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Craigslist as Metaphor for Society
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Link-Up Digital

The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...

The poet William Wordsworth's words of 203 years ago are still very much relevant today. Yet the getting and spending of commerce is one of the defining characteristics of modern free market society. And one of the more curious aspects of the free market today is Craigslist (www.craigslist.org), the world's largest classified ad service.

Like the online auction behemoth eBay (www.ebay.com), Craigslist as a phenomenon offers interesting commentary about the larger society.

Craigslist was founded by, not surprisingly, a guy named Craig. Craig Newmark initiated the service in 1995, using email and focusing exclusively on events in the San Francisco Bay area, alerting friends. Soon others began using the service to announce jobs, then other categories came into existence. The services expanded onto the Web a year later, and in 2000 it expanded to 10 cities.

Today Craigslist's coverage encompasses more than 700 cities or larger geographical areas all over the world. Craigslist is the 11th most popular Web site in the US, according to Alexa.com. More than 50 million new classified ads each month are placed on Craigslist's sites, which are defined by geographical area. Ads range from announcements of community events to personals, from job and housing listings to for-sale announcements and service offerings in a multiplicity of categories. Many discussion forums exist as well.

Craigslist and eBay are polar opposites. eBay is infamous for leveraging its virtual monopoly status, continuously increasing its fees and earning ever-increasing profits, generating criticism among its users ranging from grumbling to outrage. Craigslist has remained true to the early Internet ethic--promoting the common good--and it has generated enormous goodwill among its users. Reading and responding to ads on Craigslist is free, and posting ads is free as well, with the exception of most job postings and broker apartment listings in selected cities along with ads for adult and therapeutic services.

When Craigslist is written about in the media, mention is frequently made that Craigslist could be earning far more money than it does and that founder Newmark could be fabulously wealthy. According to all appearances, Newmark is an idealist rather than capitalist, a technologist who takes pride in his work and who's a vocal advocate for keeping the Internet free. He spends a lot of his time working at Craigslist in customer service. He has indicated that he wants only

enough money to pay the bills and live comfortably. Craigslist doesn't even use banner ads.

Craigslist is a for-profit entity, having incorporated that way in 1999. Ironically, eBay bought a 25 percent share of Craigslist in 2004. Craigslist contended eBay bought this stock surreptitiously from an early Craigslist employee. eBay contended it discussed it with Craigslist's board.

eBay promised no meddling at the time, but it filed a stockholder lawsuit against Craigslist four years later. eBay claimed that Craigslist had "unfairly diluted eBay's economic interest," without specifying precisely how, but it appears that Craigslist doesn't try to maximize profit the way eBay thinks it should.

Only in America would you be sued for being a do-gooder. Still, Craigslist hasn't been without controversy.

In 2002 Craigslist put a disclaimer on its "Men seeking men" section but not on its "Men seeking women," "Women seeking men," or "Women seeking women" sections. In 2009, after criticism that its erotic services ads were being used for prostitution and a lawsuit by a local Illinois sheriff's department, it replaced its "Erotic services" section with an "Adult services" section and began manually reviewing each posting.

In 2008 a woman in Michigan was charged with using Craigslist in hiring a contract killer to murder a romantic rival in California. In 2009 ABC radio news reporter George Weber was allegedly murdered by a man in Brooklyn after the two met through Craigslist.

In 2008 a Vancouver couple attempted to sell a week-old baby on the site, with the couple later contending it was a joke. In 2009 members of Pranknet, a virtual community, were discovered using Craigslist to post fake ads and then shouting racist or obscene insults at those who phoned.

Monetary scams are also a presence on Craigslist, as they are elsewhere on the Internet, with bad guys trying to cheat you out of your hard-earned money. Craigslist provides good guidance to avoid becoming victim on its page about scams (www.craigslist.org/about/scams). PC World magazine, in one of its "Consumer Advice" columns, also provides some valuable tips (www.pcworld.com/article/188584).


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgoldsborough@gmail.com or reidgold.com.


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