The Real Community Organizer

Craig Newmark on Craigslist, libertarianism, online democracy, and nerd values

Katherine Mangu-Ward

If you’re an American urbanite under the age of 30, Craig Newmark has probably helped you or someone you know get a job, get a sofa, or get laid. Newmark, 55, is the founder of Craigslist, the massively popular classified ads website. He’s also a member of a loosely affiliated fraternity of power geeks, along with figures such as Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and Google’s Larry Page.

What do these guys have in common? Newmark calls it “nerd values,” the drive to earn a comfortable living doing something geeky and then use the money to do some good. Newmark’s extracurricular activities include pushing for greater government transparency via the Sunlight Foundation and helping Barack Obama formulate tech policy.

But the power nerds have something else in common too: Many of them use the word libertarian when describing their politics, though usually hesitantly and always with multiple caveats. They see themselves as part of an entrepreneurial class; they like openness and voluntary cooperation; they tend to be skeptical of top-down power structures. But they also see themselves as something new, a little different from the categories that came before. Some of them even endorse new regulations, with Newmark joining Page and others in support of “net neutrality” rules.

Though market-friendly, Newmark and his crew are hardly cut-throat capitalists. Craigslist is not especially profitable, and this is by design. Newmark sees the site primarily as an experiment in building community and creating trust through commercial interactions. “People are not as materialistic as we think,” he says, and the Net “reminds us that people are trustworthy.”

Newmark founded the site in 1995 after moving to San Francisco and feeling isolated. It now serves more than 450 cities in 50 countries. Though no longer running the day-to-day operation, Newmark still works in the Craigslist customer service department, troubleshooting and answering user queries.

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Newmark in October. To see an edited video version of his comments, go to reason.tv/video/show/588.html.

reason: You’re suddenly fascinated by politics. What happened?

Craig Newmark: A couple hundred years ago the founders of this country invented representative democracy, moving us away from a monarchical system, which was pretty good. They also allowed for a kind of grassroots democracy, but it’s tough to do when communication is hard. Now, through the Internet, communication is easy, so we’re seeing networked grassroots democracy, where millions of people can be involved in the process. This election marks the beginning of a transition. It’s just a start, but what may matter more is the amount of networking you have compared to the amount of money you can raise.

reason: Is the more transformative element the money, the information, or something else?

Newmark: If your campaign is based on a network of a lot of people working together, fund raising, organizing, making their voices known, I think that’s the way elections of the future will be won.

Walking to an event, One-Web-Day, in New York City, suddenly I realized that I’m a community organizer—that is, someone who gets people together, online in my case, to speak up for themselves. It’s where people give themselves a voice and actually get real stuff done, not for money but because it’s the right thing. I’ve done that as a customer service rep at Craigslist, and now I’m helping out other people outside of Craigslist.

Doing customer service for over 13 years, I see that people are overwhelmingly trustworthy. There are bad guys out there, but not a lot of them. People know to look out for each other and to look out for the bad guys, so people have this expectation of trust despite what we feel sometimes, and the Net facilitates that. When you’re on the Net, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see bad guys out there. But if you think about it, you see far more trustworthy people out there, so the Net facilitates trust. It reminds us that people are trustworthy.

reason: How does the anonymity fit into that?

Newmark: Anonymity is a two-edged sword. Anonymity is needed for whistleblowers or sometimes to express yourself if you’re in a fairly repressive regime, and yet anonymity is also sometimes a problem when people do need to be held accountable.

(Story continues after the video box.)

Click above to watch Katherine Mangu-Ward’s interview with Craig Newmark.
reason: Is online voting a good idea?

Newmark: Online voting is a particularly great idea when it can’t be so easily compromised. Right now, I’m very worried about voter fraud—not the grassroots type, which has been proven to be a hoax, but the kind where machines are corrupted or people disenfranchise voters. Just a couple of days ago, an effort by some Republicans in Ohio failed. They were trying to disenfranchise, among others, soldiers serving overseas. That ain’t right.

The best vision I’ve seen of online voting, frankly, has been in fiction. I’m thinking of a book, The Probability Broach, by L. Neil Smith, which I read maybe 20 years ago but I still remember.

reason: How much do you think the government should be involved in regulating the Internet?

Newmark: Right now, there’s a lot of flux when it comes to government and regulation and the Net. It’s a pretty big, confused area. The government has done things well, such as some of the protections for Internet sites in the Communications Decency Act, Section 230 [which protects owners and operators of websites from liability for content that other people post on their site]. The irony there is that it’s a pretty good law—at least that section—but at Craigslist I’m finding cases of lawyers who don’t know the law and act on that ignorance of the law, which has been both irritating and entertaining. There’ve been a number of lawsuits threatened or initiated based on a total lack of knowledge of Internet law.

Beyond that, there is still some bad legislation involving intellectual property rights. The leader addressing that is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I recommend everyone join.

There’s also net neutrality. It’s actually a lot simpler than a lot of people are making it. Basically, telecoms and ISPs make their money on the Net by using public resources: the airwaves, rights of way in the ground—that’s where they lay cables or whatever. So in return for letting private companies use public resources, we expect a few things out of them. We expect them to adhere to some traditional American values like trying to provide a level playing field for people, just treating people fairly to the extent possible. Really hard to do because, well, how do you define what’s fair? But a fairly easy issue is this net neutrality thing, which, to oversimplify, says that if you’re going to put a server on the Net to support your business or your political position or your nonprofit, people should be able to get served by you on an equal basis to someone who might pay a lot of money for potential privileges. So the net neutrality guys say, “Let’s provide this level playing field, let’s try to be fair, let’s aspire to it, and, yeah, let’s not give people privileges just because they can pay for them.”

It’s a tough issue because it does mean some rule setting, but that’s the cost of using public resources. I feel very strongly about this, in part because I’ve also seen some of the more predatory lobbyists put together fake grassroots websites and organizations, Astroturf sites like Hands Off the Internet.

reason: Does Craigslist have much stake in net neutrality?

Newmark: Net neutrality probably doesn’t affect Craigslist as a company because the kind of bandwidth involved with our site is pretty low. We started when having a 56K modem or even a 20K modem was a bit of a luxury, and we remember those times. That’s why our site is text-heavy and why one of the continuing high priorities of the tech guys is keeping the site fast. Net neutrality is of concern mostly to people who are thinking about video.

reason: You have called yourself a libertarian, but you have also said that you’re struggling for a term. Maybe you could talk about what brought you to the word libertarian and why you also shy away from it.

Newmark: Well, I’ve been libertarian-influenced ever since high school. Like many folks, I read a few things by Ayn Rand, even making a pilgrimage to her offices and—this goes back about 40 years, which is horrifying to say—even meeting Murray Rothbard back then, being a member of the Society for Individual Liberty for some years, then drifting away because I sensed that sometimes libertarian ideals don’t mesh well with the real world. The market has failed to provide good health care for people, and if I believe that I should treat people like I want to be treated, well, that means trying to give people a break. But I do prefer market solutions, and that means I’m some kind of a hybrid libertarian. I need a term. “Libertarian moderate” is better than nothing, but it’s not catchy enough. [Daily Kos founder] Markos Moulitsas calls himself a “libertarian Democrat” but I’m more of an independent.

reason: Could you tell the story of your Rothbard pilgrimage?

Newmark: This was an awfully long time ago, but one of my high school friends somehow connected with a guy named Ralph Fucetola. I don’t know what’s happened to him. He was, let’s say, one of the more anarchistic-style libertarians.

He said, “Hey, why don’t you come with us and visit this guy Murray Rothbard?” So we went into New York to his place, and it was fascinating to listen to him. He did have some stories about Miss Rand and [Rand lieutenant] Nathaniel Branden that I wish I hadn’t heard, but he knew what was going on. Even then I was beginning to realize that Rand is a good read and does say some true things, but, oh, doesn’t—didn’t share some of the values I have.

reason: You don’t like it when people say that Craigslist has killed newspapers, which used to rely heavily on classified ads for revenue.

Newmark: The news industry, I think, is doing pretty well. Big newspapers, national ones, are doing well. Very local ones are doing well. The ones in the middle, not so well, but a lot of that has to do with the cost of using paper, which is expensive to buy, print, and deliver. Meanwhile, the Net is becoming a better and better medium for news. I do think the big challenges for news operations will be to remember what their strengths are and to see what happens as new forms of media merge with traditional media.

The biggest strength of traditional media, when they do it, is fact checking. The biggest strength of new media is speaking truth to power. I think news organizations of all sorts need to do really good fact checking, improve quality, and speak truth to power. For example, when a politician is telling you a lie and you know it’s a lie, say so. When you want to have people give you opinions on a story, if the only person who can express their side of the story is known to be a professional in the art of deception, don’t give that person a voice if you know they’re going to lie to you. That’s why I think the most trusted newsmen in America, the best news team, are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

reason: Usually when you hear that more people under the age of 30 get their news from Jon Stewart than anywhere else, that statistic is said to reflect poorly on the state of media. But maybe you think that’s a good thing?

Newmark: Well, the guys running those 15 TiVos at The Daily Show, they catch people saying things that we don’t see otherwise. They did a great piece showing the passing of John McCain from senator into candidate, saying one thing 2006 or before and then saying a different thing thereafter. They do good work.

reason: Are you pro-sex, drugs, and/or rock ’n’ roll?

Newmark: I really don’t remember sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll. These days, I would prefer to complain about the kids with their loud rock music and yell at them to get off my lawn.

reason: Somebody once called you the country’s biggest pimp.

Newmark: (Laughs.) They were misinformed, but that just points out the need for more fact checking.

reason: You’ve said that you try to live your life by nerd values, which you’ve described as making a comfortable living and then doing something good.

Newmark: In high school, I really did wear a plastic pocket protector. I really did wear thick black glasses taped together. And I had the social skills to go with all this. Hopefully, I’ve grown out of most of that. Some years ago I read about programmers expressing their surprise at how much money we might make. We get paid for doing something we think is fun. We don’t mind, but reading that kind of thing made me realize that when you make enough money to live comfortably and provide for your future, then it’s more satisfying to change things.

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