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Sep 16, 2019

Craigslist Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to look at the computer that was the history of craigslist. It’s 1995. The web is 4 years old. By the end of the year, there would be over 23,000 websites. Netscape released JavaScript, Microsoft released Internet Explorer, Sony released the Playstation, Coolio Released Gangsta’s Paradise, and probably while singing along to “This is How We Do It” veteran software programmer Craig Newmark made a list. And Craig Alexander Newmark hails from Morristown, New Jersey and after being a nerdy kid with thick black glasses and a pocket protector in high school went off to Case Western, getting a bachelors in 1975 and a masters in 77. This is where he was first given access to the arpanet, which would later evolve into the internet as we know it today. He then spent 17 years at IBM during some of the most formative years of the young computer industry. This was when the hacker ethos formed and anyone that went to college in the 70s would be well acquainted with Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and yes, even employees of IBM would potentially have been steeped in the ethos of the counterculture that helped contribute to that early hacker ethos. And as with many of us, Gibson’s Neuromancer got him thinking about the potential of the web. Anyone working at that time would have also seen the rise of the Internet, the advent of email, and a lot of people were experimenting with side projects here and there. And people from all around the country that still believed in the ideals of that 60s counterculture still gravitated towards San Francisco, where Newmark moved to take a gig at Charles Schwab in 1993 where he was an early proponent of the web, exploring uses with a series of brown bag lunches. If you’re going to San Francisco make sure to wear flowers in your hair. Newmark got to see some of the best of the WELL and Usenet and as with a lot of people when they first move to a new place, old Craig was in his early 40s with way too much free time on his hands. I’ve known lots of people these days that move to new cities and jump headfirst into Eventbrite, Meetup, or more recently, Facebook events, as a way of meeting new people. But nothing like that really existed in 1993. The rest of the country had been glued to their televisions, waiting for the OJ Simpson verdict while flipping back and forth between Seinfeld, Frasier, and Roseanne. Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood won Best Picture. I’ve never seen Seinfeld. I’ve seen a couple episodes of Frasier. I lived Roseanne so was never interested. So a lot of us missed all that early 90s pop culture. Instead of getting embroiled in Friends from 93 to 95, Craig took a stab at connecting people. He started simple, with an email list and ten or so friends. Things like getting dinner at Joe’s digital diner. And arts events. Things he was interested in personally. People started to ask Craig to be added to the list. The list, which he just called craigslist, was originally for finding things to do but quickly grew into a wanted ad in a way - with people asking him to post their events or occasionally asking for him to mention an apartment or car, and of course, early email aficionados were a bit hackery so there was plenty of computer parts needed or available. It’s even hard for me to remember what things were like back then. If you wanted to list a job, sell a car, sell furniture, or even put an ad to host a group meetup, you’d spend $5 to $50 for a two or three line blurb. You had to pick up the phone. And chances are you had a home phone. Cordless phones were all the rage then. And you had to dial a phone number. And you had to talk to a real life human being. All of this sounds terrible, right?!?! So it was time to build a website. When he first launched craigslist, you could rent apartments, post small business ads, sell cars, buy computers, and organize events. Similar to the email list but on the web. This is a natural progression. Anyone who’s managed a list serve will eventually find the groups to become unwieldy and if you don’t build ways for people to narrow down what they want out of it, the groups and lists will split themselves into factions organically. Not that Craig had a vision for increasing page view times or bringing in advertisers, or getting more people to come to the site. But at first, there weren’t that many categories. And the URL was It was simple and the text, like most hyperlinks at the time, was mostly blue. By end of 1997 he was up to a million page views a month and a few people were volunteering to help out with the site. Through 1998 the site started to lag behind with timely postings and not pruning old stuff quickly enough. It was clear that it needed more. In 1999 he made Craigslist into a business. Being based in San Francisco of course, venture capitalist friends were telling him to do much, much more, like banner ads and selling ads. It was time to hire people. He didn’t feel like he did great at interviewing people, he couldn’t fire people. But in 99 he got a resume from Jim Buckmaster. He hired him as the lead tech. Craigslist first expanded into different geographies by allowing users to basically filter to different parts of the Bay Area. San Francisco, South Bay, East Bay, North Bay, and Peninsula. Craig turned over operations of the company to Jim in 2000 and Craigslist expanded to Boston in y2k, and once tests worked well, added Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, and Seattle. I had friends in San Francisco and had used Craigslist - I lived in LA at the time and this was my first time being able to use it regularly at home. Craig stayed with customer service, enjoying a connection with the organization. They added Sacramento and in 2001 saw the addition of Atlanta, Austin, Vancouver and Denver added. Every time I logged in there were new cities, and new categories, even one to allow for “erotic services”. Then in 2004 we saw Amsterdam, Tokyo, Paris, Bangalore, and Sao Paulo. As organizations grow they need capital. Craigslist wasn’t necessarily aggressive about growth, but once they became a multi-million dollar company, there was risk of running out of cash. In 2004, eBay purchased 28.4 percent of the company. They expanded into Sydney and Melbourne. Craigslist also added new categories to make it easier to find specific things, like toys or things for babies, different types of living arrangements, ridesharing, etc. Was it the ridesharing category that inspired Travis Kalanick? Was it posts to rent a room for a weekend that inspired AirBNB? Was it the events page that inspired Eventbrite? In 2005, eBay launched Kijiji, an online classifieds service organized by cities. It’s a similar business model to Craigslist. By May they’d purchased Gumtree, a similar site serving the UK, South Africa and a number of other countries, and then purchased LoQuo, They were firmly getting in the same market as Craigslist. Craigslist continued to grow. And by 2008, eBay sued Craigslist claiming they were diluting the eBay stock. Craigslist countered that Kijiji stoke trade secrets. By 2008 over 40 million Americans used Craigslist every month and they had helped people in more than 500 cities spread across more than 50 countries. Much larger than the other service. They didn’t settle that suit for 7 years, with eBay finally selling its shares back to Craigslist in 2015. Over the years, there have been a number of other legal hurdles for Craigslist. In 2008, Craigslist added phone verification to the erotic services category and saw a drastic reduction in the number of ads. They also teamed up with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as well as 43 US Attorneys General and saw over 90% reduced ads for erotic services over the next year and donated all revenue from ads to post erotic services to charities. Craigslist later removed the category outright. The net effect was that many of those services got posted to the personals section. At the time, craigslist was the most used personals site in the US. Therefore, unable to police those, in 2010, Craiglist took the personals down as well. Craigslist was obviously making people ask a lot of questions. Newspaper revenue from classifieds advertisements went down from 14 to 20 percent in 2007 while online classified traffic shot up 23%. Again, disruption makes people ask question. I am not a political person and don’t like talking about politics. I had friends in prosecutors offices at the time and they would ask me about how an ad could get posted for an illegal activity and really looked at it from the perspective that Craigslist was facilitating sex work. But it’s worth noting that a social change that resulted in that erotic services section was that a number of sex workers moved inside apartments rather than working on the street. They could screen potential customers and those clients knew they would be leaving behind a trail of bits and bytes that might get them caught. As a result, homicide rates against females went down by 17 percent and since the Erotic Services section of the site has been shut down, those rates have risen back to the same levels. Other sites did spring up to facilitate the same services, such as Backpage. And each has been taken down or prosecuted as they spring up. To make it easier to do so, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act was launch in 2018. We know that the advent of the online world is changing a lot in society. If I need some help around the house, I can just go to Craigslist and post an ad and within an hour usually have 50 messages. I don’t love washing windows on the 2nd floor of the house - and now I don’t have to. I did that work myself 20 years ago. Cars sold person to person sell for more than to dealerships. And out of great changes comes people looking to exploit them. I don’t post things to sell as much as I used to. The last few times I posted I got at least 2 or 3 messages asking if I am willing to ship items and offering to pay me after the items arrive. Obvious scams. Not that I haven’t seen similar from eBay or Amazon, but at least there you would have recourse. Angie got a list in 1995 too. You can use angieslist to check up on people offering to do services. But in my experience few who respond to a craigslist ad are there and most are gainfully employed elsewhere and just gigging on the side. Today Craigslist runs with around 50 people, and with revenue over 700 million. Classified advertising at large newspaper chains has dropped drastically. Alexa ranks craigslist as the 120th ranked global sites and 28th ranked in the US - with people spending 9 minutes on the site on average. The top searches are cheap furniture, estate sales, and lawn mowers. And what’s beautiful is that the site looks almost exactly like it looked when launched in the 90s. Still no banners. Still blue hyperlinks. Still some black text. Nothing fancy. Out of Craigslist we’ve gotten CL blob service, CL image service, and memcache cluster proxy. They contribute code to Haraka, Redis, and Sphinx. The craigslist Charitable fund helps support the Apache Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, Gnome Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, Open Source Initiative,, Perl Foundation, PostgreSQL, Python Software Foundation, and Software in the Public Interest. I meet a lot of entrepreneurs who want to “disrupt” an industry. When I hear the self proclaimed serial entrepreneurs who think they’re all about the ideas but don’t know how to actually make any of the ideas work talk about disruptive technologies, I have never heard one mention craigslist. There’s a misnomer that a lot of engineers don’t have the ideas and that every Bill Gates needs a Paul Allen or that every Steve Jobs needs a Woz. Or I hear that starting companies is for young entrepreneurs, like those four were when starting Microsoft and Apple. Craig Newmark, a 20 year software veteran in his 40s inspired Yelp!, Uber, Next-door and thousands of other sites. And unlike many of those other organizations he didn’t have to go blow things up and build a huge company. They did something that their brethren from the early days on the WELL would be proud of, they diverted much of their revenues to the Craigslist Charitable Fund. Here, they sponsor four main categories of grant partners: * Environment and Transportation * Education, Rights, Justice, Reason * Non-Violence, Veterans, Peace * Journalism, Open Source, Internet You can find more on this at According to Forbes, Craig is a billionaire. But he’s said that his “minimal profit” business model allows him to “give away tremendous amounts of money to the nonprofits I believe in” including Wikipedia, a similar minded site. The stories of the history of computing are often full of people becoming “the richest person in the world” and organizations judged based on market share. But not only with the impact that the site has had but also with those inspired by how he runs it, Craig Newmark shatters all of those misconceptions of how the world should work. These days you’re probably most likely gonna’ find him on - “helping people do good work that matters.” So think about this, my lovely listeners. No matter how old you are, nor how bad your design skills, nor how disruptive it will be or not be, anyone can parlay an idea that helps a few people into something that changes not only their life, but changes the lives of others, disrupts multiple industries, and doesn’t have to create all the stress of trying to keep up with the tech joneses. You can do great things if you want. Or you can listen to me babble. Thanks for doing that. We’re lucky to have you join us.