Interview with Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark Blogging with Martin Luther

The Internet is changing, but its primary benefit, says Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, is that it links up good people. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to him about virtual idealism, Martin Luther the blogger, and the future of online journalism.

The Internet is changing our lives. But is it for the better?

The Internet is changing our lives. But is it for the better?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it uncomfortable for you when you meet people from the US mainstream press?

Craig Newmark: No, it's fun! I like talking to editors and publishers. I do know that some of the classified ad managers are not entirely happy with us, but they actually like what we do. They just wish they had done it first.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: US newspapers have become thinner because of

Newmark: …the classified ad sections have shrunk, yes. But their online versions now do better and better.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is it about Craigslist that makes it so successful?

Newmark: It is a community service, a simple platform to meet everyday needs -- like finding a job or a place to live. We're a very simple classifieds operation with a culture of trust that works well in terms of connecting people. That's why I'm a customer service representative –- not a manager. I answer a lot of e-mails. Right after this interview I'll do some more customer service in my hotel room. I have a very odd schedule.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Internet seems to be developing into a gigantic data-collection operation -- like Myspace for example. The information Craigslist generates would be a marketer's dream.

Newmark: We deliberately don't collect data –- because it doesn't feel right. We often operate by what feels right or not. No business plans. We're engineers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But despite your efforts to gain the trust of the users, isn't the Web in the process of losing the last remnants of its innocence to commercialization?

Newmark: We haven't lost it. But since there's now such a large amount of commercial stuff, you can miss the stuff that's less commercial. The aspects of freedom and privacy are still there -- and might be increasing as people better understand that privacy is a good thing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do people need to be better educated about how to protect themselves from the dangers present in the Internet?

Newmark: Most people are trustworthy and good. There are bad guys that try to scam people on the Internet, but you just have to give users a way to deal with them. Our system has something called flagging: If something seems wrong -- flag it! If other people agree with you, it's removed automatically. We have just improved the tools to recognize flagging patterns.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of stuff do you mean?

Newmark: Someone trying to sell a plasma TV or an iPod that doesn't exist. Or bad real estate brokers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Meaning what exactly?

Newmark: In Manhattan, there has been a problem with real estate brokers for years. They practice strategies like "bait and switch" -- advertising a specific apartment, but showing a different one. Or they say there is no commission on an apartment -- then they take it back when you're about to sign. We're working with the city government in New York. They're starting to crack down hard on these guys.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So your users complain to you and you go after the scammers?

Newmark: Craigslist itself doesn't have any law enforcement power. But the New York city council does. When something bad happens, we try to reason with the person first, then we block them -- and sometimes it has to go further. Then, for example, we talk to their service provider.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That far exceeds the responsibility a newspaper takes for the ads it runs. Essentially you're getting involved in the transaction itself. It seems as though Craigslist is based on a pretty idealistic approach.

Newmark: It's not idealistic. It's based on treating other people like you want to be treated. One message is: The American people are still pretty trustworthy and good –- despite the actions of our government. As a people we're now beginning to fix those problems, helped to some extent through use of the Internet. The recent events in Congress have been very dramatic. And there will be more of that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can the Internet create and foster goodness?

Newmark: It's happening. People are good. If you give them a way to connect for good purposes, that will happen.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many people see the Internet as being somehow dangerous. How can the goodness of people be harnessed in the Web?

Newmark: You can let people vote. You can give people a voice for saying what they have to say. Blogging technologies give everyone a printing press. There are people who have good opinions and are very eloquent, and who can sometimes have great influence. I understand there was a very good blogger in Germany 500 or 600 years ago called Martin Luther, and he was very influential -- using an earlier version of the Internet.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Church doors?

Newmark: Yes. Some years later, John Locke in Britain spoke out, using blogging in the sense of publishing his own opinion, and helped create and justify the Glorious Revolution in Britain -- which led to a greater distribution of power. The same goes for Thomas Paine in the US later on. The Internet is just fostering that sort of thing today. It's already happening.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are US and international media becoming weaker because they've taken too long to react to the challenges of the Internet?

Newmark: A lot of opportunities have been missed. The key right now is to get newsrooms on to the net effectively. We need journalists to speak the truth to those in power, especially in the US. And we need to preserve journalism jobs -- because now, in this transition time, jobs are being lost. In the US, the big newspaper chains have been firing a lot of investigative reporters in the last decade. But they are central to journalism as a whole. We need more of them, not less. There is a lot of excitement about citizen journalism right now –- and some of that's good because citizen journalists will speak truth to power. But they tend to publish first and fact-check later.

Interview conducted by Christian Stöcker


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