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Craig’s List and Online Community

Craig Newmark launched Craig’s List in 1995 to better help people connect through events around San Francisco. The site has since grown into a national community. While the service primarily helps people with everyday challenges — finding a place to live, a job, a date, and buying and selling stuff — Newmark’s session focused on what organizers have learned about online community and its ramifications for business. What follows is a partial transcript of Newmark’s talk.

Craig Newmark launched Craig’s List in 1995 to better help people connect through events around San Francisco. The site has since grown into a national community.

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While the service primarily helps people with everyday challenges — finding a place to live, a job, a date, and buying and selling stuff — Newmark’s session focused on what organizers have learned about online community and its ramifications for business. What follows is a partial transcript of Newmark’s talk.

Folks, it’s about time to start this talk. I’m Craig Newmark. I have something to do with Craig’s List. The deal here is that I’m not real sure how many people have seen the site or use the site. Something really important is happening these days in terms of online politics, and I’m going to ask you for some feedback on what I’m calling the Accidental Populist for now.

There’s a figure in popular mythology who goes to high school who wears glasses, a pocket protector, and has no social skills. Those stereotypes have a basis in reality. I used to joke about being a recovering nerd, but now I embrace some kind of nerd militancy. The Internet is about getting people to talk to each other.

Back in the early ’90s, I was seeing a lot on the Net of people helping others out. People helping people. I was on the Well, and I thought I should do some of that. I started a list of events around town that I would just send to friends, you know, technology events. People started contacting me to ask if I could post things to the site for them. Then, in 1995, when the apartment shortage hit, we added apartment listings. We would do stuff, people would give us feedback, and we would respond to that. That’s basically our history.

In mid-’95, the simple cc list I was using — 240 names — started breaking. So I switched to Majordomo, and when I needed to choose a name, I was going to call it SF Events because that’s mostly what it was, but someone a lot smarter than me suggested I call it Craig’s List. People called it that anyway. And it’s helped. When we got hit with Nigerian email scammers, I took it personally.

Ask for feedback. Read all feedback and summarize. Do something in response. Repeat. That’s our fundamental pattern. I report to customer service. It’s the job of customer service to tell the tech guys what features people need and how to create new tools so customer service can operate better. Customer service is something that I’ve obsessed about.

Craig’s List is an exercise in the mundane, in the everyday stuff. It’s a community where people can get the word out when it comes to real-world stuff, give each other a break, and make their voice heard to be included in the Internet. In ’99 when we had the dotcom frenzy, people lost sight of the fact that what you need to do is help people out with the essentials.

We’re basically classified ads. But somehow, people end up feeling connected to each other. People started to date before we even introduced personal ads — through the roommate ads. When a guy describes what he’s looking for in a roommate, well, he’s being honest. Moving in with someone is pretty intimate. There’s a culture of trust and personality. That said, the site ain’t about me. I try to stay out of it as much as I can.

We get 630 million page views a month. That’s around 4.6 million unique visitors per month. Alexa.com does a lot of ratings how sites are doing. If you look at the biggest sites in the country, we’re probably the 35th. We’re in 35 cities right now, and the way we pay the bills is by charging job posters in the San Francisco Bay area. We asked users how to charge, and they said it was OK to charge job posters and realtors.

What have we seen over the years? People are increasingly media savvy. People can tell when someone is not speaking for real. People can tell when someone’s speaking with a corporate voice vs. a human voice. You go to a Web site, there’s a lot of happy, smiling people who are ecstatic you’re visiting their site, and you’re fairly disgusted with it. There are a lot of alternatives on the Web.

We’re making things change as individuals. There’s new forms of journalism going on. There’s social network software. A lot of things are happening. The Consumers Union has begun to use the Web to change things. You can go to the Consumers Union site and vote on things like California’s privacy law. They have something called EscapeCellHell.org . The electoral process is changing. The legislative process is changing.

Quantum physics is fun, but the only way we can change the world is by doing the mundane stuff everyday. And then doing it again. The everyday stuff we do is what really matters in the world. We need to develop a culture of trust and earn it again every day. I take misuse of the list personally. We also pay a lot of attention to privacy, due process, and law enforcement. I get a subpoena on my desk about once a week. Community feedback should result in changes, and you need to provide excellent customer service.

What have I learned about customer service? Customers are generally great at helping each other out. The first line workers know how to do things right, but it’s not a hot area. They need management support. Even disgruntled customers will help you out. And you need to engage with customers, not provide some sort of “black hole.”

You can actually trust people to do the right thing. If you do, they will. The number of people we have screwing around are a tiny minority. The customer service is run by people in the cities where there are Craig’s List sites. If you have a complaint about an ad, you can flag it for removal. If enough people flag something, we remove it. We get 1.8 million ads every month. And we get hundreds of emails and phone calls every day. In the discussion boards, we’re not as good with moderation. We starting to think about how to use social networking technologies so people can moderate the discussion boards themselves. Slashdot is a pretty good solution, but they’re more of a technically astute audience.

We still have problems with spammers. We get fake cashier’s checks, fake air tickets, deposits for non-existent apartments, real estate address harvesters, money wiring scams, and offshore operators. We’re doing what we can about this instead of being passive. The companies involved that you’d think would stand up for everybody involved aren’t. So we do what we can. It’s not easy. We could use some more help from the wire services. And spam is still a problem. The California Act, which was struck down, could be used by individuals. Can-Spam may be better than nothing, but we’ll see.

But out biggest problem right now is brokers in New York City. Brokers post listings in the general apartment section. People in New York want them in their own section. We’re working on it, and I call brokers to discuss it. But there are also unethical brokers and apartment list vendors.

The whole idea behind Craig’s List, though, is still trust. Who do you know? Who do you trust? We all run according to some sort of moral compass, and that dictates how we do things and how things operate. That is also true online. Treat people like you want to be treated and earn trust again every day.