Craig Newmark: "no vision, but I know how to keep things simple, and I can listen some"

Craig Newmark was visiting the Berkman Center today and he explained how founding Craiglist brought him to his current role as community organizer. But these are really the same, he says.

In 1994, Craig was working at Charles Schwab where he evangelized the net – figuring that this is the future of business for these types of firms. He showed people usenet newsgroups and The Well and he noticed people helping each other in very generous ways. He wanted to give back so he started a cc list for events in early 1995. He credits part of his success to the timing of this launch – early dot com boom. People were alwyas influential and for example suggested new categories etc. He was using pine for this and in mid 1995 he had 240 email addresses and pine started to break. He was going to call it SFevents, but people around him suggested CraigsList because it was a brand, and the list was more than events.

So he wrote some code to turn these emails into html and became a web publisher. At the end of 1997 3 events happened: CraigsList had one million page views per month (a billion in August 2004, now heading toward 13 billion per month), Microsoft Sidewalk approached him to run banner ads and he said no because he didn’t need the money, and then he was approached with the idea of having some of the site run on a volunteer basis. He went for volunteer help but in 1998 it didn’t work well since he wasn’t providing strong leadership for them. At the end of 1998 people approached him to fix this and so in 1999 he incorporated and hired Jim Buckmaster who continued the traditions of incorporating volunteer suggestions for the site, and maintained the simple design. Also in 1999 he decided to charge for job ads and to charge real estate agents (only apt brokers in NYC, which they requested to eliminate the perceived need to post and repost).

He has generalized his approach to “nerd values:” take care of yourself enough to live comfortably then after that you can start to focus on changing things.

After 2000 there was slow continuous progress, like the addition of more cities. He also says they made a mistake of anonymizing all email as a default. The idea was to protect against spammers, but people requested the choice, because there is personal branding in email. He notes conflicting feedback can be tough to deal with. For example people feel strongly about “backyard breeders” of pets and there was bickering that crossed into criminal harassment. He says this kind of thing is hard to deal with emotionally.

So why was CraigsList so successful? He claims it is their business model… and a culture of trust. Bad guys are a tiny percentage of the pop and people look out for each other. For example, the flagging mechanism (a post is removed automatically if many people flag it). How did they build this culture of trust? Craig says it was by acting on shared values from the beginning, ie golden rule, especially in customer service, and live and let live and to be forgiving and give breaks. They are still trying to listen to people although novel suggestions are rare – the biggest decisions are which new cities to include.

He still runs pine as the primary email tool. He says it keeps down RSI because it minimizes point and click.

Newmark sees himself as a community grassroots organizer: organizing people in mundane ways. So he has capitalized on this to help in other ways beyond CraigsList. He doesn’t see anything about CraigsList as philanthropic, but he wants to extend this approach to help in the future of the media. For example face to face communication doesn’t scale on the Internet, but democracy is best facilitated through in person communication. So Craig sees the Internet as a great facilitator of face to face communication. He believes 2009 is the new 1787! This is about accountability and transparency – exposing everything the government is doing to sanitize it.

Another quip of advice from Craig: socialize more than he did as an undergrad – he says he got a better education than he needed and would have been better off spending more time socializing.

Crossposted on Berkman’s I&D Blog

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