IT WAS officially “Craigslist day” in San Francisco on October 10th. But even Craig Newmark—he of the list—had to admit that “not terribly much happened”. Still, there was a good party and a documentary was screened on how craigslist.org, a plain but packed online bulletin board, has transformed the lives of many inhabitants of California's Bay Area since it started in 1995.
“Some people assemble their entire lives on our site,” says Mr Newmark, like a proud father. Indeed there are San Franciscans who have found their spouse, job, house and pet on Craigslist. The top two categories among its 3m classified ads in any given month are for job vacancies (23%) and accommodation (21%). And then there is everything else. The lady, for instance, who found solace among other owners of diabetic cats. Or the gay amateur porn star who seeks customers for his full-service massages. Flash mobs are big, and all events in general.
With 1 billion page views a month, mostly from the Bay Area and New York, this is the sort of success that most dotcoms can only dream about. What is the secret? “Our main purpose is to be a public service,” says Jim Buckmaster, whom Mr Newmark brought in as chief executive in 2000 (the division of labour being that “Jim does everything that requires being tall, while I stand on a stool in pictures,” says Mr Newmark, who is constitutionally unable to speak without humour). Craigslist is officially registered as a for-profit company and it does make money. But, says Mr Buckmaster, “the org indicates intent, in the sense that we're like a commons in medieval England.”
Mr Buckmaster and Mr Newmark say these things with total credibility. A deciding moment occurred in 1997, when Microsoft offered a lot of money to place banner ads on the site. Mr Newmark thought about it for a nanosecond, then turned the offer down. Instead, all the money—he will not say how much—still comes exclusively from employers advertising job vacancies; they represent less than 0.1% of all users. For everyone else, Craigslist is free. This generates, even if it sounds sappy, a genuine sense of community.
Craigslist is now spreading to other cities. There was no formal decision to go global. Instead, Mr Newmark and Mr Buckmaster read e-mails from San Franciscans who moved to Anchorage or Edinburgh and whined because there were no Craigslists there. Starting a site for a new city is easy and essentially cost-free, says Mr Buckmaster, since all they do is provide a web page and some rules. The new community then builds itself from the ground up. Thus Craigslist is now in 57 cities and five countries, but has only 14 employees working out of a flat in San Francisco.
“We don't think of ourselves as a brand,” says Mr Buckmaster. Nevertheless many of the big and more commercially minded dotcoms have had their eye on Craigslist for a while. Recently eBay, the world's biggest online-auction site, got to the front of the queue and grabbed a 25% stake when a Craigslist shareholder sold out. Not for the money, mind you. “For us, it's about learning,” says Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman.
For Mr Newmark, the thing to understand is really quite simple. He is a nerd, he is proud to say, and thus exhibits “the same dysfunction as my nerd brethren”. Ultimately, this comes down to steadfastly following “nerd values: once you make enough money, it's time to improve the world”. His home town loves and honours him for it.
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