The Man and Mission Behind Craigslist

Type in Craigslist.com or Craigslist.org, and you open a window to a world of opportunities -- job postings, ad listings, apartment vacancies, social events, you name it.

"I placed the ad on Craigslist to free up some space in my garage by getting rid of a couple of my wife's six strollers," said one man interviewed for the cult film "24 Hours on Craigslist."

"I've used it for job postings; I've used it for finding an apartment," said one woman.

What was one of the Web's best-kept secrets is not a secret anymore. Founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark and based in San Francisco, Craigslist began as a roundup of local events but is now considered one of the top 10 Web sites in the world. It carries listings in more than 20 countries, 115 cities in all 50 states and gets approximately 10 million visitors a month.

"I started a simple list of what I thought were cool events, arts and technology stuff," said Newmark.

The Dark Side of Craig

Newmark said he didn't initially intend to call his Web site "Craigslist" but rather "SF Events." But a friend of his intervened.

"He says, 'Hey, we already [informally] call it Craigslist. Keep calling it that. It will signify that it is personal and quirky,'" Newmark said.

Newmark tries to keep his life simple. Every morning he begins his day by tending to customer complaints. But he also has to keep an eye out for Craiglist users running scams and for rude customers.

But overall, Newmark said, his customers are honest.

"The really big lesson that I have learned from doing Craigslist customer service full time, you know, interacting with a couple of hundred people a week or so is that people are overwhelmingly good and trustworthy," he said.

Newmark has, however, encountered a few scams, ads for prostitution rings -- even one in which a San Francisco woman allegedly offered up her 4-year-old daughter for sex. Newmark said other users or his staff often flag the questionable listings, and he has never hesitated to cooperate with authorities.

Despite his generally positive outlook about those who visit his site, the attempted criminal activities haunt him.

"You see something really, really ugly, and it stays in your head," he said. "In my case, I have seen too much ugly stuff and it haunts me."

No Silicon Valley Empire

Craiglist has a staff of 19 people housed in a dilapidated Victorian building in San Francisco. Newmark and his colleagues saw no reason to move to one of Silicon Valley's deluxe megabuildings. They liked their neighborhood and the local ethnic restaurants.

That lack of flash is mirrored on the Net. The Web site is not very pretty to look at, as it resembles the kind of billboard you may find at your local coffeehouse. Almost everything posted on Craigslist is posted free of charge, and that's how the Craiglist community and staff want to keep it, Newmark said. Craiglist would not be the same if he charged for postings or ran ads on the site.

"It would be a deviation from our moral compass," he said. "I don't see right now a way to do it with some consistency, regarding our idea of what is right."

Jim Buckmaster, who runs the site's day-to-day operations, acknowledged that Craigslist potentially passes up millions in revenue -- some say as much as $20 million a year. But he said Newmark and the staff want to stay true to their customers.

"None of our users have requested that we run banner ads or text ads," Buckmaster said.

The site charges for help-wanted ads in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and is about to start charging $10 per posting for New York apartment listings. But all that is done with the supervision of the Craigslist community, Buckmaster said.

The Newspaper's Enemy?

Craiglist has generated criticism that it encourages extramarital affairs, because one of its most popular sections -- "Casual Encounters" -- features adults seeking no-strings-attached sexual relationships. But Newmark said he doesn't judge his audience and that the site's visitors would ultimately find ways to pursue extramarital affairs anyway.

"People would find other ways to do it," he said. "It would spread to other, more legitimate sections of our site. The purpose of 'Casual Encounters' is to draw that kind of posting from other sections."

Craigslist has also drawn the ire of newspaper editors, who say it is putting them out of business. The billions of page views a month and the allure of free classifieds, they said, steal revenue from newspapers. Studies have argued that The San Francisco Chronicle and some of its competitors have lost more than $50 million a year because of Craigslist.

"You shouldn't take the money and run," Chronicle columnist Al Saracevic recently wrote about Newmark. You "need to give something back to society other than cheap apartment ads and funny, dirty personals."

But Jim Buckmaster rejected the theory that Craigslist is slowly killing newspapers, saying younger readers increasingly seek their information online.

"We have to keep our eyes on the tens of millions of users who really weren't well-served by newspapers, as far as classified opportunities that existed in the past," he said.

Newmark said he would like to help the newspaper industry and wants to launch a new Web site that at least links to what he believes is the best journalism articles and sites around. And he believes that perhaps someday he may branch out and hire his own reporters for the site.

The Nerd's Ultimate Revenge

Newmark said he was a classic nerd in high school -- plastic pocket protector, thick black glasses, limited social skills, the works -- and in some ways still is.

"At core, I still have a lot of nerdish tendencies," he said. "I still tend to take things literally, which is a symptom of that issue."

That a man with limited social skills has fashioned a successful life for himself that allows millions to interact and communicate is an irony lost neither on Newmark nor his team.

"It's funny, you see that in the tech industry," Buckmaster said. "Founders of companies, having done so because of their own social limitations [find] a way of kind of reaching out. I think Craig falls into that category."

Whatever the secret -- or motivation -- behind Newmark's success, visitors to the site agree that Craigslist is for the people, by the people, and maybe a revenge of the nerd.

To learn more about the documentary "24 Hours on Craigslist," visit http://24hoursoncraigslist.com/