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Party’s Over: Craigslist Goes Corporate

Biz touches on eBay’s acquisition of a minority interest in Craig’s List, joking about the effect — and impact — of the service’s founder’s “checks and balances.”

Biz touches on eBay’s acquisition of a minority interest in Craig’s List, joking about the effect — and impact — of the service’s founder’s “checks and balances.”

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Call me a Cassandra, but today’s 25% purchase of subculture-friendly Craigslist.com by auction behemoth eBay bears ill tidings for fans of the underground classifieds site. Maybe it’s the date (Friday the 13th), or the impending weather (two hurricanes off US coasts), but I fear the worst…

We all have our “discoveries” – the tucked-away restaurants, under-the-radar authors and overlooked bands that we hold dear. You know what I mean; those gems we only recommend to friends (and folks we’re trying to impress). It’s that funky blog that no one else seems to have picked up on. Or that hidden old-world barbershop that still offers a shave and haircut for $8. They are the unique treasures we collect, perhaps hoping that if we gather enough some of that uniqueness will rub off on us. But with everyone out there hunting, the good things eventually get noticed. For better or for worse.

Once upon a time, Snapple, Von Dutch, and Brookstone were off-beat little brands with the makings of greatness. Today, all three are fiscal powerhouses, pulling down millions a year (Brookstone alone chalked up nearly a half-billion dollars in 2003). Like Craigslist, all were once subculture favorites. But when absorbed by larger interests and adopted by larger audiences, they not only lost their gem status – that certain cocktail-party cache of cool – they also lost something much more fundamental to the brand: heart. Handled by outsiders and diluted by sheer size, each lost its pulse, becoming a zombie of corporate pop culture.

I’ve enjoyed using Craigslist ever since I “discovered” it myself several years ago because of the subset of people I always find there. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but the site’s lo-fi look and odd-ball postings cultivate a cozy, coffeehouse kind of feel. (In contrast to the franchised feel of more glitzy, all-in-one clearinghouses like eBay and Yahoo; eBay designers must be dying to get their hands on Craigslist’s drab two-tone interface.) Will more money and more attention transform Craigslist? No doubt. If you think otherwise, you’re kidding yourself. The question that I’m waiting on is whether the transformation will be for better, or for worse.

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