By Gary Wolf
The Internet’s great promise is to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful. So how come when you arrive at the most popular dating site in the US you find a stream of anonymous come-ons intermixed with insults, ads for prostitutes, naked pictures, and obvious scams? In a design straight from the earliest days of the Web, miscellaneous posts compete for attention on page after page of blue links, undifferentiated by tags or ratings or even usernames. Millions of people apparently believe that love awaits here, but it is well hidden. Is this really the best we can do?
Odd perhaps, but no odder than what you see at the most popular job-search site: another wasteland of hypertext links, one line after another, without recommendations or networking features or even protection against duplicate postings. Subject to a highly unpredictable filtering system that produces daily outrage among people whose help-wanted ads have been removed without explanation, this site not only beats its competitors—Monster, CareerBuilder, Yahoo’s HotJobs—but garners more traffic than all of them combined. Are our standards really so low?
But if you really want to see a mess, go visit the nation’s greatest apartment-hunting site, the first likely choice of anybody searching for a rental or a roommate. On this site, contrary to every principle of usability and common sense, you can’t easily browse pictures of the apartments for rent. Customer support? Visit the help desk if you enjoy being insulted. How much market share does this housing site have? In many cities, a huge percentage. It isn’t worth trying to compare its traffic to competitors’, because at this scale there are no competitors.
Each of these sites, of course, is merely one of the many sections of craigslist, which dominates the market in facilitating face-to-face transactions, whether people are connecting to buy and sell, give something away, rent an apartment, or have some sex. With more than 47 million unique users every month in the US alone—nearly a fifth of the nation’s adult population—it is the most important community site going and yet the most underdeveloped. Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down.
Craigslist is not only gigantic in scale and totally resistant to business cooperation, it is also mostly free. The only things that cost money to post on the site are job ads in some cities ($25 to $75), apartment listings by brokers in New York ($10), and—in a special case born of recent legal trouble—advertisements in categories commonly used by prostitutes, because authorities encourage vendors to maintain a record that would aid investigators. There is no banner advertising. They won’t let you join them, and at this price you can’t beat them either.
At times it has occurred to people that the problems with craigslist could be solved by appealing to its eponym, Craig Newmark. Newmark is under lots of pressure these days. His company is being sued by eBay, a competitor and minority shareholder angry at being excluded from the company’s deliberations. The attorney general of South Carolina has blustered about prosecuting his CEO for facilitating prostitution, and there have been strong challenges from law enforcement agencies in other states, too. The tabloids have relentlessly played up stories about two so-called craigslist killers, one who allegedly used the site’s erotic-services section to lure victims and another who used the help-wanted ads. Newmark responds to such criticism with extreme serenity. Inquire about his finances and he talks about his hummingbird feeder. When his Twitter page asks him, “What are you doing?” he retweets in the voice of a squirrel.
“Run, run, run,” he says. “Dig, dig.”
Though the company is privately held and does not respond to questions about its finances, it is evident that craigslist earns stupendous amounts of cash. One recent report, from a consulting firm that counted the paid ads, estimates that revenue could top $100 million in 2009. Should craigslist ever be sold, the price likely would run into the billions. Newmark, by these lights, is a very rich man. When anybody reminds him of this, the craigslist founder says there is nothing he would care to do with that much money, should it ever come into his hands. He already has a parking space, a hummingbird feeder, a small home with a view, and a shower with strong water pressure. What else is he supposed to want? Frustration over these sorts of replies sometimes becomes comical. In a July 2007 television interview, Charlie Rose spent half the program attempting to get Newmark to admit his good fortune, and failing. “I don’t have anywhere near as much control as you think,” Newmark said.
“I’m not talking how much control; I’m talking percentage of ownership,” Rose said. Rose is usually kind to his guests, but the scent of unacknowledged wealth brought out his ferocity.
“Oh, same thing from my point of view,” Newmark said, trying to move the topic along.
“Do you own more than 50 percent of craigslist or not?” Rose asked.
“In other words, other people own that, or you’ve given it away or whatever.”
“Could be, Charlie.”
“OK, but I’m—why are you so …?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Newmark said. “I mean …”
“I know it doesn’t matter,” Rose repeated, his face a mask of pain.
Newmark’s claim of almost total disinterest in wealth dovetails with the way craigslist does business. Besides offering nearly all of its features for free, it scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate. Ordinarily, a company that showed such complete disdain for the normal rules of business would be vulnerable to competition, but craigslist has no serious rivals. The glory of the site is its size and its price. But seen from another angle, craigslist is one of the strangest monopolies in history, where customers are locked in by fees set at zero and where the ambiance of neglect is not a way to extract more profit but the expression of a worldview.
The axioms of this worldview are easy to state. “People are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day,” Newmark says. If most people are good and their needs are simple, all you have to do to serve them well is build a minimal infrastructure allowing them to get together and work things out for themselves. Any additional features are almost certainly superfluous and could even be damaging.
Newmark has been working hard to extend the influence of his worldview. His public pronouncements have the delighted yet apologetic tone of a man who has stumbled on a secret hiding in plain sight and who finds it embarrassingly necessary to point out something that should long have been obvious. He seems to have discovered a new way to run a business. He suspects that it may be the right way to run the world.
Public spirited and mild-mannered, politically liberal and socially awkward, Newmark has one trait that mattered a lot in craigslist’s success: He is willing to perform the same task again and again. During the company’s first years, Newmark approved nearly every message on the list, and in the decade since he has spent much of his time eliminating offensive ones. Even by the most conservative accounting, he has passed judgment on tens of thousands of classified ads. Very few people could do this and thrive.
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