At 25, Craigslist is a survivor of the more democratic web we lost

At 25, Craigslist is a survivor of the more democratic web we lost ... In my new book, An Internet for the People, I look at one popular website that has a ...
At 25, Craigslist is a survivor of the more democratic web we lost

It’s easy to be cynical about the internet, and harder to remember a time when being online felt less commercial and more democratic. But there was a period when websites didn’t rely on user data for profit margins, when people still viewed the internet as a .

Can those ideas and values from the earliest days of the web be revived? Or is the internet a lost cause?

In my new book, , I look at one popular website that has a lot to teach us: Craigslist. , Craigslist is a reminder that the earlier, more democratic version of the internet can still thrive.

The platform has weathered the internet’s , with countless peers and competitors coming and going. The site looks more or less the same today as it did in the late 1990s.

Sort of like a shark that’s never had to evolve, Craigslist has remained incredibly successful without giving up values of anonymity, accessibility, and transparency.

Craigslist started as an email listserv in 1995, when early web enthusiasts were looking for a sense of community and DIY education. By 1996, it had become a website with job listings, apartment rentals, and personal ads. Almost as soon as the internet was becoming widely available—roughly households was online at the time—Craigslist was there to help people find roommates, look for jobs, go on blind dates, or sell used furniture.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has been at the helm since 2001, and the founder, Craig Newmark, is still involved in the company. For years, Newmark did , responding to design complaints and concerns about scams. Today, Craigslist has more monthly page visits than or , and it’s been .

Its profitability might come as a surprise to some. Many of those I spoke with thought Craigslist was a nonprofit or that it was community-run. In fact, Craigslist has always charged money for certain ads, such as job postings and classified ads. (By siphoning revenue from classified ads, .)

More recently, Craigslist has started charging for other kinds of ads, such as real estate listings from firms and car ads from dealers.

But regular users don’t have to pay a fee. The site , nor does it sell user data to third parties.

This is a very direct relationship between user and platform—and it’s totally different from the convoluted streams of data and targeted advertising used by platforms such as Facebook and Google. When Facebook users aren’t sure how the platform makes money, it’s because the process of analyzing data and selling ads is .

When Craigslist users don’t know how the platform makes money, it’s because they’re part of the user group who simply doesn’t get charged. With its straightforward relationship between people and profits, Craigslist is an important reminder that in order to make money.

Change and disruption aren’t just buzzwords for Big Tech, they’re .

Facebook constantly tweaks its design, rolling out changes to parts of its user base . If you don’t and roll out new features, users will get bored and go elsewhere—.

Craigslist never bought into this. If you compare screengrabs of Craigslist’s homepage from 2008 and 2018, you’ll struggle to find major differences.

It isn’t quite right to say that Craigslist hasn’t changed at all. Categories for ads have come and gone, while features such as uploading photos and integrating Google Maps have been added. But on the whole, Craigslist has remained profoundly stable, and when I interviewed Craigslist users, I heard over and over a fondness for the website’s bare-bones aesthetic.

As one interviewee explained, “It’s a simple interface, it’s easy to use. I don’t know, I guess just that it feels like the old internet a little bit.”

Instead of “move fast and break things,” Craigslist’s mantra could be “keep it simple, stupid.”

One of the biggest differences between Craigslist and its – is anonymity.

When Craigslist first went online, norms around anonymity were different. Most people used pseudonyms or handles in the chat rooms and message boards of the . Over time, norms shifted so that and became expected, if not required.

Craigslist’s anonymity policy has become the main driver for its reputation as and . When users are anonymous, there’s no accountability, or so the logic goes. And yes, there have been terrible incidents of and on Craigslist.

But there have also been crimes and cons committed on , and , even though those sites require identification and profiles. Furthermore, what usually goes unsaid is that platforms to sell targeted ads.

When I interviewed Craigslist users about anonymity, I heard a powerful defense of it from people of color and poor people who might otherwise be against. Being anonymous also meant they weren’t alerting friends and neighbors that they were selling items or looking for apartments, which gave them a greater sense of security and privacy.

Craigslist’s policies can’t necessarily be imported to other platforms, and we might not want everything on the internet to look like it’s from the 1990s. But the steady march to a hypercommercialized internet where users trade their data for online community isn’t inevitable. Craigslist serves as a powerful reminder that some ideas from the early web are worth holding on to.

is assistant professor of communication at . This article is republished from under a Creative Commons license. Read the .


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