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December 4, 2007

Kickoff Keynote with Craig Newmark

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Okay, after surviving the registration line from hell, Susan and I are both seated at this morning’s kickoff keynote with Craigslist creator Craig Newmark. She’s going to follow the advice I laid out in my guide to liveblogging and pre-write some entries while I shell out some of my insightful recap coverage. Or something. I’m actually not sure what’s about to happen. I wasn’t provided with coffee this morning.

Brett Tabke is up and already taking shots at Chicago. Heh. Ooo, and now he just dissed premier sponsor Microsoft saying they’re doing a great job "trying to get in the game". Methinks Brett isn’t winning friends this morning.

Brett says Craig doesn’t need any introduction. He’s Craig from Craiglist. He’s "one of us". He built a site and stood by it all these years. And with that, Craig is up.

He says he’ll be talking a little bit about Craigslist and what he’s learned by doing Craigslist. How it fits into the whole concept of what’s happening on the Internet. He doesn’t feel that what Craigslist is doing is noble or altruistic. They’re providing a community service. They do it the way they do because it feels right. It’s not noble. They’re not a nonprofit. They’re a weird for profit community service.

Craig says he’s okay with people liveblogging. Um, good, because I had no intention of stopping. ;)

Craig starts off talking about Craigslist and says that in 2000, people let him know his management skills were not adequate for the job (heh). At that point, he decided to step down and focus solely on customer service.

The deal with Craigslist is that in 1994 he was at Charles Schwab. He was evangelizing the Web and saying that any kind of brokerage is largely an information service. This was the direction a lot of businesses would go. The Internet would be the platform for a lot of this stuff. He looked around and saw people were helping each other a lot. By the time 1995 rolled around, he started a simple mailing list using an old email tool called Pine where he was telling 10-12 friends what was going on in San Francisco. He didn’t know what he was doing but he was using a CC list to tell his friends about cool stuff. Word of mouth started and the list began growing. Over time, people would ask him to list things for sale (apartments, jobs, products, etc). It happened naturally.

[Tangent: Craig says he represented the nerd stereotype in high school. He had a plastic pocket protector, thick black glasses taped together and the social skills to go along with that. He says that you can learn social skills, but you never forget what it feels like to be like that. To be socially disenfranchised and isolated. Aw. That’s kind of sad. And why people adopt cats.]

In the middle of 1995, he was looking for a name for his email list. The people around him told him that they were already calling his list "Craigs list" and that he should continue using that. It guaranteed that it would always stay quirky and unique. That was his first lesson in branding and identity.

Around that time he got an email from someone suggesting he use tags on his emails to identity what kind of product or service the email was about. If it was an apartment, put "apartment" in the subject line. It was a great idea that Craig had never thought of.

During this time, Craig was plugging away as an overpaid software contractor. He was working on home banking at Bank of America. It was interesting stuff but the site he had created from the email list (I think we missed a step…) was getting bigger. In 1997, the site hit a million page views per month, folks from Microsoft Sidewalk approached him wanting to run banner ads (he declined because it didn’t feel right), and he was asked to turn the site into a nonprofit volunteer operation. In 1998, they started charging for job postings.

He began taking control of the site, and in the first few months of 1999, he started making Craigslist into an actual company. If you’re working freelance or consulting, at some point, what was once a hobby becomes an actual business. He did some hiring. As a manager, he says the suckage was considerable. Ha. He did one thing really smart. He hired a guy name Jim Buckmaster and he’s been really good. Shortly after that, Craig taught himself Perl and rewrote the code for Craigslist. Since then, he hasn’t done any significant programming to the site.

Craig says people often refer to him as the Paris Hilton of the net because of his George Costanza magnetism.

It’s been a slow, continuous growth for Craigslist. They’re the tortoise in the tortoise in the hare. Neither him nor Jim are MBAs. They’re programmers. They make things up as they go along. Their business model hasn’t really evolved. They charge for job postings in 11 cities and they charge for apartment listings in NYC. The people who they’re charging asked them to charge them.

He goes to NY a lot and when he’s roaming around the neighborhoods he drops in on real estate agencies. The reaction is disbelief, panic and then photography. Hee! He says many of the people don’t believe that he exists and he likes to encourage that. (Susan is the same way.)

He does customer service, not management, because that’s what feels right to him, Only recently have people asked him why he thinks Craigslist is successful. They just keep plugging away. The technology keeps improving. His guys do remarkable work. They’ve written their own caching system which they hope to open source once they hire more programmers. They’re running on a server farm of 120 Linux machines. The majority of their desktops and notebooks run Linux with a splash of Mac and a little bit of Windows. As things evolved, the usual email tool is a highly advanced email tool (look for Susan’s duplicate content session recap next!)

People keep asking him why they’re taking the path that they have. He says they have no intention of selling the site. They’re charging for less than 1 percent of it. There’s nothing noble about it. They’re just doing what feels right. They run the site based off the idea of shared values. People believe they should give each other a break every once and while. The deal is that everyone seems to believe in the notion that you want to treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s why the site works. He’s been doing customer service for a long time. People in our community are overwhelming good and trustworthy. Yes, there are bad guys, but they’re less than 1 percent of the population. The reason you hear more from extremists is because the more moderate people have stuff to do. If you trust your community, they’ll respond in a trustworthy way. That’s why they allow their community to flag stuff for removal.

When you think about the role that the Internet is playing in our culture, you get the sense that something big is happening. Everyone in this room is part of something big from a historic point of view. He’s been reading a lot about the history of the Internet lately. He says Johannes Gutenberg is the guy who invented the Internet back in 1452. Martin Luther was the first blogger. He invented the first "killer app" and caused a lot of change. Thomas Payne was another blogger. [What is going on? I’m so confused. – Lisa]

The Internet is everyone’s printing press. It’s pretty good and pretty democratic, but how do you get people to pay attention to your stuff? Ordinary people are getting together and changing things on a massive scale. The changes that we’re seeing these days are kind of like what we saw in 1776, except they’re affecting everyone.

There’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation. These guys are standing up for our rights online. They’re doing the best work when it comes to wireless wire tapping. They’re fighting the telco amnesty bill.

There’s a lot of other stuff going on. The theme is that moderates are getting together and actually changing things. .

Question & Answer

How do you call Craigslist and get Craig on the phone

Craig: I do take some liberties. I mostly handle abuse questions.

How can people do business on Craigslist? How can search engine marketers ethically use Craiglist to build links?

Craig: It’s simple common sense stuff. You go to our site, you look at the categories, decide what city you want to do business in. The idea is that every site has its own culture. Every site is a place in a virtual sense. You do as the Romans do. There’s a great temptation if you’re an SEO to place a lot ads with links of them. But if you do that, people will catch on and they’ll start to flag you, You’ll get an irritated note from Craig or Jim. They’ll reason with you12

Unfortunately, we’re going to have to jet out of the Q&A early (sorry, Matt). It’s not our fault. The next session starts in 5 minutes.

You can email Craig at craig@craigslist.org. He doesn’t run a spam filter because he was getting to many false positives and he is interested in pills to help him enhance in sex life. His phone number is listed but most people don’t call him.

[Sidenote: I would apologize for the scatterbrained-ness of this recap but it’s not my fault! That’s how the rest of us felt too. I was just trying to keep it authentic. :) ]

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