Tuesday, August 25, 2009

8-25-09: The Genius of Craigslist

I read an interesting article in the latest edition of Wired last night about Craigslist. It featured the small company's two big "stars": Craig Newmark, the founder, and Jim Buckmaster, the CEO. They're quiet, reserved men who love what they do and keep things painstakingly simple. I can relate to both very, very well.

I won't recite all of the observations and facts laid out in the article, but, from an engineer's perspective, I think what Craigslist is doing is remarkable. And from a very simple anthropological perspective, I think they're ahead of their time.

There's a lot of crap out there. There's a lot of crap on Craigslist. But, as opposed to most crap, Craigslist's crap is all user generated. It's ancient, by modern web standards, user interface has no frills, no fancy graphics, and nothing to distract you. The immense spamming that goes on in the various categories, which have given Craigslist an unfair reputation as a portal of sin, is very distracting. But, again, it's user generated. It's not purely democratic, since there are those who find ways to spam on a massive scale, but the employees of Craigslist spend a good amount of time dealing with it. They're simply trying to squash anything blatant.

And yet, Craigslist is blamed for things beyond their control. Two murderers have used the site to attract victims, and the site is riddled with prostitution. The latter is definitely more within their control than the former, but, in the end, Craigslist isn't truly to blame. They just make it easier and more widespread. It's a tool that exposes human nature on a broader scale than previous technology would allow. It's wrong, for sure, but it's also quite interesting that the company doesn't pass judgment on the users on a moral level. They simply reject spam.

The truly amazing thing is that, despite poor overall customer service and a militant disdain for innovation, Craigslist has garnered a massive market share for online classifieds. I used Craigslist to find my current apartment, as well as to sell things before I moved. It was very easy. I plan on using the site again to find a few things for my rec room. Even my parents used Craigslist, with great success. The beauty of the simple interface is: IT'S SIMPLE. Virtually any one can use it. Sure, the site is cluttered, but there are no fancy gadgets, and chances are it will look pretty much the same the next time you use it. This allows users of various ages and tech-savviness to use the service. Most of them stay away from the pornography and spam-laden categories, and most have no problem. I'm actually surprised there have been only two psychopaths, considering the sheer volume of transactions that have taken place.

As an engineer, I'm most proud of the fact that Craigslist has 30 employees, none of which are marketers or salesmen. They keep it simple, which is something so many companies just don't get (look at the success of Apple in recent years: keeping it simple). I hope they keep doing well. It's been an interesting experiment thus far.

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