What’s Next for Craigslist?

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Craig Newmark wants to clear up a few misconceptions about the popular community site he started back in 1995. In his keynote at the UGC Conference & Expo here this week, Newmark started with a joke and then said something that may have surprised users of the mostly free classifieds site, which almost seems to go out of its way to avoid profit.

“I don’t think there’s anything noble or altruistic about what we do, it is a business. It just feels like the right thing to be doing,” he said.

Newmark touched on a number of topics, including Craigslist’s growth and its plans for the future. The UGC (User Generated Content) conference is owned by Jupitermedia, which is the parent company InternetNews.com.

As Customer Service Rep and founder, Newmark doesn’t actually run Craigslist. That’s left to CEO Jim Buckmaster. “As a manager, I kind of suck,” said Newmark.

“Lead, follow or get out of the way. The last is really hard. Some continue to lead even though their management skills are limited. Fortunately I was able to get out of the way when we were a fairly young company.”

But he takes his customer service responsibilities seriously, checking on listings flagged by users as inappropriate or potentially illegal and reading e-mails. He says he reads all the e-mail sent to [email protected] and tries to respond to most of them that aren’t frivolous or deranged. “My biggest fear is that people aren’t telling me about problems with the site,” he said.

Listings that are flagged for removal are removed automatically if others on the site agree. It wasn’t clear from Newmark’s remarks what the threshold is. “It’s a voting system that’s like democracy,” said Newmark. “Like Churchill said, democracy is lousy, but it’s better than anything else. The flagging system is flawed, but we trust our community to help out. Somehow the whole thing works.”

Speaking to the theme of the conference, Newmark said any user generated content site has to establish a culture of trust to succeed. Community is another important aspect. Newmark said he grew up as a classic nerd complete with pocket protector and lacking social skills.

“That’s a big theme of what affects Craigslist,” he said. “You grow up and you feel what it was like to be left out. One thing about the Internet is it’s about inclusion, no one should be left out; it’s the biggest tent possible.”

Next Page: Q&A session

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During a Q&A session he was asked about future plans, including whether graphics and images would be added to the Spartan site and the strategy for mobile.

“I think the marketplace is driven by what genuinely serves people,” he said. “People getting through the day want simple and fast, not fancy client-side JavaScript. Robust? To me that means ‘does it work’? Cute or fancy graphics don’t matter. A lot of corporate sites insist on them, but they turn people off. When a site is so happy you wonder what medication they’re on.”

As for mobile, Newmark said the company doesn’t really have a strategy. “It works pretty well on smartphones and other devices already,” he said.

Newmark noted he handed off programming duties related to the site long ago. “I haven’t done any programming for almost ten years,” he said. “Speaking as a nerd, that makes me terribly sad.”

Craigslist hasn’t had any serious IT issues, as the site has expanded to multiple regions. Newmark said its infrastructure includes a few hundred servers running Linux and the open source database MySQL. “We do tricks like accessing the database as little as possible. Our hiring is far fewer than our growth and traffic would suggest.”

In an interview before his talk, Newmark said the site now gets about 50 million unique visitors a month and 13 billion pageviews a month for its 567 branches. “Those numbers are my best guess based on what we see and the different measurement sites,” he said. “None of them are consistent.”

Paging Dr. House…

Newmark also said he’s never done focus groups or user surveys and has no plans to. “As Dr. House says, ‘Everyone lies’.”

He also said the company has accumulated huge amounts of demographic data on how the site is used, types of transactions, frequency, etc. but has no immediate plans to release any of it or use it to develop new services.

“Part of me is at heart an academic and I would like to share some of the statistical data we have, but freeing some tech team time and scrubbing the data would take too long. I don’t see it happening in the near future,” he said.

Earlier Newmark detailed some of the history of the site, how it started as an e-mail list sent to friends of local events and then expanded to apartment and job listings. He was originally going to call the site, SF Events. “I didn’t even know what a brand was,” said Newmark.

But his friend Anthony Batt convinced him to call it Craigslist and the site grew from there.

An audience member asked Newmark for more details on how the site has become so successful. “You’re saying you kind of Forrest Gumped it,” he said.

Newmark credited the leadership and management skills of Buckmaster. He later admitted timing might have been factor, having started in the early days of the Internet in 1995.

Maybe we were lucky,” he said. “Speaking as a nerd, I only know one way to do things. Listen to your heart.”

Oh and that joke at the start of the talk? Newmark warned the audience to brace for some lame attempts at humor. “I suffer from ACS — Attempted Comedy Syndrome.”

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