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The Craigslist Phenomenon

Craig Newmark Started His Website to Help Friends. He Now Wants It to Help the World.

June 13, 2004|Idelle Davidson | Idelle Davidson last wrote for the magazine about fans of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Craig Newmark was the kid other kids picked on. Schoolmates didn't invite him to parties. He got low marks in "plays well with others." His sixth-grade teacher sent him to the school counselor, who fretted about Newmark's lack of social skills, then gave up and taught him chess, one of the least social games on the planet. In high school, Newmark wore a pocket protector and black-rimmed glasses, taped together. "When you grow up a nerd, you feel like an outsider," Newmark recalls. "It pretty much always sticks with you."

Newmark, now 51, is still an introvert, still attends social events and wonders what he's doing there, still makes wry jokes that can get lost in translation. "Feel free to look in the medicine cabinet," he tells a new visitor to his home.

"Someone can be academically intelligent and be socially retarded," he says, referring further questions about his social life to his hairdresser, who says, gently, that her client is more at ease with machines than with humans.

Alas, plainly said, Craig Newmark might just exist at the center of the black hole of the unhip universe. If so, it turned out to be the perfect place to create one of the hippest--and most popular--websites on the planet: Craigslist.org.

born nine years ago, the website has tapped into--or perhaps created--a social phenomenon, a virtual community. Looking for an online flea market? A job or an apartment? True love? A one-night stand? Want to vent about politics, share your raunchiest thoughts, find a bake sale? Need someone to paint your fence or baby-sit your kids? Just need a friend? Log on.

Kit-Ling Mui, a 24-year-old law student living in West Covina, found her apartment, sold her parents' car and adopted a cat through Craigslist. Last August she answered a personal ad and met her boyfriend, Brian. "We've been happily dating ever since," she says.

Chris Gilbertson, 33, of Toluca Lake, was an out-of-work weapons specialist for the film industry. He also supported a baby daughter. Craigslist provided his sole source of income for seven months. He earned about $900 each week hauling away construction debris--a service he advertised on Craigslist.

Leonard Becker desperately needed a new kidney. The 67-year-old co-founder of a Berkeley nonprofit appealed for a donor. Autumn Kruse, a 32-year-old office manager from nearby Albany, responded and saved his life.

With 800 million page views each month--more than 450 hits per second--the website has skyrocketed in popularity, enjoying an almost cultlike following. Nielsen//NetRatings says the traffic at Craigslist ranks in the top 20 U.S. general interest portals, with the likes of MSN, Yahoo and AOL. San Francisco is home base, but Craigslist maintains websites for 45 major cities, including Los Angeles, London and Montreal, and has plans to expand throughout Europe and Australia and into the Philippines and Bangalore, India. All this from a company that has no sales force, no publicist, no advertising, and has the visual appeal of a pipe wrench. No graphics, just lists--lots of them, all free. In fact, Craigslist is free to everyone except employers in the Bay Area, who pay $75 to post job listings. That sole source of revenue is enough to support a staff of 14. He'd eventually like to charge for job listings in Los Angeles and New York.

Not surprisingly in Los Angeles, TV/film/video/radio jobs is the most popular category, particularly for producers of reality shows. "If we can all agree that dog is man's best friend, then I would say that Craigslist is a casting director's best friend," says Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of NBC's "Average Joe" TV series.

"Average Joe." A cast assembled from something created by Craig Newmark? Who would have guessed?

Newmark is sipping a latte inside reverie, a cozy coffeehouse with apricot walls and soft jazz in Cole Valley, a slowly gentrifying area of San Francisco just southeast of Haight-Ashbury. He stops by about 10 times a week, on his way to or from the office. Several children are in the coffeehouse today with their parents. One baby can't take her eyes off the gnomish man, stout and balding with a rosy face, mustache and goatee. Newmark wiggles his fingers at the toddler and laughs from his belly. She flaps her arms and rewards him with a drooling grin. "We're all biologically wired to love kids. Otherwise," he jokes, "they'd be food." And then: "As adult humans we learn to mask our emotions, including joy. Dogs and babies aren't capable of that."

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