I have to admit, I was a bit nervous when I picked up the phone and called Craig Newmark. The guy has helped me find every apartment I've ever lived in, four bikes and even a few dates. When he picked up the phone Craig asked me to hold on while he turned down the TV.
He then answered every question I had in the most polite fashion possible. In the middle of our interview the ever watchful Newmark did a quick search for his name and found a Twitter I had just put out: "I'm interviewing Craig Newmark from Craigslist in 20 mins, anybody have any good questions." After a quick laugh, I realized that Craig walks a fine line between two worlds. Actually, he struts across that line. He is an Internet sensation. One of the first real Internet gurus, yet he isn't a multi-millionaire, he hasn't retired to the Bahamas. For all intents and purposes he lives a normal life - he even works as a customer service representative for Craigslist.
All this combines to make Craig one of the more interesting people online today. And here is an exclusive interview for Broowaha.
So what do you do in the day-to-day?
For the most part it's me doing customer service in different forms. Until recently I did it full time, but I've been doing it for too many years, and I needed a break. So right now I'm at 2/3rds time and I hope to go to half-time soon. But I plan to do customer service only as long as I live; after that, it's over.
I generally handle abuse cases, spam or scams, or apartment brokers in New York who are going too far. So it's different everyday. Sometimes people will be bickering or harassing each other, sometimes there are cases of persistent spam that I take a look at.
I am part of a team - I am not chief customer service rep. I act as a rep and I report to somebody else. Just to be really clear, Jim Buckmaster really runs craigslist; he does it well, whereas I kinda suck as a manager.
What about your life has changed?
Basically I work more and I work odd hours. But the work is fulfilling. I can see that as a team we are helping people by creating a space where they can help each other out. My confidence in people has increased in that I can see that people are generally trustworthy and good. Sure, there are bad guys, but they are a tiny percentage of the population - and doing customer service along with some outside inspiration has given me the desire to take the ideals of craigslist further. I'm trying to do is take the values -- that I've learned and extend them in other ways.
Well, I know you are active in helping to keep journalism healthy. In fact, you've help to pay part of my salary while working at NewAssignment.net(thanks). What is your view of journalism and why do you devote time and attention to it.
To move together as a people and as a species, we need people to tell us what is going on and the mechanisms for that particularly in Washington DC, have broken down. And there are cases too where news sources that used to do things like fact-checking don't do that anymore. But we need good honest information and thats very important in the US, especially as we approach the presidential elections.
Particularly in citizen journalism.
I think we need to encourage more people trying to dig for the truth and sometimes a passionate citizen journalist will do better than a professional. Especially if the professional doesn't have the resources to do factchecking and if you can get a bunch of people to work on a story and give them the resources to get heard. We can hear things we need to hear now that otherwise would never have been covered.
I should say in all this, I'm no expert. I talk a lot to Jay Rosen, Ellen Miller,
Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gilmore, Arianna Huffington also I spend a lot of time talking to the folks at the Sunlight Foundation - because I think they are building the tools that I think journalists, citizen or professional, will figure out why things work as badly in Washington as they do - and how we can get it to be more transparent.
Will Craigslist Change?
I don't think we will change in the way you are thinking. The fundamental trend in Craigslist is more of the same. We will continue to do things better, we have to get better at dealing with spam. We will be in more cities and in more languages. We are now slowly building multiple language support - the first language is Spanish. We have to build in features like multi-city search - but fundamentally we do one thing really well and we don't want to screw it up. The stuff I was talking about in relation to journalism, that's my idea of a hobby - the idea is that right now for a short while people will listen to a few things I have to say, so what I'm doing is finding smart people who are doing really good stuff and helping them. That's not only in journalism but other areas too.
Where has Craigslist Succeeded and where did it fail?
Overall we generally succeeded with a slow growth and a 'trying to do the right thing' approach. That works for us. We've been lucky too that when we had limited resources we didn't do stuff that people didn't care about. The miss-steps were minor. Like in 2000 we implemented anonymous email relay for all ads for the purpose of spam prevention and then we found out that was a mistake for a bunch of people. So we gave people the chance of making their emails visible or using the anonymous email relay.
How do you pick a new city to launch Craigslist? Is it organic, or do you force it?
People tell us they want a Craigslist in this city. We accumulate a bunch of requests and Jim TK, when he is in the mood, he will look at who is requesting and how much Internet usage is in the city in general. We want to feel welcomed and we want the site to be used. And then he fires off a bunch of templates in new cities. It's a casual process, which works pretty well. We are not (Jim nor I) MBA people - nor do we have MBA influence in the company.
What trends online concern you and what trends online inspire you?
I'm hoping that people with goodwill are using the internet to connect and get stuff done. It used to be that you only heard the voice of the rich and powerful and you only got their perspective on things. But the internet means anyone who can say something in a unique perspective can do so. It's everyone's printing press and that is changing human history. For example with Israel and Palestine - moderates are connecting online in the hundreds of thousands and telling leaders they need to make a deal. In Wikipedia we see the first draft of history being written by the people. It used to be that the guys who won wars would write history - but with Wikipedia anyone can write what they think is going on.
My fear in all this is that there are bad guys out there - lets say front groups led by politicians or industries, which are good at lying to people and that could have bad effects as we struggle towards a more perfect democracy. I'm involved with Consumers Union Web Watch and the Center for Media Democracy and Sunlight Foundation who are getting good at exposing the bad guys, but it's going to be tough. They're exposing "front groups" like "Freedom's Watch".
Do you see local papers as competition on small towns.: Or would you join with them in a business relationship?
No one in the community is suggesting we join with them; People just don't place a priority or value on it. We don't think we are competing with local papers. I have talked with publishers and heard that local papers are doing well by focusing on the local. The ones that do that are succeeding. I talked with the publisher of the Denver Post for example and he said the national papers are doing well and the local are doing well, it's the regional papers that aren't doing well because they are not covering local well and they are not doing national very well either. But that doesn't make Craigslist the competition.
What is your favorite thing about San Francisco?
I've never been asked that specifically, what do I love specifically about it? I just like an urban enviornment. It's a city of neighborhoods, I love that neighborhood feeling. I am really fond of New York for the same reason. In fact, I just got back from New York.
What do you think of the recent Facebook debacle around Beacon?
From what I understand of it...it looks like they will fix it, sometimes it's easy to stumble; I've sure done it.
Who influences you?
I realize that, for me, one of the reasons I've consistently done Craigslist - the inspiration is a guy named Leonard Cohen.
Basically, he is my rabbi. I met him a few months ago and while hyperventilating
I told him that, the deal is, his music and poetry somehow has reconnected me to the world and people and deepened my connection with mankind.
More recently, there is a guy who has inspired me to do those small things that I can do to make life better for lots of people and the principle inspiration is Barack Obama. In the mix I should add in a small way I have been inspired by Madeline Albright who I've met a couple of times over the last year and a half. The lesson from her is, you have to keep talking to people even if they think they are your enemy. Because often they are not, or perhaps they have a point, or if they are part of an organization and then there are people in that organization who are willing to deal with you -- and that's how to get serious about peace.