WASHINGTON — Craig Newmark is wearing many hats these days.
In addition to his duties as a “customer service representative” for Craigslist, the popular online classifieds site he founded 14 years ago in San Francisco, Newmark has lately been consulting with newspaper executives, nonprofits and government officials, all the while becoming an increasingly active member of the Washington political scene.
Referring to himself variously as a “nerd,” a “dilettante” and the “Forrest Gump of the Internet,” the self-effacing Newmark sat for an on-stage interview with New York Times reporter Saul Hansell at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference here at George Washington University.
Newmark, who actively campaigned for Barack Obama, said that he’s not particularly interested in politics, but is passionate about bringing the same sense of community that is imbued in sites like Craigslist and Wikipedia to the government. He said he’s been so inspired by the early moves the administration has toward open, collaborative government that he’s actually thinking of scaling down his role at Craigslist to step up his consulting work.
“I’m considering whether I should dedicate a big chunk to helping the people who are doing the real change right now,” he said. “I’m serious about this and I’m trying to work with people throughout government.”
He even wore a coat and tie for his interview.
Of course, he also said that he remains fanatically committed to answering e-mails and mediating disputes in the discussion forums on Craigslist, work that he plans to do for the rest of his life. But his extracurricular activities have reduced his work as a customer service representative to a half-time gig, he said.
But the Washington of 2009, where he sees “nerds and wonks living and working together,” is becoming an increasingly hospitable place.
Newmark talked about parlaying his experience building and maintaining one of the world’s largest online communities to the government sector as answering a call to service. However the challenges of bringing that same model to the government, while maintaining a civil and productive discourse with the public, would be formidable.
A discussion board for the federal government would face the same problems with trolls and bullies that Newmark has spent much of his adult life purging from Craigslist. It would also be an operation of a much larger scale, and have the additional challenge of tempering the special interests that so often turn the political process into a shouting match. But to Newmark, it’s a worthy goal.
“I want to see the discussion board of my dreams,” he said. “I want to see a discussion board that can scale to millions.”
Newmark ducked questions about the two issues that have vaulted Craigslist into the news cycle recently.
Craigslist is commonly cited as the cause of one of the chief blights on the balance sheets of newspapers. Classified ads, what Rupert Murdoch once called newspapers’ “river of gold” that is now “draining away,” are a free service on Craigslist. But Newmark demurred, instead attributing the decline of the old-line media business to a crisis of trust. Mainstream media outlets, in failing to sound the alarm about issues like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the financial meltdown, lost credibility with the public, Newmark said.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of newspaper execs; none of them blame us,” Newmark said.
He likewise refused to engage in questions about the recent dustup with the South Carolina attorney general over listings on the site advertising sexual services or containing pornography. Hansell asked him about the strategy of “picking a fight” with the attorney general, referring to a barrage of increasingly belligerent blog posts Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster penned after the company filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order and declaratory relief in the face of the state’s probe.
“We don’t pick fights. We respond in appropriate ways,” Newmark said.
Hansell tried it a different way, turning directly to the lawsuit. “What do you think’s going to come of that?”
“I don’t know,” Newmark said, and he left it at that.