Keynote Conversation with Craig Newmark

Dec 4, 2007 - 12:51 pm 1 by
Filed Under PubCon 2007

Keynote Conversation with Craig Newmark

Good morning, my friends! We have a huge Pubcon today! In fact, Brett says that this is the biggest Pubcon ever.

Craig comes up and tells us that "we're providing a community service, but there's really nothing altruistic about it. We're not a nonprofit. We're a for-profit community service."

Craig says that people are allowed to liveblog. Thank you for your permission, Craig. :) (He says he liveblogged yesterday. Good. I'm not the only one who does this kind of thing.)

Craig says that he's not running things at all in Craigslist. He said that in 2000, his management skills were not adequate for the job - so Jim Buckmaster is now CEO. He now does customer service.

He's pitching a lot about smartphones. He says that smartphones will become smarter than we are.

The deal is that in '94, he was at Charles Schwab (the brokerage firm) and liked the informational nature of these companies where the Internet was going to lead the direction. He saw how people abused Usenet and he wanted to grasp the "tragedy of the commons," when a public resource that is largely free, people will abuse the commons and you'll have a real problem (like spam).

So he started a mailing list (a CC list using PINE - yay!) and was telling people what was happening in San Francisco at the time. Back then, he was talking about events and venues. It started spreading via word of mouth and ultimately people were asking to join the list. Eventually, people wanted to sell things (apartments, items, jobs, etc).

So, back then, in 95, the list grew to about 240 members and PINE had an email address limitation. His friend then set up a Majordomo mailing list (called SF-events). But his friends said that people were already calling it "Craigslist" because it's personal and quirky. It was a lesson in branding and establishing an identity.

[The net became people's printing press - and now, if you see bloggers practicing this. (His blog is]

He got an email from a colleague who said that he needed to personalize emails with tags (e.g. Job in San Francisco) and he implemented that. So he wrote code and turned the emails to HTML and published this into his website. PINE makes it very flexible because you can pipe it into a Perl script and that would process it into a webpage - this worked.

In '97, three milestones were hit: 1 million pageviews per month Microsoft wanted to run banner ads. He decided he didn't need the money and declined. It wasn't a value judgment; it just didn't feel right. It wasn't about being noble or altruistic; it was just about what felt right. Some folks approached Craig and wanted to run the site as a volunteer operation (non-profit). In '98, they tried that (charging for job postings) and it worked out a bit (the job postings were paid) but the volunteer operation was a failure possibly because of Craig's management skills (he says he doesn't lead as much since he was doing a lot more contracted work).

In '99, he turned Craigslist into an actual company. He realized that his hobby became his business.

He also rewrote the code in '99. Version 2 was released then and nothing significant has changed in the last 8 years.

Jim brought the company up and they introduced new cities. New York was one of them and picked up in October of 2001 - one event probably triggered that traffic.

They provided anonymous relays for email in some cases, but people now had the option to make it visible if they wanted it for personal branding.

Real estate ads and job listings are the only things being charged right now.

Now, he's doing customer service but he's part of a team of Customer Service reps. He is the founder of the company but reports to a guy named Clint. It felt right for him. Only recently have people been asking "why is Craigslist successful?" They have only 9 billion pageviews per month with Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl. They have a very awesome caching system (that they'd like to make open source). The server farm consists of 120 cheap generic machines at a colocation facility. And yet, it's still running on PINE.

So why is the site taking the path that it's going? It's about an idea of shared values. No matter where you are in the world or your cultural background, people believe that they should take a break. Humans have a "live and let live" attitude. The deal is that everyone seems to believe that you should be treated as you want to be treated.

And if there's any bad intentions, you can "flag for removal" to delete any spammy articles. Of course, this has been gamed but they have safeguards for that. Democracy is a poor form of government but it's the best kind that we've tried, he says.

The internet is everyone's printing press. It's pretty good, pretty democratic - but the problem is that people don't always pay attention to your stuff. It's an ongoing and painful problem to deal with. Something big is happening and we're seeing that ordinary people are getting together and are changing things on a massive scale. The changes we see are like what we've seen 300-400 years ago (he says he has an interest in history). We're seeing that in the elections (like Barack Obama), people are committed to change the things that are being run in Washington so they can open up how people see things. We see the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) to fight the Telecom Amnesty Bill and to fight for our rights online.

Now there is a Q&A:

Q: Thanks for the inspiring speech! (Applause from a lot of the people). I'm some of a marketing guy and wanted to understand the technical things. Is it really true that you have 9 billion pageviews on about 120 servers? A: Yes, we do. Our database servers are heavy duty and have redundant arrays. Q: How do I call Craigslist and get you on the phone? A: We'd rather you read the FAQ first. But if you want to call me, my phone number is listed. You can also email me at craig (at) craigslist (dot) org. I handle mostly abuse cases.

Q: How can people do business on Craigslist? How can Search Engine Marketers ethically use Craigslist to use links? A: It's simple common sense stuff. You go to our site, you pick out the city you want to advertise in, you pick out the categories and check them out. Check out how people use that category and post your ads there. The idea is that every site has its own culture. Every site is a place in the virtual sense and when you go to a virtual place, you try to fit in - that's how you use the site ethically. I know there's a temptation as a search engine marketer to put links in, and you don't want to be flagged. If you're misbehaving, you might get an email from me or Clint, or if you're really unlucky, Annette. Just use it well.

Q: What about wedding announcements on your site? A: I've gotten at least 2 invitations to weddings. Same applies to missed connections. I do have to explain that by virtue of running a site, that does not authorize me to officiate at a wedding (that's assuming you want it to be legal). We hear about other stuff - there have been 3 successful kidney donations through our site. We don't want to screw it up though, so we're not promoting it.

Q: I know there's a little back and forth with regards to making mashups (with some being disallowed whereas others are allowed), so do you plan on releasing an API? A: People use our RSS feeds and search for that, but we're not sure if there's such a need for that. We're not getting enthusiasm from the ordinary people. Some people want fast and secure stuff, and others have to add features that have to be added.


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