Civil meltdowns like 9/11 and Katrina have only built that community. During the transit strike, Scott Anderson, a blogger for the Tribune Company, noticed with sadness that the ride-share space on Newsday.com, a Tribune holding, was empty while Craigslist was going crazy with offers. “Yet another crisis and Craigslist commands the community,” he wrote. “How come Craig organically can touch lives on so many personal levels—and Craig’s users can touch each other’s lives on so many levels? It’s just frustrating that even when we [newspapers] try, we more often than not find we are absolutely losing what may be one of the most important parts of the business as it more and more moves online—the ability to connect people to one another and to activate conversations. To not just be the deliverer of news and information . . . but the catalyst of connection.”
Craig is not content to merely eat away at the business model of newspapers by chewing up their classifieds, from back to front. He’s also begun issuing vague pronouncements about citizen journalism, the people—his people—taking the news into their own hands. “I’m working with some folks on technologies that promise to help people find the most trusted versions of the more important stories,” Craig said on his blog, further spooking the old-media types. Newmark has invested in a Website headed by Jeff Jarvis, a longtime journalist and blogger—“to organize the world’s news using the best of technology, community, and editors,” he wrote on his blog. Jarvis says the site will be up in the spring and aims to help newspapers redefine themselves at a time when the journalism world is shattering.
At media conferences, Newmark introduces himself by saying that he does customer service at Craigslist, and gets a laugh. But then he is seated beside Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (“I’ve . . . enjoyed his company,” the publisher told me in an e-mail) and is photographed making jokes with Martha Stewart. During one of my meetings with him, Newmark broke off to take a call from a business magazine that apparently wanted to picture him destroying a newspaper.
“That would be hurtful to people. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do anything undignified.”
This month, Newmark will be in New York to take part in a real-estate conference at which he will talk about a proposed $10 fee per ad to try to tame the traffic on the apartments site (the volume is actually a problem for him, because many of the ads are either repeats or scams), even as a new film called 24 Hours on Craigslist opens this month at the Pioneer in the East Village. He will also drop in on some real-estate brokers’ offices.
“The usual response is panic, followed by photography,” he says. “Somebody whips out a camera. Often several cameras.”
“You’re a celebrity,” I say.
“Not a celebrity. I’m a guy who may or may not exist. I want to assure all your readers that I don’t exist. I’ll add, as a bonus joke for all the physics nerds, I exist in a state of quantum superposition, simultaneously existing and nonexisting.”
The celebrity is a by-product of the large social powers that Newmark and his even more idealistic CEO, Jim Buckmaster, have unleashed for the list’s true adherents, struggling urbanites. “My whole life is based around it,” says Rachel Beider, a 22-year-old photographer on the Lower East Side. “It’s my only source. I use Craigslist for my apartment, for finding roommates, to get my cat, come to think of it—for everything.” Her statements are seconded by a 59-year-old artist on the Upper East Side who has gotten roommates, sold furniture, joined a singing group, and hired a computer repairman “for $5 and a Coke” through the list. “I feel like it’s revolutionary what Craig is doing,” she says. “I have isolationist tendencies, and for someone like myself, this has been a huge miracle.”
The only thread in Newmark’s autobiography is social isolation. “I was academically smart, emotionally stupid,” he says. “I can’t read people, and I take them too literally.”
Although Craigslist does no marketing surveys, the “power user” of the site is someone who’s not settled, who’s looking to fill basic needs. And this intense use of the site gives it its small-town feeling.
In December, a Boston woman who had left her iPod on the Orange Line promptly posted on Craigslist and soon got the player back, after describing her playlist to the man who had found it. About the same time, a woman in South San Francisco lost her dog and posted repeatedly on the list before she got a call from a worker at the Moss Rubber Company. “Even though my dog had a microchip, the real savior was posting to Craigslist,” the dog owner wrote, “where everyone goes when looking for something.” Rachel Beider misplaced her destiny. A few months back, she exchanged eye contact with a tall blond guy on the train, then got off before either of them could say a word. She went home and posted “To the cute blond guy on the L Train” in the Missed Connections category. Within hours, Daniel Atwood had e-mailed her to ask, “What were you listening to?” “Azure Ray.” This month, she and Atwood are going to India and Southeast Asia together for several months. “Do you know how hard it is to meet vegetarian guys?”