Craig Newmark insists that he's not changing the world.
You maybe can think of some classified advertising managers at newspapers around the country who might disagree, but he's pretty adamant about it.
Still, if you give him a minute, let him chew on the notion for a bit, the founder of the almost impossibly successful social-networking site Craigslist will cop to maybe something as socially insignificant as, oh, say, changing the way people interact.
"Maybe that's right. I just don't focus on that," he says. "Instead, well, me personally - I am speaking for myself, not Craigslist - I'm trying to help out other people who are really changing things, let's say by changing the nature of journalism or by maybe building tools for greater transparency and accountability of government."
Newmark is the Craig in Craigslist, the founder and chairman, the guy who started it all, the guy whose little adventure in Web-based entertainment listings in the San Francisco area has grown into a robust, internationally utilized clearinghouse of classified ads for almost any kind of service you can imagine.
He's as soft-spoken as his site is eclectic, the proverbial gentle giant. He'll very easily wax philosophic for 20 minutes about community and human interactions, but if you want to talk to him about the hardcore impact that Craigslist is having in the world of interpersonal communications or its economic ramifications, that's a little tougher. He won't, for example, concede that the newspaper industry is reeling from the effects of having its cash cow - the classified ads section - slaughtered, sauced and served on a bun by a site that lets you do everything from sell a car and post a job to find a pet or a party or a lover.
"That's mythology," Newmark insists. "Somebody produced a report with some guesswork, and a lot of people have taken it as dogma. We are affecting newspapers, but in general the newspaper chains are making a great deal of money now - partly, I'm afraid, because they're firing investigative reporters.
"But the newspapers have more to fear from aggressive, specialty job sites like Monster or sites like AutoTrader, which are aggressively going after business," he adds.
Craigslist President and CEO Jim Buckmaster seems to agree. Buckmaster, who Newmark is quick to point out is the managerial force behind the site, was unavailable for inclusion in this article. But in a Q-and-A-formatted story in the July 26 edition of Fortune magazine, Buckmaster talks about just how nonaggressive Craigslist is. And about how that seems to be working for the company.
"We operate with a public- service mentality such that we don't think in terms of competition ... " Buckmaster said. "During the dot-com boom, we were derided for our noncompetitive approach. But of the hundreds of Web companies founded between 1995 and 2000, we're one of only a handful that survived and prospered."
Still, there's no way this site isn't a thorn in the side of lots of media outlets. But so what, right? Craigslist is doing exactly what it set out to do - even if, at the time he set out, Newmark really had no idea what he was doing. And he certainly had no idea that 12 years later, there would be a Craigslist in 450 cities around the world, with more on the immediate horizon.
You know the story; everyone does. It's as old as time itself: Boy wants to give people an easy way to figure out where their favorite local bands are playing. Boy starts little, local Web site to do just that. Boy becomes world famous and his name - literally - becomes synonymous with the quickly blossoming concept of online social networking.
"To be honest, I had no vision at all. I just started," Newmark says. "I saw a lot of other people helping each other out. I figured I should give back a little, and so I started a simple events list. People suggested more stuff, and I followed through. And people suggested more, and I followed through. And now to this day, we're listening to what people need and trying to follow through.
"The idea is that we are all bombarded with stuff that is unneccesarily complicated or slow, so we're trying to be fast and simple," he explains.
Fair enough. And simple enough. Simplicity seems to be key in Newmark's world. The site, like the founder himself, is almost disarmingly void of bells and whistles - neither of them at all what you would expect considering the buzz.
Newmark likes that a New York Times article once described Craigslist as a "marketplace in the ancient sense - chaotic, unruly and vividly human." That's not surprising, considering that he himself likens the site to a flea market, the Roman Forum or Greek agora.
"We created a site where people are encouraged to treat each other like people. We deal with inappropriate discourse based on what we are told by the community and, as a result, our atmosphere is kind of like a flea market, and I guess that is unusual," he says. "That comes at some cost to us because sometimes that means we have to deal with stuff that is kind of ugly, but it feels like the right approach."
The irony, of course, is that this "ancient marketplace" is built on cutting-edge technology and was started at a time well before everybody and his brother was connecting, interacting and transacting online.
If you don't know what Craigslist "does," then you probably also aren't aware that Nelson Mandela has been freed from prison, John Lennon is dead, and Milli Vanilli lip-synched all of its music. It's a massively popular site that allows users to post and respond to ads for goods and services, dating and other sorts of relationships, entertainment information, house and apartment hunting, jobs, and myriad other things.
It used to be that the vast majority of employment posts were for less-than-traditional jobs - lots of internships and volunteer work, modeling, acting, work-at-home and freelance gigs. But the jobs are getting increasingly more mainstream as companies recognize that the sharpest, most tech-savvy candidates are logging on to Craigslist and might not even pick up the Sunday newspaper. CEO Buckmaster, by the way, found his job at Craigslist on Craigslist.
Plus it's all free (save for fees charged to post housing and employment ads in some areas).
The major challenges behind the scenes at Craigslist are twofold: tracking trends and user requests that could lead to content or format changes, and making sure the site is as safe as possible for users.
Despite his role as founder, Newmark says he mainly is a customer service rep for Craigslist and that he spends a lot of his time on the latter.
"I do light moderation of the discussion boards. I'll handle unfortunate situations with apartment brokers and roommate finders in New York City. And there are always petty cases of harassment and so on, and sometimes I'll have to expedite in a legal matter," he says. "And so there is a lot of miscellaneous stuff. Sometimes I'll go after persistent spammers or scammers - that kind of thing.
"I'm in a pretty odd place within our little company since I'm the founder, and yet I act as a customer service rep," he says. "In terms of the leadership in general, Jim Buckmaster is a better manager than I am. The bottom line is that he runs things. He makes decisions at that level; he deals with legal stuff; he provides general overall direction; he will make tough calls if needed; and he is much better at the tough stuff than I ever was."
Buckmaster also is the one listening to user feedback and using it to make decisions about how the site will evolve. Right now, the push is for Craigslist sites in more cities, as well as sites in languages other than English - both user requests and both in the works.
Newmark says Craigslist also is looking to improve its search functionality so that users can search more than one city at once and to make it possible for users to provide visual elements with their ads and posts.
Newmark's deference to Buckmaster in terms of management and to other members of his team - "I was a pretty good programmer. There are a lot better. Probably my whole tech staff is better than I ever was" - is a reflection of what might be one of the most important pieces of information when it comes to running a successful Internet enterprise: Let people do what they do best.
"Web ventures are best run by techies," Buckmaster is quoted as saying in the Fortune story. If that means your founder is more comfortable in a customer service role, so be it.
Craigslist currently has 24 employees and is looking to expand its technical staff. But despite 25 percent ownership interest by online auction giant eBay, Newmark says the plan is to keep Craigslist "small."
"We have to stay small," he says, explaining that Craigslist's success lies firmly in the personal nature of the interactions and the mostly unfettered conduct of its users.
"It's interaction like people seemed to want to interact when there were no artificial restraints involved, like the perceived need to behave formally, to put emotional distance between people," Newmark says. "I guess it's the difference between a flea market and a very high-end store. We're way on the flea market side."
Craigslist, he believes, thrives because it "created a culture of trust" both with and among its users. And he has no plans to move away from that: "I think that's maintainable over the next couple hundred years. By that point, we'll hit a huge technological singularity of an unpredictable nature. We may just turn all into blobs of energy or something."