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Craig Newmark interview

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2005-12-11

Craig Newmark

Craig Newmark (pic: Gene X Hwang)

In less than a decade, Craigslist has become the number one place on the web to place a classified notice. Used across the world from New York to Tel Aviv and from San Francisco to London, Craigslist is the way to place and read almost any type of classfied.

Looking for a new room mate, plumber to do some work, sell a car and even find a partner, Craigslist is the community for you.

But for traditional publishers who have relied on classifieds in the back of their newspapers and profited out of it, Craigslist is a real threat to their future.  People are moving away from print classifieds in favour of going online and using Craigslist.

Craigslist itself has inspired various clones and copycats, but there remains only one that has the global reach and recognition that this San Francisco-based company has.

Such is the interest in the potential of Craiglist that online auction giant eBay even acquired a 25% in the company which was founded by Craig Newmark.

In an exclusive interview with SomethingJewish.co.uk’s Leslie Bunder,  Craig Newmark reveals more about the service he founded.

Did you ever envisage Craigslist getting this big?

Not at all. I prefer to think of myself as lacking vision whatsoever which is a great comfort.

Before going on to the web, it all started off as an email list. How many people were there before you put it on the web?

It was several hundred. I was getting all these emails from people and said to myself, “I’m a programmer and I can write some code to turn email into web pages.”

How important is being Jewish for you?

I’m finding the values I learned as a kid are the values that work for me but they are the same values that pretty much everyone in the world is taught.  The ideas to practice what one preaches.

Some would say you business practice is tikkun olam – making the world  better?

As I recall it means being compassionate, giving something back to the world and making it better. I’m sure that’s also a matter of nerd philosophy as well.

I suspect I retained a great deal of that from religion school and I’ve just come back to the values which I guess I learned as a kid which I wasn’t effecting consciously until the last year or so.

What is your Jewish practice?

I’m completely secular. For me it’s more important to practice the essence of the religion and not the trappings.  I do have a rabbi, although he’s unaware of that – that’s Leonard Cohen.

Actual Jewishness has more to do with action than with ritual. I know that may be a minority view but I think the political situation in Israel could be better if people followed through with religious values.

What’s your family background?

I’m guessing, and I could use help, my family was in Germany when things grew unpleasant there in the last 200-300 years and I think they probably migrated through Ukraine to Russia. That’s a guess, based on some readings. They came to the States at the turn of the 20th century.

You lost your father when you were a child, what was life like growing up in New Jersey?

Fortunately I was not aware we were not well off. At college I wound up with lots of scholarships so that wasn’t painful.  I don’t remember much racism. I guess at that point it had become unfashionable which I’m grateful for. I had more problems being a nerd.  As a nerd that’s a kind of ethnicity that transcends actual ethnicity.

How do you use Craigslist?

I’m overly focused on dealing with serious circumstances.  I’ve used it for selling a car and I’ve used it to buy small electronics.

When listing countries and cites on Craigslist, why is Jerusalem and Tel Aviv currently listed in Asia?

Because Jim who is my CEO and who really runs Craig’s List now he like myself is an engineer so we take things literally and I guess in the most literal sense, Israel is in Asia.

You have also emerged as a supporter of the citizen journalism ideas, what does it mean to you?

It can mean many different things. This is my personal interest and not Craig’s List. In the US we have a problem where often the press doesn’t speak truth to power and that’s important because an inactive press seriously looking for what’s really going on can help keep you out of foreign misadventures. If the press fail to do that, we might find ourselves in another Vietnam situation and I was eligible for the draft then so I’m concerned on behalf of my nephews and nieces.

We have a problem with US government now and I feel with better information and more trustworthy information that will help out a great deal.

How do envisage the format of the display of citizen journalism – web sites, blogs?

I don’t care so much about citizen journalism as just observing ways in which media people are evolving their work. We are going to see professional and let’s say unpaid journalists, wind up working together and changing the way things happen. 

We may see networks of newsrooms and individuals doing not only writing but research and fact checking. We are going to need a lot of help in the future detecting when there’s been a disinformation attack because we’ve already seen that on our site and on Wikipedia where people will try to propagate false information for their own gain. We saw that in the 1930s, we saw that same techniques used in Stalinist Russia and we’ve seen something similar in the last US presidential campaign.

How does Craigslist deal with say a revisionist organising an event and placing the details on your service?

Typically in the case of classified ads, people will flag that for removal and the way the flagging mechanism works is that if you flag something and other people agree with you, it is removed automatically.  Things are more difficult in our discussion boards where people can flag things but it takes manual intervention to remove the items.

Sometimes I’ve had to deal with some ugly writing – the racism material and fraudulent material but that’s just life.

Have you had problems with neo-Nazis and anti-Semites?

Occasionally.  I do see hatred now and then from all sides. I’ve seen two guys who are both Jewish but are full of hatred they provide fodder for anti-Semites and they are not receptive to reason at all. So now and then, I’ll just block them for a while.

What is your involvement with Israeli issues?

I feel it is incumbent upon Jews everywhere to help achieve peace there. The situation in Israel is connected to everything everywhere. Most peace groups I have observed in my time have been well meaning but ineffective. 

I have joined one peace group which has the potential for being very effective, it’s called One Voice. These people are serious, they’ve engaged a lot of the community, government and media people in Israel and Palestine and they’ve done a lot of survey work asking thousands of Israelis and Palestinians what do you really want.

Everyone says they want a reasonable deal and they know they are going to compromise but they want peace. But they’re convinced the guys on the other side don’t want that. The problem may be more of perception than substance.  There are substantial issues but the perception is the bigger problem.

We do need media in the Middle East pointing out the commonality interests of both sides.  Unfortunately newspapers tend to cover dramatic events rather than basics.

What do you do for leisure time and hobbies?

I don’t believe in having fun, but what I will do is hang out with friends of mine in my favourite café in my neighbourhood.  I also enjoy, music, books and TV.

Related link:

Craigslist