Community. It is one of those charged-with-meaning words that is meant to distinguish what happens on the Web with what happens in less virtual (and less virtuous) segments of the economy. One promise of the Web is that it blends the value of commerce with the values of personal interaction. Why be content to sell one-size-fits-all products to a disparate collection of individuals when you can meet the shared needs of a single community? Why be content to create a marketplace when you can create a "market space" that lets people swap ideas, trade experiences, learn from one another — and then buy products that reflect their shared interests?
Community. It is one of those devoid-of-meaning words that inspires bemused grins from Internet insiders. Is a stock-market chat room a "community" — or a rumor mill? Is a collection of customer reviews (of books, software, or cars) a community forum — or just a bunch of ill-informed opinions from never-satisfied consumers?
Craig Newmark knows a community when he sees one — because he's built one of the Web's most influential communities. If you ask around, you'll soon find someone who's participated in "craigslist" (www.craigslist.org), which acts as a virtual community bulletin board for the San Francisco Bay Area — the unofficial capital of the Internet economy. It's the plugged-in place to find a job, a roommate, a neighborhood dog walker, or the latest Internet-industry schmooze. And hardly a week goes by without at least one plaintive posting: Is there a list like this in New York? Portland? Boston? Seattle?
Craig Newmark, 47, is a Java programmer who describes himself as a "recovering nerd." This self-proclaimed "Forrest Gump of the Internet" became the Bay Area's best-known online community organizer by "happy accident." Five years ago, while he was working as a computer-security architect at Charles Schwab, he took on the role of Internet evangelist. "I'd give talks about the Internet, saying that this is how we should do business someday," he says.
A year later, he started a small, informal "cc list" to keep his friends updated on local techie-art events. As more people joined, the number of posts snowballed, and the subject matter sprawled: from "Sublet my room!" to "We need a Web designer!" Today, the craigslist site receives 5 million page views a month from thousands of visitors and has more than 7,700 email subscribers, who receive the postings in their in-boxes every day. There are now so many postings that the list is divided into 27 categories, ranging from tech events to writing/editing jobs. "What we do," says Newmark, "is give people a voice, and that's pretty powerful."
And extremely valuable. What was once a Java programmer's part-time avocation is now a fast-growing nonprofit that receives full-time devotion from Newmark and five other staffers; it's run like a scrappy startup out of Newmark's Cole Valley flat. The business model is simple: Charge companies $45 to list job openings. All other listings are free. The community does the rest.
"Our intent is inclusive — to humanize and democratize the Internet," Newmark explains. "Too much of life is whom you know. We're trying to open that up a little more." Part of that vision is to bring the community-building experience of craigslist to other cities — the grassroots way. "We're not carpetbaggers," says Newmark. "We're interested in working with people in other places who want to do similar things. And we're creating technology that will allow people anywhere to build community sites, including neighborhood ones. We're trying to find the right ways to give this technology away."
In the Bay Area, craigslist has fast become a local institution, and Craig Newmark himself, much to his bashful chagrin, has become at once an urban legend and a local celebrity. Some people don't believe that there is a real guy named Craig, and they express incredulity when meeting him in person. Others seek him out to tell him how craigslist has changed their lives — how a roommate became a spouse, or how a gig jump-started a career. "That feels pretty good," he says with characteristic understatement.
Newmark does concede that he knows a little something about organizing a community on the Web: "I've been trying to pay attention and to learn something about it along the way." He's even taught a course called "How to Create a Successful Online Community Web Site." In a series of interviews with Fast Company, Newmark explained what it takes to build a community on the Web.
How do you know a community when you see one?
Defining what constitutes a community — as opposed to a crowd — involves lots of subjective judgments. But I'd say that a community involves people who have the potential to interact with one another while having a shared experience. In a community, there's more than just communication — there's a sense of connection, a sense of intimacy, a feeling that we're in this together.
Of course, if all we're talking about is connection, then 50,000 people cheering the home team in a football stadium would be a community. But being an observer is qualitatively different from taking part in a community. You're sharing a little bit when everyone cheers or gasps at the game, but you're still just part of an audience. That's why you also need the opportunity for interaction. That's what differentiates a community from a crowd.
What are the prerequisites for building a community?
Community starts with people having something in common, whether that is a subject that interests them or the city where they live. There's a reason why people in a geographic community feel — or want to feel — connected.
We've lost contact with our neighbors. We don't know who they are, but we crave contact with them. So creating a new place for people to interact with others in their own town is one way of establishing community. Geography is something that we all already have in common with our neighbors.
That doesn't mean that members of a community must have the same values or beliefs. Shared values are useful to a community, but a common set of values is not mandatory. Neighbors have lots of important things in common, but they don't necessarily have the same religious beliefs or vote for the same political candidates come election time.
What's the right kind of technology to support communities?
People need a convenient arena or forum where they can interact. It can be at a café, around the company watercooler, or at the fax machine. On the Net, that arena is created electronically; it might be a mailing list, a bulletin board, a chat room, or a Web site that publishes information that helps bring people together in person.
But let's be clear: The Net is not about technology, it's about people — a fact that is obvious to everyone except to we programmers. The most important things we, as humans, need to do — commercially or socially — is to connect with others. An online community is no substitute for real-world interactions. In fact, the most successful online communities are the ones that throw parties, sponsor events, host get-togethers — help members meet one another face-to-face in the real world.
We live our lives, for the most part, in the physical world (although in San Francisco, that's optional). Virtual life is a great complement to real life, but it's only a complement. Usually people find it more meaningful to make an online connection with someone local whom they might have the opportunity to meet, or might already know, than with someone who is half a world away.
You may not care so much about the personal home page of a guy with his dog if he happens to live in another country. You just see a guy and his dog. Big deal. But if this person lives a couple of blocks away from you, then you may be very interested to learn about him. The exception to this, of course, is communities of interest, where people come together by virtue of their passion for a common subject — say, basset hounds. If you think about it, we're all in a bunch of sub-subcultures.
But I still think that if you're interested in basset hounds, then you're more likely to feel a connection to a community at a basset-hound site that draws people who live in your own neighborhood than you would at a site about basset hounds in general.
What else does it take to build and sustain a community?
The best communities aren't just interesting, they're useful. On craigslist, there's not a lot of abstract discussion. We address everyday, real-world, down-to-earth stuff — finding a place to live, a roommate, a job, a technology event to attend. The community has grown out of these practical concerns. At its most mundane, what we're doing is basically creating a different version of classified ads. The difference is that they're free. Because we're not charging by the word, people can say as much as they want. And in their postings, people reveal something of themselves — and others feel a sense of connection. One woman told me that she reads our lists just for the personal stories. It's a window into what's going on around her, and it provides a sense of connection and intimacy with others. That's the common theme: What's going on around us?
Think about when you move to a new city or town. How long does it take to feel connected, to feel as though you know what's going on? Six months? Two years? This approach makes that process happen much faster. So if you want to build community, the most important question to ask yourself is, What needs are you serving? When you go to the Web to feel connected, you don't need another site to provide stock quotes. And you don't need to see pictures of somebody's nieces and nephews. What you need is to hear someone's opinion about a local bar or restaurant, or what that person thinks about a nearby store or another part of the city. It's real-world, everyday stuff. It's so ordinary that it may sound obvious. Keeping it simple works.
So the way to build a community is to give people information.
Actually, the most poignant use of Web community is when you give people a voice. And if you provide the right kind of forum, anyone can have a voice. In any large organization, whether it's a company or a part of the government, the people on the front lines know how to do things well. But the nature of large organizations is that they stifle those people. Over time, these people give up trying to be heard because they have the sense that no one is listening.
In that sense, community is about connecting people who need a break with people who might be able to give them one. It's all about people helping one another. This idea is not new. For a long time, people in technology have been helping others online. You ask a question, you get an answer. It's a pretty good deal. When you go to a technical conference and read someone's name tag, you may realize that you're meeting someone who may have helped you a year ago, or someone whom you've helped.
What are some pitfalls as you try to create a community?
Scale is one. Web sites that attempt to build community quickly on a grand scale will not succeed. People in different areas and in different cultures know what's right for their areas and cultures. It is possible to create a big community site, but it has to be a network of affinity groups — a community of communities.
Some big "communities" are basically collections of free home pages. But these sites aren't communities if people aren't interacting with one another. I don't hear about anyone who is passionate about these big sites. It may be because people perceive big sites as merely a way to sell ads. I have nothing against commercialism; everyone should get rich on the Web. But people will accept commercialism in a community only if they think they're getting a fair exchange of value in return.
What are some other challenges?
One is the "tragedy of the commons." It's a term that describes what happens when you have a limited resource, but there's no controlled access to that resource — like a field that has a common grazing area for sheep. If too many ranchers use that field, then it becomes overgrazed and doesn't work for anyone. To some extent, that's what has happened to Usenet, the early newsgroups on the Internet. Take one of the 50,000 groups, like "Bay Area Jobs Offered." Recruiters just dump in listings to collect résumés. It's impossible to distinguish real jobs from headhunters' come-ons.
This is one of the hazards of not having moderation — there's no quality control. Also, most communities need to be moderators to keep the momentum going. The discussion needs to be encouraged and directed in some way. At craigslist, we avoid the tragedy of the commons through very light moderation. Between light moderation and self-policing, the quality of what's on the list remains very high, and it doesn't get overrun. And when a category does become overrun, such as engineering, we'll split it off into different categories — for example, Web-building jobs and system-administration jobs.
What other advice can you give aspiring Web organizers?
You've got to keep it real. That means being down-to-earth and open. And it means no hidden agendas. In our case, that means not using the community stuff as a way of selling ads, or selling anything else.
I spend lots of time maintaining the trusted relationship we have with everyone who uses craigslist. We don't even know how many visitors come to our site, because we don't use "cookies." We never sell any of our mailing lists or anything personal about visitors to our site. That's because the foundation of the community is that trust.
Another way we keep it real is with the name. I was embarrassed to call it craigslist, and I still am, but people want something personal. They want something that feels real.
What can traditional companies learn from the community that you have created?
They can learn how to improve their customer service. At craigslist, we do customer service, which, to the best of my knowledge, far exceeds the vast majority of for-profit businesses. We tell the community about the changes that we're going to make on the site before we make them. And we solicit feedback from all our customers — subscribers and people who just visit our site. Once a month, we ask them how we're doing. We actually change our site in response to what members of the community request. We ask people all the time if we're doing our job right, and if we're not, we change.
For example, we'd thought about adding chat, but our community told us that there are already lots of places to chat on the Net, so we didn't do it. That's not what they wanted. Sponsorships are another great example. People are telling us that the very lightest of sponsorships or underwriting is cool, but it has to be very light. So we may do our first real example of that soon.
Why don't more companies interact with their customers this way, using public forums as a source of consumer feedback? Certainly, using any kind of public forum for support means that a company will be faced with disgruntled customers. But much of the time, disgruntled customers are right — and they're giving you valuable feedback. Make disgruntled customers happy, and the process will probably improve the quality of your product. Of course, some disgruntled customers are just never happy, but other customers reading their posts can see that. The community will recognize the never-happy customers for what they are.
Katharine Mieszkowski (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in San Francisco. She owes the better part of her eclectic social life to events found on craigslist. You can visit craigslist on the Web (www.craigslist.org), or contact Craig Newmark by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: (Virtual) Organizing Manual
Craig Newmark has devoted the past five years to maintaining and expanding one of the most celebrated communities on the Web. Here are some of his guidelines for community organizers.
Uncommonly good communities have members with common interests. Often, those interests are mundane rather than profound — people who live in the same city or have the same job title. But note: People with common interests can have extremely different values. "Think of creating a community as building your own dysfunctional family," jokes Newmark.
To generate strong connections, provide down-to-earth information. When most of us think of Web communities, we think of intense discussions with lots of passionate people. But the way to generate that kind of intense discussion is to present people with concrete information. "We're all bombarded with too much information, most of which is irrelevant," says Newmark. "Give people an easy way to find what's useful to them."
It's virtual and physical, not virtual or physical. The online world may be a powerful complement to the physical world, argues Newmark, but it's not a substitute. The strongest virtual communities tend to encourage participants to connect in the real world. "Proximity humanizes connection," he says. "Seeing Web pages of people whom you meet or could meet in the flesh — that's what matters."
Think globally, act locally. One of the most popular mantras of the Web, "Get big fast," just doesn't apply to online communities. If the strength of a community is built on the depth of the connections among members, then almost by definition, community building is slow, grassroots work. "I don't think there's any way to make a community get big fast," says Newmark. "Communities grow organically, and that's always slow at first."
Sidebar: Here's Craig's List
What sites does one of the Web's leading community organizers visit to keep up with the most recent developments in online communities? Here are some of Craig Newmark's favorites.
These mutual-support communities provide parents and "third-agers" with a place to talk, share information, and give one another a break.
People share opinions about different products through ratings and reviews. These sites help you decide what to buy based on what others say.
This new site asks experts to write instructions about how to do stuff — anything from polishing shoes to fixing a leaky faucet. But people can also make contributions about things that they know how to do. It's not as community-oriented as some sites, but it's useful.
Maxi is one of a number of women's Webzines linked together in the network www.chickclick.com. It brings together people who share a certain style and similar points of view. This is more a community of interest than of location.
These two commercial sites have real community. Sun Micro-systems's NetDynamics site has a customer-support area in which people help each other with the server product. On the boards of Intuit's Quicken site, people discuss money issues, ranging from small-business strategies to retirement planning.
Bay Area Internet developers get together twice a month in person and also share a mailing list. The site's mission is "to humanize the technology we all work with." As the site explains, "We are not about money, or jobs, or deals, or selling — those are just great by-products that we've found appear naturally in great abundance if not focused on directly. We exist as a group simply to relax and bring the pace of the Net down a few notches." This is an example of a community that is about more than just networking.
SFgirl.com, posthoc.com, SFstation.com
At these Bay Area sites, you can read about bars, restaurants, stores, or local neighborhoods. Each has a unique style and attitude. If a site tells you that a certain club is great, then you may actually go there and connect with someone whom you've met online. These sites are about virtual and real-world communities.
This site combines a community of interest — musicians — with a place where people come together because they share geography. It helps local bands find musicians and advertise their gigs, as well as sell gear and exchange information about practice spaces. It's a useful, real-world site.
A version of this article appeared in the Prototype Issue issue of Fast Company magazine.