SAN FRANCISCO — Craig Newmark is a virtual treasure--a soft-spoken, self-described computer nerd who helps secure jobs for the jobless, apartments for the frantic, and soul mates for lonely geeks.
For the last three years, Newmark, a computer consultant, has brought people together without bringing them face to face. He does it through the magic of e-mail, and with a warm and good nature.
Every day, his service--known as Craig's List--brings 30 to 40 messages into the e-mail boxes of its members in the San Francisco Bay area, each one a separate listing about a job, an art event, a room for rent or a party to attend.
To get on it, all a person need do is send one message to Newmark asking to subscribe. Each day, he hand-edits the notices coming in and then sends them out to the list's more than 3,800 subscribers. Another 800 or so people a day visit his Web site, where the notices are meticulously cataloged and archived.
A slightly rounded person of middle height, Newmark's pause-studded conversation and cautious eyes mark him as someone who's suffered the pain of being different.
"In high school, I really did wear a plastic pocket protector. I really did have thick black glasses, and at times they did break and I fixed them with tape. I had terrible social skills, but I was good with computers," says Newmark, now 44.
But the world--or at least Silicon Valley--is full of computer nerds who remain just that. Newmark's transformation into a community resource with a conscience began when he was at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1972, at the age of 20, he had an epiphany when he realized it wasn't other people who were the problem, but him.
"It was a flash of insight. It was a satori, if you want to get Zen about it," he said, speaking of the Buddhist notion of a sudden, indescribable and uncommunicable inner experience of enlightenment.
Connection was the key. He took a course on human communication and started trying hard to be less arrogant about his technical knowledge, learning to listen to people instead of blocking them out.
During the height of the 1960s' tumult, Newmark was earning multiple degrees in computer science.
"I was such a nerd that I missed a lot," he says, staring out his window. Then, with an almost sly little smile, he adds, "Ironically, now I live only four blocks from Haight Street."
It wasn't until the mid-'80s that he began to live the reality of his own life. It started with a relationship that pulled him to Detroit. He was working for IBM, but had a hunger for something more.
There, he began the path that would lead him to a new life as Craig, of Craig's List. The portal was art.
His best friend, artist Rick Lieder, took Newmark to see a piece he had in a group show. The arts community in Detroit was, as Newmark describes it, "small, desperate and cohesive," and somehow he found himself helping out and later on the board of the Michigan Gallery, an artist-run cooperative.
By then, it was the early '90s. On the side, he began teaching himself about something just on the horizon--the Internet. It was while he was making his foray into these two new worlds that his everyday one collapsed: He was caught in the middle of IBM's downsizing agonies, and found himself free for the first time in 17 years.
"I realized much later than I should have that it was time to leave IBM and find a place where I could be happy," he says in his office, the sunny front room of his immaculate, austere apartment.
As soon as he arrived in San Francisco in 1993, Newmark began exploring the city's avant-garde edges of culture, including the newly emerging techno-arts community.
He started hanging out at the Anon Salon, a nearly monthly party/event/performance showcasing artists in diverse media. He wanted to tell his friends when the chaotically planned event was occurring, so in late 1994 he began sending out e-mail to alert them.
"It started out as just a cc: list to about 20 people. At some point, I got to about 200 and that's when the cc: thing broke down," Newmark says.
By early 1995, a friend offered to create an electronic mailing list on his business computer and asked the simple question, "What do you want to call it?" Discussion was intense for a while, with Newmark leaning toward SFEvents. Finally, everyone agreed to call it what everyone already called it--Craig's List.
Like a cutting left to root in water, a sliver of the online arts community was replicated on the list, with Newmark manually sending out notices on events, gallery openings, dance performances and gatherings.
But then something interesting happened. The people who used the list to keep tabs on those events also needed jobs, or were looking for apartments, or wanted to sell their futons. They e-mailed little notes to Newmark, asking if he'd send out their request.