the Internet has largely been won, with blogging, etc., especially in the Western world. People still struggle to decide how they can find stuff that they can trust and act on. Curation, like the editor from newspapers, is key, and getting news from people you trust is a part of this.

Craig says there is a big opportunity for more accountability, for mechanisms of trust. The opportunity is ripe for repositories of trustworthy identity and reputations systems that can build on that. In DC, there’s a new trend wherein the rank and file government agencies are the people who really know what’s going on, and really know how to fix things. In any hierarchy, we tell the boss what they want to hear, and they tell their boss, and we get information degradation on the way up to the top (so it’s no wonder the President has a Blackberry so people can tell him when things are going wrong). He cited some internal innovation contests in DC, and he is going to work with people in the Department of Health and Human Services in this area. We need some way to tell bosses things, and the Internet allows us to do that. In a discussion board, you can vote up and down ideas, and if management can sign into that, it can really change things. This strategy needs to be more pervasive, and matters immensely.

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