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A Guy Named Craig

How a schlumpy IBM refugee found you your apartment, your boyfriend, your new couch, your afternoon sex partnerand now finds himself killing your newspaper.

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Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, in his San Francisco apartment.  

The Exploder of Journalism and I have an appointment at noon at a café near the Haight in San Francisco, and he’s right on time in the Kangol hat. To be honest, he’s not much to look at: short and balding, with a little smile and round cheeks with bright-pink patches of color. Modish glasses. Weighing in at 210 in briefs (yes, I asked). He says hello to Nico (the dog) and Steve and Misha behind the counter, then I follow him to the back terrace, where the Exploder gets down on all fours to give Bob, a white cat, some fish treats from his pack.

He wipes his hands on his black jeans. Cat saliva. Maybe that’s why I’m allergic.

His phone rings. It quickly becomes clear that he’s talking to law enforcement, and they’re trying to nail a child-prostitution case. The Exploder, who believes in good citizenship, is telling a prosecutor how to subpoena Internet-service providers’ info on bad guys, and how much he wishes they had artificial intelligence to help out. He pauses and rolls his head back, a sure sign that a joke is coming.

Unfortunately, our artificial intelligence is not that good, and when it is, it will kill us and take over, and then we’ll have to send someone back in time to kill us, and Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t good at that anymore . . .

Ha-ha. The Exploder of Journalism has a hokey sense of humor forged by Oedipal issues; the life sentence inside the short, round body; and seventeen years at IBM, where managers crapped on him and did not recognize that underneath that pink-cheeked, abrasive demeanor was an action figure called the Exploder of Journalism.

Let’s go now. My bladder is full

He has to stop in at Radio Shack, then get to his job in customer service (don’t all geeks who took the buyout from IBM?). I want to hail a cab, but this goes against his code, so we wait for the 43 bus. Being short makes it easier for the Exploder to deal with the bus’s lurching and swaying on the hills of San Francisco. He sets his feet apart and his briefcase on the floor and surfs the bus like the nebbish superhero he is.

When we get off, he leans in close. I brace myself for the warm breath of a personal confidence.

That’s good till 2:30. He touches my transfer slip. They won’t check you on the trains; they might on the buses. Roger.

Up some stairs to his office. A huge guy at a computer that looks like a modular couch and appears to be running a nuke plant swings around in his chair. He’s got a plate in one earlobe, almost a dish. I’m afraid to see what else. Hi, Craig, he says sweetly.

All right, yesit is. It is Craig.

In the past few months, I and countless others in the mainstream media have awakened to the fact that something we thought was benign and even modestly beneficial, if we happened to have a room to rent or something to sell, was in fact a wild beast, loose in the orchards. Craigslist.org is changing everything. A simple and free online classified-ad service started by the gnomish Craig Newmark in San Francisco eleven years ago, Craigslist is (a) where young urban people conduct much of the traffic of their lives, including renting apartments, finding lost pets, and getting laid in the middle of the day, and is (b) thereby destroying classified revenues for big-city newspapers, which are already in crisis, and so it has become (c) the symbol of the transformation of the information industry. Rocked in a Bay Area cradle of left-wing values, Craigslist has built a huge national community by word of mouth. The site is free and without advertising (with the exception of help-wanted ads in three markets), and it gets more than 3 billion page views per month (10 million actual users a month), ranking it seventh on the Net, not so far behind Google and eBay.

Craigslist’s largest category is New York apartments, where it posts more than half a million listings a month. Yes, half a million (many of these repeats).

The soul of the site is expressed by the simple populist formulation that Craig Newmark states over and over again when he is asked about his purpose: We are just trying to give people a break. Users throng the site not only because it is free, fast, and stripped-down but because of the communitarian values flowing from the founder. In refusing to take the business public or to sell any display advertising, Newmark has stepped away from many millions, he says. Maybe billions. His users all know that. The site’s only income is the $75 per listing for job posters in San Francisco, and $25 per listing in New York and Washington, D.C., earning a sum estimated by Fortune to be $20 million a year.


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