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.