Craigslist emerged in 1995 to connect strangers through a free web platform that has endured as rival services such as Zillow, Facebook Marketplace, and countless dating apps have sprung up with advanced features and sleek interfaces.
These platforms survive on revenue from advertising and subscriptions. Craigslist, of course, has none of that. Over the years, the online OG marketplace has all but refused to modernize. its mobile app was only released in 2019 after nearly 25 years in business.
The current Craigslist site retains its unmistakable 90s look. (PCMag/craigslist.org)
Why the website still the same after so many decades? That was the main question I asked myself when I sat down for a video call with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who joined me from the New York apartment he shares with his wife, Eileen Whelpley. .
Newmark resigned as CEO of Craigslist in 2000 after others told him he was not cut out for management, he says. Jim Buckmaster has been at the helm since, although Newmark remains a partial owner(Opens in a new window). He is now working on philanthropy(Opens in a new window) full time, supporting groups like the Coalition Against Online Violence(Opens in a new window), which helps to combat the harassment of women journalists. However, the 69-year-old entrepreneur is a billionaire (or almost a billionaire since he has given away millions).
Our conversation yielded much more than expected, from Costco hot dogs to Hello Kitty and her childhood Sunday School lessons. Clearly, the website is the purest and most enduring expression of Craig Newmark, a humble tech mogul who marches to the beat of his own drum.
PCMag: What’s behind you? A Wikipedia flag? And what’s in the black frame?
Newmark: Yes, it’s Wikipedia. I am strongly involved with them in my mission to fight misinformation on the Internet. And this frame is when I was on the cover of Costco Connection magazine. It expresses a large part of who I am. My mom loved their hot dogs. They are delicious and very profitable. I have very pedestrian tastes and am eclectic. I am very involved in the rescue of pigeons, for example.
Is there anything you splurge on?
Well, I have a new bigger TV now. And I allow myself to buy as many books as I want. But I don’t have a car. It’s more satisfying for me as a nerd to support my friends and family and make a difference. For example, Mabel Hsu, who handles Craigslist finances and my philanthropic work, likes Hello Kitty for unknown reasons. Up the street is a store that sells Hello Kitty shit. I think she needs some new Hello Kitty clips, so I’m going to go there shortly and bring some to her.
Newmark plays with animations during a Google Meet phone call. “Oh, that’s very Borg,” he said as he came across this one. “Like in Jean-Luc Picard when the Borg took them over [in Star Trek].’ (Credit: PCMag)
How many people work at Craigslist today?
It’s in the 10s – a mix between development, customer service and accounting. No marketing.
Did your personal financial strategy influence how you monetized Craigslist?
I remember Sunday school, and Mr. and Mrs. Levin – the main Hebrew school teachers at the Jewish community center in Morristown, New Jersey, where I grew up – saying that we had to treat people how you would like to be treated. And they told me to know when enough is enough. It’s at the heart of my philosophy.
Also, I don’t like banner ads. They slow things down, and they’re often a bit silly. It’s a decision I made at the end of 97.
Newmark compares this animation to the lawyer who didn’t know how to delete a cat face during a Zoom-based court appearance. (Credit: PCMag)
Craigslist makes money on listing fees, right? But only on certain types of ads.
Yes, things like job postings, apartment listings, car listings. I don’t have a perfect list in mind.
Since you founded Craigslist, so many other sites have been created by people who wanted to make as much money as possible. Did you consciously decide not to participate?
Around 1998, VCs and bankers wanted to give me huge sums of money to do the usual thing. But I decided not to. And again, this is not altruism. Remember, back to Mr. and Mrs. Levin – you need to know when enough is enough.
To be honest, I find myself resisting the simplicity of your answers. How was it so easy for you not to participate in all this hype?
Well, sometimes you want to do one thing and do it really well. In the computer industry, and maybe everywhere, people get ambitious and screw things up. I thought I started something, did it right, and gave up when it was the right thing to do.
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And I’m mostly a 1950s style nerd. Growing up, I wore a plastic pocket protector for real. I had glasses glued together in average and marginal social skills. Even now, I’m just faking or faking social skills. I’m generally oblivious to social cues and signals of prestige and status, so all of that means nothing to me.
So, that brings me to my main question: why does the website still look pretty much the same today as when you founded it? There is even a new CEO. What’s going on?
Because it serves people better. I’ve learned that people want simple, quick things that get the job done. People don’t need fancy stuff. Sometimes you just want to get through the day.
Well, you can always have simplicity with a modern font or a new user interface. The definition of simplicity on the web has changed over the years. Is it just that you make enough money and want things to stay the way they are?
I will challenge the premise that the idea of simplicity has changed. The thing is, people are still using the site in large numbers. And again, it helps people do something. It’s quick and easy for people, and it’s a big deal.
And maybe you don’t care too much about aesthetics (of the website, for example.)
For me, as an engineer, simplicity is beautiful. Functionality is beautiful.
How would you feel if Craigslist drastically changed in appearance or function?
I’m fine if the spirit is maintained. I like a very simple site with its use and functionality obvious when you look at it. Now, there might be a better way to do this, which no one has found yet. If it’s really better, I can’t object to it. If it’s really better, I’ll say something. But again, I can’t legitimately try to exert serious influence. Jim’s boss.
In summary, what is your most concise answer to why Craigslist still looks the same today?
People tell me it does the job. They want it done. As I like to say, a nerd should do what a nerd should do.
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