Interview with Craig Newmark: How the Craigslist Meme Spread





One of the most ubiquitous and disruptive websites to emerge in the last 10 years is Craigslist. Impacting industries from real estate, news paper classifieds, careers and auctions the site has for the most part remained entirely free to use. A great example of organic, word-of-mouth spread I’ve always been interested in how the meme of Craigslist spread from city to city to become one of the most popular uses of the web.

I was lucky enough this week to get a chance to ask the site’s founder, Craig Newmark a few questions about exactly that. Here are his answers:

Dan: I think the social web is the great equalizer in terms of marketing. Non-profits don’t have to try to out-spend the big corporations anymore, they can simply out-think them and create contagious, well-intentioned ideas. If you were to give a non-profit just starting out one piece of advice on how they could “spread their meme” that you learned with Craigslist what would it be?

Craig: Anyone should seriously engage with their community about what they’re doing, including serious customer service. That means using email, Facebook, Twitter, any place where people in your community might hang out. Get feedback, and then, do something about it.

Dan: Did you do anything in the early days to help the site spread? Did you tell any “influential” people or send notes about it to any groups?

Craig: Never did any conscious networking, but I connected with lots of people via email and at industry events like launch parties. This was during the bubble years. I’m such a nerd, more so back then.

Dan: Do you remember any “tipping point” in the site’s history when the amount of people talking about it or using it seemed to take off? If yes, what do you attribute this to?

Craig: Never anything that I’d consider a tipping point. Our history is slow, continuous growth. In the race between tortoise and hare, well, we’re the slow guy.

Dan: In terms of the site’s initial spread, what do you think was most important the people who were using and talking about it, or the site’s features and content itself?

Craig: I think both equally important, that from the beginning we were clearly about people working with each other to help each other out. That’s somehow communicated directly between people, and from the look and feel of the site. There’s no fat on the site.

Dan: Of that most important element, what do you think was most key in the site’s early growth? (Ie What characteristic of its fans or what trait of the site?)

Craig: I think it had to do with the obviousness of the collaborative approach and the consistent culture of trust that grew. It has to do with the everyday practice of universal shared values like “treat people like you want to be treated” and “give the other person a break.” Now and then, we should be our brother’s keeper.

Dan: Do you have any knowledge into how newly added cities reach a “critical mass” of Craigslist usage? How do people in new cities find out about it? Does usage in a new city suddenly blow up or does it ramp up slowly?

Craig: No real knowledge, almost always a surprise. Might have to do with people moving from a CL city to a new one, where they spread the word. That’s the only guess I have from observing rapid growth city sites, like Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Dan: If you don’t mind sharing, what were the biggest sources of traffic in Criagslist’s early days? What are they now?

Craig: I think, then and now, jobs, housing, stuff for sale.

Dan: What are your three favorite contagious ideas spreading around the web right now?

Craig: The notion that we gotta help each other out to survive, and that social media is key to making that happen.

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{ 14 comments }

Kristina October 30, 2009 at 9:11 am

Great pithy interview, Dan. Communicate, connect, collaborate are the not-so-secret concepts of a master, distilled to their essence by both of you. Thanks.

michaeldaehn October 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm

“I think the social web is the great equal­izer in terms of mar­ket­ing. Non-profits don’t have to try to out-spend the big cor­po­ra­tions any­more, they can sim­ply out-think them and cre­ate con­ta­gious, well-intentioned ideas.”

Excellent point Dan. Thanks for sharing this :)

michaeldaehn October 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm

“I think the social web is the great equal­izer in terms of mar­ket­ing. Non-profits don’t have to try to out-spend the big cor­po­ra­tions any­more, they can sim­ply out-think them and cre­ate con­ta­gious, well-intentioned ideas.”

Excellent point Dan. Thanks for sharing this :)

michaeldaehn October 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm

“I think the social web is the great equal­izer in terms of mar­ket­ing. Non-profits don’t have to try to out-spend the big cor­po­ra­tions any­more, they can sim­ply out-think them and cre­ate con­ta­gious, well-intentioned ideas.”

Excellent point Dan. Thanks for sharing this :)

trthsekr October 31, 2009 at 12:19 am

I have just dealt with Craigslist for the second and LAST time. Anyone who thinks that this service is free is completely out of their minds, or their time is worth zero. I posted an ad for a handyman that would be acceptable in the most rigidly controlled newspaper in Russia and it was flagged not once but even after changing the words ‘the wife‘, twice.

The ordeal of finding out what one has done wrong, rivals the trials of Hercules. Then after shedding just a bit of my total ignorance in reference to Craigslist, I find that ANYONE — to include competition can flag my ad. The “Flagged FAQ Page” states that it takes multiple flags to get an ad removed from public view, HOWEVER it also freely admits that one reader can flag multiple times. What an idiotic policy.

I wasted more time by going to the forum as the FAQ Page appeared to be the random ramblings of a madman. As a semi-retired Private Investigator it is not in my personality to leave or quit without getting all of the information or giving any given entity every chance to redeem itself. I was hoping to find in the forum some miniscule evidence of human help or absent that, compassion. In that respect, the vacuum was sickening. I read people asking questions that truly wanted to fix whatever they had done wrong, post their ad and move on…what did the receive? Answers which were borderline insulting. Apparently there is a clique of people who have so little life that they have become self-appointed Craigslist Flaggers…and God help anyone who questions their authority. There was even talk by one pissed off customer of calling a rather large group of friends and initiating a “Flagging Party”. The difference between Brilliance and Stupidity is that brilliance has a limit, stupidity?…

I would suggest Craig, that you go home and check on your baby once in a while, I just left it and I can assure you that’s it’s diaper is full of crap. I can still smell it.

enclaveinc November 9, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Shows how keeping things simple. Can be a great point of difference.
ie ebay vs craigslist.

Finally a thinking mans game ;-) where reputation maters…

nextdayflyers.com November 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Great interview! I think craigslist is great and I cant believe how big it got. I do think the site could be a lot better, but i guess they are afraid to make any changes since its already so simple to use.

Adelaide November 19, 2009 at 6:31 pm

The last quote is the best quote..

Dan: What are your three favorite con­ta­gious ideas spread­ing around the web right now?

Craig: The notion that we gotta help each other out to sur­vive, and that social media is key to mak­ing that happen.

Exactly…

Azam November 22, 2009 at 8:18 pm

It seems like when people look back at their successes they name some generic 'best practices' and everything seems so in hindsight.

51% Luck 49% Effort. That's the tr00f.

Kieran O'Neill December 7, 2009 at 1:30 pm

The questions were spot on, but the answers were generic and not insightful.

Deborah Richmond December 16, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Craigs list is one of those ideas that is so simple, yet so useful, you can't believe no one had thougt of it before. But still, as I have watched, especially in the early years, I was amazed at how it grew and grew. Watching Craigslist and Amazon.com was my introduction to the true strength that the internet might hold, the possibilities. I don't think I will ever tire of the new and innovative ways people interact, communicate and connect with the internet.

Deborah Richmond December 17, 2009 at 1:31 am

Craigs list is one of those ideas that is so simple, yet so useful, you can't believe no one had thougt of it before. But still, as I have watched, especially in the early years, I was amazed at how it grew and grew. Watching Craigslist and Amazon.com was my introduction to the true strength that the internet might hold, the possibilities. I don't think I will ever tire of the new and innovative ways people interact, communicate and connect with the internet.

vivastreet December 18, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Not surprising from someone who preaches “we gotta help each other out to sur­vive” yet pockets millions from eBay and tries to hide it.

Twitter Applications January 18, 2010 at 9:04 am

Great interview, social media is very essential online market

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