Live from DMA08: Weaving a Web of Trust: Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark Keynotes
October 15, 2008 — This morning at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Craig Newmark, customer service rep and founder of Craigslist, discussed the past, present, and future of online communities, in his DMA08 Conference & Exhibition keynote address. DMA08 concludes tomorrow, Thursday, October 16.
Although people sometimes characterize Craigslist as being part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, Newmark said he does not agree with that description. “We’re Web 0.1. . . . We are about as simple as possible.”
That simplicity extends to the business side of things as well, Newmark explained. “We don’t advertise or market really. We think we’re now getting about 50 billion unique visits per month, mostly in the US and Canada. We don’t know the actual traffic figures. We’re too cheap to buy numbers from some of the professional services.”
In 1994, Newmark was working at Charles Schwab, giving talks introducing the Internet and its benefits. In his work with the Web, he saw “a lot of people helping each other out,” specifically in the first online communities and Internet news groups. At that time, Newmark started a simple CC (carbon copy) email list with about a dozen friends to let them know about interesting events.
When Newmark’s list grew beyond the boundaries of the CC mechanism he was using, he had to use a listserve and give the list a name. “Nerds tend to be very literal,” he told DMA08 attendees. “At that point, people told me to call it Craigslist, since they were already calling it that, and they told me that I had created something they called a brand.”
From the beginning, the core of Newmark’s work was based in customer service, and that involvement, he explained, continues to this day. “Even back then, I was continuously engaged with my audience. . . talking with people, listening to people, engaging with them,” he said. “When I got feedback and suggestions, I’d actually do something with them. And that continues to now.”
Although Craigslist today is almost completely free, and does not advertise, Newmark pointed out that the company is a serious, for-profit business. “There’s nothing noble or altruistic in what we do. We’re just doing what feels right, according to what our values are.”
Most of the content on Craigslist is based on suggestions from the online community. Through his work with the website, Newmark said that he discovered a sense of shared values.
“There’s this notion that you want to treat people like you want to be treated, and we try to seriously follow through on this every day,” Newmark said. “In marketing terms, you could say that we’ve been doing viral marketing all these years. We don’t advertise. That has worked out pretty well. All we’ve done is brought online something we’ve always run our lives by as humans.”
Newmark remarked that, in many ways, Craigslist is a sort of online flea market — a place where people go, not only to make purchases, but also to communicate. “My mom likes flea markets. She buys something, but she’s really going there to talk to people.” The marketplace has always been a place where people go to talk business and politics, so this notion of an online marketplace or flea market is nothing new, Newmark pointed out, except in terms of scale.
Traditionally, Newmark explained, branding or image work would come from the top down. Today however, truth on a large scale is no longer generated from the top. “We rely on our friends and social networks to tell us what is really going on,” Newmark said. “Too much hype from the top, too much fake stuff, has kind of poisoned that well. . . . People are using peer relationships to figure out what is true and can be trusted, rather than the traditional top down systems. Craigslist has been a self-organizing system to help people out.”
Newmark said that he has learned a great deal about the future of online communities from listening to and observing the younger generation. “Millennial tell us that the only way to get some facts checked for yourself is to rely on your own experience and instincts, a concept that I like to call truthiness.”
Whereas, in the past, a unit of advertising may have been a newspaper ad, press release, or TV spot, today the focus has shifted to viral communication, Newmark asserted. “I’m thinking now that the most effective unit of marketing, particularly to millennials, is the meme, or idea virus. That is, if you can get an idea out there that sticks, that is going to be far more effective than anything.”
“Big things are changing . . .,” Newmark concluded. “The message is simply that this stuff work. You have to be committed. You have to be continuously engaged. What we’re about is following through on those shared values.”
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