The Craigslist Phenomenon
Craig Newmark was the kid other kids picked on. Schoolmates didn’t invite him to parties. He got low marks in “plays well with others.” His sixth-grade teacher sent him to the school counselor, who fretted about Newmark’s lack of social skills, then gave up and taught him chess, one of the least social games on the planet. In high school, Newmark wore a pocket protector and black-rimmed glasses, taped together. “When you grow up a nerd, you feel like an outsider,” Newmark recalls. “It pretty much always sticks with you.”
Newmark, now 51, is still an introvert, still attends social events and wonders what he’s doing there, still makes wry jokes that can get lost in translation. “Feel free to look in the medicine cabinet,” he tells a new visitor to his home.
“Someone can be academically intelligent and be socially retarded,” he says, referring further questions about his social life to his hairdresser, who says, gently, that her client is more at ease with machines than with humans.
Alas, plainly said, Craig Newmark might just exist at the center of the black hole of the unhip universe. If so, it turned out to be the perfect place to create one of the hippest—and most popular—websites on the planet: Craigslist.org.
born nine years ago, the website has tapped into—or perhaps created—a social phenomenon, a virtual community. Looking for an online flea market? A job or an apartment? True love? A one-night stand? Want to vent about politics, share your raunchiest thoughts, find a bake sale? Need someone to paint your fence or baby-sit your kids? Just need a friend? Log on.
Kit-Ling Mui, a 24-year-old law student living in West Covina, found her apartment, sold her parents’ car and adopted a cat through Craigslist. Last August she answered a personal ad and met her boyfriend, Brian. “We’ve been happily dating ever since,” she says.
Chris Gilbertson, 33, of Toluca Lake, was an out-of-work weapons specialist for the film industry. He also supported a baby daughter. Craigslist provided his sole source of income for seven months. He earned about $900 each week hauling away construction debris—a service he advertised on Craigslist.
Leonard Becker desperately needed a new kidney. The 67-year-old co-founder of a Berkeley nonprofit appealed for a donor. Autumn Kruse, a 32-year-old office manager from nearby Albany, responded and saved his life.
With 800 million page views each month—more than 450 hits per second—the website has skyrocketed in popularity, enjoying an almost cultlike following. Nielsen//NetRatings says the traffic at Craigslist ranks in the top 20 U.S. general interest portals, with the likes of MSN, Yahoo and AOL. San Francisco is home base, but Craigslist maintains websites for 45 major cities, including Los Angeles, London and Montreal, and has plans to expand throughout Europe and Australia and into the Philippines and Bangalore, India. All this from a company that has no sales force, no publicist, no advertising, and has the visual appeal of a pipe wrench. No graphics, just lists—lots of them, all free. In fact, Craigslist is free to everyone except employers in the Bay Area, who pay $75 to post job listings. That sole source of revenue is enough to support a staff of 14. He’d eventually like to charge for job listings in Los Angeles and New York.
Not surprisingly in Los Angeles, TV/film/video/radio jobs is the most popular category, particularly for producers of reality shows. “If we can all agree that dog is man’s best friend, then I would say that Craigslist is a casting director’s best friend,” says Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of NBC’s “Average Joe” TV series.
“Average Joe.” A cast assembled from something created by Craig Newmark? Who would have guessed?
Newmark is sipping a latte inside reverie, a cozy coffeehouse with apricot walls and soft jazz in Cole Valley, a slowly gentrifying area of San Francisco just southeast of Haight-Ashbury. He stops by about 10 times a week, on his way to or from the office. Several children are in the coffeehouse today with their parents. One baby can’t take her eyes off the gnomish man, stout and balding with a rosy face, mustache and goatee. Newmark wiggles his fingers at the toddler and laughs from his belly. She flaps her arms and rewards him with a drooling grin. “We’re all biologically wired to love kids. Otherwise,” he jokes, “they’d be food.” And then: “As adult humans we learn to mask our emotions, including joy. Dogs and babies aren’t capable of that.”
Reverie is Newmark’s hangout, one of those rare public places on earth where Newmark says he feels comfortable. He has made friends here, knows their names and the names of their kids and dogs. He relaxes enough to free-associate, a Newmark conversational trademark. Talking about his upcoming trip to Los Angeles to meet with organizers of a Middle Eastern peace group, he mentions that people tell him he resembles actor Jason Alexander, one of the group’s spokesmen. “This is the smart Jason Alexander, not the one who married Britney Spears,” says Newmark, who adds with a smile: “Although I will be getting married to Britney Spears one day soon.”
Watching him, it doesn’t take long to see that he is at ease with the familiar. His discomfort is with first encounters—and as every shy person with a computer knows, those encounters come easier over the Internet, especially to Craigslist visitors.
Newmark grew up in Morristown, N.J. “We weren’t poor, but not incredibly far from there,” he says. His father, a salesman of food, insurance and promotional items, died of lung cancer about six months after Newmark’s bar mitzvah. His mother worked as a bookkeeper and reared him and a younger brother.
He left home at 18 for Cleveland, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science at Case Western Reserve University. He also experienced an “Aha!” moment of self-discovery. It came when he was a sophomore, in a language communications course. “I remember realizing that it wasn’t everyone else who had a communication problem. It had to be me.”
Among his conclusions: “I miss what other people would find obvious. The perfect example would be a woman may be real interested in me and I’ll miss it completely.”
While he was at his first job, as a software programmer for IBM, he enrolled in ballet and jazz dance classes to meet women. He ended up in the hospital with a hernia. “This is mostly a story of dumb things a guy will do in his 20s to meet women,” he says, laughing. He has had girlfriends off and on. “I would like to find Ms. Right and go crazy about her and settle down.”
Newmark worked at IBM for 17 years, first in Boca Raton, Fla., then Detroit. “I lived the Dilbert life,” he says. Newmark didn’t start preaching the merits of the Web until moving to San Francisco to work in computer security for Charles Schwab in 1993. That’s when a colleague, Darek Milewski, now at Oracle, introduced him to the early Web—and the first use of point-and-click browsers. “Even I was able to guess at the potential of the thing,” he says. In 1995, he became an independent contractor and began developing software for Bank of America, Xircom (now Intel) and Sun Microsystems.
The Internet boom hadn’t yet begun, but people were starting to explore jobs in technology. Newmark tried to help. To an e-mail list of about a dozen acquaintances, he forwarded notices about art and technology parties at an avant-garde art house, “Anon Salon,” and recommended the spaghetti dinners at “Joe’s Digital Diner,” an artist-run new media and storytelling group.
Soon friends told friends about the e-mails they were getting from a fellow named Craig, hailing them as gift baskets of sorts, filled with information about San Francisco culture. Friends asked whether their friends could be added to Newmark’s list. He obliged. In return, those readers contributed their own bits of San Francisco news for Newmark to recycle, including job openings and available housing. “He was really becoming the word on the street in San Francisco about what’s going on,” says Anthony Batt, a founder of Buzznet.com and one of the original dozen on the list. “It’s great to see that what has started out as a bunch of e-mails has become a sort of movement.”
By the middle of 1995, Newmark crossed a threshold. “We hit about 240 addresses,” too many to be distributed by a cc list. So he posted it for public consumption and “that meant giving it a name.” Newmark considered calling it San Francisco Events. But fans already knew it as Craig’s List. Batt persuaded his friend to keep it that way.
Today, Craigslist staff work out of two floors of a converted Victorian, near a yoga studio and a pizza joint. On the bottom floor are five tech guys supervised by Eric Scheide, a wisecracking computer geek who calls the Internet by the acronym, ANGUISH, a play on “Al Gore’s Information Super Highway.” The site is fed from a separate location by 50 servers.
Upstairs are accounting and customer service and an office Newmark shares with Jim Buckmaster, the company’s chief executive officer. If Newmark is captain of the ship, then the 6-foot-7 Buckmaster is Spock, his logic-driven first officer. It’s Buckmaster’s job to run operations and curb Newmark’s generous nature. Before Buckmaster signed on in 2000, Newmark hired staff without checking their résumés. “He will readily confess to making some fairly bad mistakes as far as people he has trusted,” Buckmaster says.
The CEO’s desk faces the window; Newmark’s points at the wall. There, staring at his computer for hours on a recent day, Newmark’s brain locks into his virtual bazaar as he personally answers 200 to 300 e-mails from users who complain, compliment or suggest. He responds to postings on his blog (Craigblog), where he holds forth several times a week about populist concerns, such as granting more authority to line workers, and safeguarding consumer protections, such as financial privacy. “I’m a pretty rabid civil libertarian,” says Newmark, eyes still on the screen.
Because he considers Craigslist a commons, shared by all, Newmark takes a light hand at policing. He leaves it to users to “red flag” offensive postings, and even then, he’ll chew on whether he should remove it. “Oh, Lord, let me get rid of this one,” says Newmark, muttering to no one in particular. “Someone just posted something xenophobic regarding Asian Indians.” He deletes the entry. “We’re driven more by what the community wants than what the law is.”
If anything ruffles the hairs in his goatee, it’s scammers and other nogoodniks. He speaks of using his “keyboard of justice” to foil the “evildoers.” Today he thinks he’s sniffed out a Nigerian scammer, one of a group of international con artists who occasionally approach users on Craigslist to purchase one item or another. Newmark tracks the scammer’s IP address from a city in Denmark to Lagos, Nigeria. “If we block the IPs of the bad guys, they can’t see our site anymore and we think that will help.”
In between bites of tuna sashimi, Newmark moves on to unscrupulous apartment brokers in New York City who charge clients for their services after posting their vacancies in the “no fee” category. Newmark pounces on the keyboard. He’ll block them as well.
The phone rings. It’s Newmark’s mother, from Morristown. He asks how she’s feeling. Before hanging up, he says, “I love you, too.” Then he sighs. “I would not infer anything whatsoever from our conversation,” he says. “Remember, it is one cliché about Jewish men and their mothers that sometimes we have awkward relationships.”
If there’s a problem, his mother certainly doesn’t know it. “I’m a very, very proud mother,” Joyce Newmark says later in an interview. “I’d love to see him get married to a lovely girl.”
Newmark insists he started craigslist just to be a decent guy—and he continues to feel that way. But spend enough time with him and you begin to sense something much deeper, an ethos pulsing quietly through his organization. Here’s one access point: Newmark has declined several buyout offers (he won’t say from whom). Each, he says, would have made him a multimillionaire. Craigslist isn’t about the money, says the man who just sold his scratched-up Saturn after 10 years and bought a hybrid Prius (and prefers public transportation). “Our philosophy is that we’re basically making enough to pay the bills with a little left,” says Newmark. “So why would we charge for something? We’re about people giving each other a break. We’re about restoring the human voice to the Internet.”
He won’t say how much revenue the website generates or how much he takes from it as salary. Fortune magazine reported this year that the site generates as much as $7 million, and that Newmark pockets about $200,000 a year. Buckmaster says the company was “pretty chagrined” by the figures in the Fortune article and declined to confirm or deny them. (The site would need more than 93,000 paid Bay Area job listings a year to produce $7 million in revenue.)
Newmark does say that his income makes him “comfortable” enough to donate to about 50 schools and nonprofits, including public radio and women’s shelters. He serves on the boards of the Inter-Cultural Arts Exchange, Climate Theater and the Haight Ashbury Food Program. He sponsors activities for local writers. And now he’s supporting another cause. “I’ve decided that I should help create peace in the Mideast.” He gave $10,000 to the peace group OneVoice (of which Alexander is a spokesman) and says that he may travel with its members to Israel. “And then I set up a personal foundation and sent two big contributions—big for me—to one group providing eye exams and glasses to poor Israeli kids and the other group, same amount of money, to Palestinian kids.” Each received $5,000. “The theme there is giving everyone a break,” he says. “By promoting reading, you promote literacy. You’re just giving them a hand.”
In 2000, the corporation started its philanthropy arm, Craigslist Foundation. Although it doesn’t directly fund organizations, Craigslist has sponsored a wish list for teachers who can request items at a discount from a local merchant. The Nonprofit Venture Forum has connected potential donors with nonprofits seeking funding, and each month Craigslist highlighted a worthy nonprofit. It also provides a link to an index of about 1,000 organizations in the Bay Area that promote progressive activism or help the disadvantaged.
Politically, Newmark served on San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s transition team, helping to develop a system allowing citizens to track the city’s response to complaints about municipal services. During the Democratic presidential primaries, he cheered Howard Dean’s use of the Internet to mobilize grass-roots support.
In Newmark’s view, the Internet is on the verge of becoming a powerful tool. “For me the big change is beginning to come right now,” he says, his voice growing strong. “When people see someone corrupt in office, they can organize together and get them voted out. That’s a big deal.”
Two years ago, Newmark inserted himself into a lawsuit, just out of principle. Paramount Pictures, Disney and other entertainment giants had sued the makers of ReplayTV for copyright infringement. Because the TV digital recorder machine has the ability to record while skipping over commercials, content owners feared losing millions in revenues. Newmark and four other ReplayTV owners requested the court’s permission to join the suit on behalf of consumers. Newmark’s intent was to stop what he called “rampant consumerism” by corporate America. “A lot of advertising is based on selling people stuff they don’t need and that’s bad for them. Like do most people really need an SUV?”
The court ended up dismissing the suit. Ask Newmark if he thinks it accomplished anything, and he replies: “How do you measure the spread of ideas?”
Newmark lives in the smallest of three flats in a 1908 edwardian-style building a short walk from Reverie, the coffeehouse. A long, narrow hallway leads to two small bedrooms, a parlor used for storage, a home office and an entertainment room with a 43-inch plasma display hooked up to TiVo. On the roof is a gray box providing wireless Internet to the entire block, courtesy of Newmark’s company. The home is a mix of serious art, photos of his brother and niece and nephew, snapshots of friends and their dogs—and toys. There’s the Kenny toy, from TV’s “South Park,” two rubber ducks and a rubber chicken. On his desk is a Homer Simpson bust. “I identify with Homer. He’s a very effective head of household. And Marge is a babe.” The kitchen is an afterthought. “I don’t use it.” He eats out or brings in most meals. His fridge has only sodas, batteries and condiments.
Newmark likes science fiction and prefers the genre’s classics, such as William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” He owns a cover of a special edition of the book, framed in the entertainment room. Nearby is a large poster from the film “Blade Runner.”
But of all his possessions, his collection of Leonard Cohen CDs perhaps means the most. “His music is the closest thing I have to prayer,” he says. Cohen’s song “Democracy” sums up Newmark’s ethic. One stanza speaks to sticking it out, doing what’s right, for the sake of democracy: "...But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that Time cannot decay, I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
“My feeling is that something connecting people to fix the world over time is the deepest spiritual value you can have,” says the man who believes himself inept at forging deep personal connections. His website might fix the world. But can it help its creator find his soul mate?
“I don’t know how to write a good personal, and it feels a little like a conflict of interest,” he says. Actually, it’s almost impossible to get Newmark to talk about his love life. He squirms in his chair. His cheeks turn red. He changes the subject by joking about the women of “The West Wing,” one of his favorite TV shows. He likes the character C.J. Cregg because she’s smart, funny and attractive. But she’s taller than he is. “I don’t care but I think she’ll care.” He also thinks Donna Moss, Josh Lyman’s assistant, is kind of hot. “I don’t want kids but if she wants kids, I could think about it again.”
Finally, he pleads: Talk to Tina, my hairdresser. I’ve been going to her for 10 years. She’ll tell you everything you want to know. Then he adds, “She has a master’s degree in psychology.”
Tina Balog is a chatty hairstylist at Head and Soul, a trendy salon near Fisherman’s Wharf. She wears jeans and blue suede bowling shoes with army stripes. Her hair is reddish today, but it may be different tomorrow. Newmark is an odd celebrity, she says, because he’s so shy.
Newmark comes every three weeks, she says. Since he’s practically bald, she doesn’t do much, just a little buzz on the top and some goatee cleanup. She feels bad taking 50 bucks for 10 minutes’ work, but really, the pleasure is all his. “There’s always this stream of gorgeous women coming in and out, so he likes that,” she says.
Then she takes a moment to consider the burden of explaining Newmark’s psychological makeup. (Her master’s is actually in counseling, she says.) “He’s not really deft at social cues,” she says. “He really loves women but I think he doesn’t know what to do with women, frankly. He’s socially kind of introverted and more comfortable with machines than with people.” But all is not lost. “We have this joke that if we’re not married by the time we’re 65, we’ll get married,” she says.
Newmark is chatting with friends at a party in Jackson Square, the historical district of San Francisco. About 300 of the community’s elite sip Patrón Silver tequila and nibble stuffed grape leaves in the loft where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in the 1930s. “Craig is like an underground superstar,” says co-host Amy Gershoni, who runs a graphic design studio in the space. “People will whisper, ‘Is that Craig from Craigslist?’ ” A blond man in a suit visiting from Manhattan shakes his hand and chats. A matronly woman holds out her cheek to Newmark, expecting a kiss. He pauses awkwardly, puzzled. Finally he grazes her cheek with his own.