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[berkman] Craig Newmark

Craig Newmark has dropped by the Berkman Center to chat. He begins by asking us what we want him to talk about. A voice opts for the history of [NOTE: I’m live-blogging, typing quickly, not correcting typos, getting things wrong, missing entire paragraphs, etc.]

He says that he got a better education than he needed at Case-Western. In early 1995 he wanted to give back some of what he received, he started some mailing lists, including for events, AnonSalon (a fundraiser) and others. People suggested new categories, including apartments. He was using Pine for email, but it started breaking at 240 mailing addresses. He was going to call the list “SFEvents,” but people said they already call it “CraigsList” and that it’s a brand. Craig didn’t know what a brand is, but he stuck with it.

He says he was a literal nerd in HS. He was not on the AV Squad [I was] but he was on the debating team, which led him to delusions about the effectiveness of rational discourse. He says he’s now comfortable with being a nerd.

Eventually he realized he could turn emails into HTML, an instant Web-publishing solution. Over the next few years, he refined the software. If a task took more than an hour a day, he would automate it. At the end of 1997, he hit three milestones: 1. A million page views per month (he hit a billion in 2004 and now is headed toward 13B. There are 26 people at the company). 2. Microsoft Sidewalk asked him to run banner ads. He turned them down because “I am an overpaid programmer.” 3. People volunteered to help. But it failed because he didn’t lead. So, in 1999 he turned it into a business.

He hired Jim Buckmaster “who is a full foot taller than I am.” He’s a really good manager. “I suck as a manager.” The culture there is that people make suggestions, they listen, and they decide what to act on. Also, it’s continued to try to be simple. And they decided to charge people who are already paying but for less effective ads, so they started charging people listing jobs and real estate brokers. “They asked us to charge them to cut down on certain types of spam, and on the need to post and repost.”

He’s always surprised people are willing to pay for what he does for fun. He’s generalized it to nerd values, including: once you have a comfortable living, it’s more fun to change things than to make more money. His business model: “We can do really well by treating people well and doing some good.”

He says he’s now going to half time as a customer service rep, after 14 years of fulltime. You sometimes see ugly things in customer service, he says. E.g., they saw ugly racist stuff during the campaign. “That takes something out of you.”

“I’ve only regretted giving my email address out once.” It was when he was on The View.

Over the past several years, they’ve begun to understand why CL is successful. “It has to do with the culture of trust we have.” There are bad guys but they’re a tiny percentage. “People look out for one another.” E.g., you can flag abusive ads. If enough people vote for it, it’s removed automatically. “That’s a flawed mechanism,” but it works better than not doing it. As Jon Stewart says, (Craig says) you do hear from extremists, but that’s because moderates have stuff to do. You should treat people the way you want to be treated. Corollaries: Live and let live, and give the other person a break. Nothing profound, he says, but it’s hard to follow through. “We’re trying to listen to people still.” “We decide on new cities based primarily on requests for them.” (567 cities now.) Novel ideas are rare. Most of what’s on the site is based on community feedback, although the child care section was Craig’s idea.

“I have no vision at all, but I know how to keep things simple, and I listen some.”

“We’re a good example of how people collaborate in mundane ways to make things happen. Not bad.” On his way to One Web Day he realized, “I’m a community organizer. I’m more of a meta-organizer.”

Nothing about CraigsList is, in his view, altruistic. It’s just people giving another person a break. “I figured I should extend this to other areas.” E.g., “I help people smarter than me help figure out the future of journalism.” E.g., Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen.

He’s also interested in grassroots democracy. Face to face is a better way of communicating but it doesn’t scale. On the Net, we get millions of people working together to make stuff happens. “This changes the nature of our democracy,” so that grassroots democracy can address the traditional problems with representative democracy. Craig thanks Joe Trippi and Zephyr Teachout. Now we have this big grassroots infrastructure. What do we do with it? “2008 is the new 1776.”

All sorts of things are happening. “It used to be that the guys with money, power and guns got to write the history and our narratives about ourselves. With Wikipedia, everyone has a shot at doing that…It changes the whole course of human history.” We are at a “singularity,” he says. We’re living in a time like 1776. It’s happening faster because the Internet accelerates everything. “I’m trying to play a microscopic part in it.”

He’s involved with the He’s working with ConsumerReports. He was involved a little bit in SF’s 311 number. “Mundane, but it’s part of everyday governance. In my fantasies, I apply that to all levels of government.” A bunch of this is in the Obama platform, he says, and we could see some of it next year.

Veterans have been treated badly by the White House, he says, so he’s on the board. To screen claims faster, maybe they shouldn’t care about fraud so much, since veterans and their families are suffering as they wait for their claims to be processed.

As a nerd, it’s a “crime against nature” to be involved in promotion or communication. But he does it anyway. For one thing, he likes the idea of more people getting involved in service. “I do have one message for the kids: Stay off of my lawn.” :)

“The Constitution will be restored on January 20.”

He says focuses on people who can get things done. He lacks patience for those who can’t get things done.

Q: Are there any ways Craigslist has gone in directions you couldn’t have imagined?
A: I never tried to foresee them so it’s hard to answer. I had to have my arms twisted to create personals. They’ve done much more good than problems. Like “missed connections.” I’ve been asked to perform marriages. In a way, the whole thing has been a surprise. I have no vision. I’ve only responded to feedback. It’s all very surreal, but that’s life now.

Q: Why did CL succeed in the early days, as opposed to doing it over newsgroups?
A: Part of it was that everyone understood mail and Web browsers, while newsgroups were hard to used. And newsgroups were ad-spammed badly.We have a problem with spam, and last week we announced a suit against a company that sells ad-spam software. We aren’t litigious but we thought that was a good way to do it.

Q: Has it been a problem keeping CL simple?
A: Keeping it simple is a habit. There are times when we have to debate whether there should be a specific category, or should people have to register with a valid email on the message boards, but I don’t know how to do things except simply.

Q: What about the deal with National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.. How consensual was the deal?
A: Jim knows the details. He felt strongly about it. There was genuine abuse of our site involving minors. We’re not law enforcement professionals, so we got advice from the real experts. There is that sort of abuse and we have to help out. We just started charging for erotic services and we’ll contribute all that to philanthropies. And how do you manage anonymity? Sometimes you need it, for whistleblowers. We tend to the anonymity side. But congresspeople want to know that an email comes from a constituent rather than a mass spammed email. We’re talking about ways to balance anonymity and authentication, but we do need anonymity as a kind of check and balance against an oppressive government.

Q: Does your exposure to some of the uglier aspects has led you to see a more expansive role for government?
A: I have become more balanced, but mainly because I’ve been doing customer service. The best label I can figure is “moderate Libertarian.” I’m looking for a better label. I’m increasing interested in private-public partnerships since I’ve seen market solutions don’t always work, like for health insurance. I’m in the Net neutrality debate and see people misrepresenting it on purpose. (He adds that most lobbyists are ok, and a small number are predatory.)

Q: You’re in many cities but it still seems to be geared towards regional breakdowns. On purpose?
A: Initially we just followed our gut. CL is like a flea market. People get together to do commerce, but really just to socialize. Penelope Green talked about our site being a market in the ancient sense: chaotic and vividly human.

[me] Why doesn’t your company have meetings?

A: We have some. But we minimize them. A meeting of more than six people is already going to be dysfunctional (small group comms theory). Effective communication is a meeting is tough. This also reflects my impatience, a flaw as a human being.

What will be the future of the Communications Decency Act?
A: This is the part of law that says that a site isn’t responsible for what people say on the site, so long as they take some reasonable measures. I think it will stay and possibly be improved.

Q: Have you had any negative interactions with the police?
A: Not really. Once the FBI called asking if we knew there was an ad for plutonium on our site. The result was that someone got a stern talking to from his parents. The police just want to be treated decently and not jerked around. That’s our customer service idea.

Q: Why can’t people search for subsections?
A: Mysql chews up server time doing these searches. We have some ideas for how to do this, but there are bigger things they’re working on.

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