Craigslist: How the founder espouses liberty ideals

Benjamin Levine
Feb 2, 2012 at 11:11 AM

All of the quotes and information used in the post can be found in Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston.

Craigslist was founded in early 1995 by Craig Newmark; it started as a simple e-mail list that grew exponentially over the next few years.  Newmark, who worked in the tech industry, would send an e-mail full of what he considered "cool events" happening in the SF area to a list of friends.  They would then send that list to their own friends, who would in turn want to be on the original "list," which became "Craig's List."

When the list of e-mails simply became too long, Newmark decided to put his list on the internet.  He wanted to call it "SFEvents" or something simple but his friends insisted that he go a different route: craigslist.com.  Why not?  The name had already stuck.  But that's not what Newmark settled on.  Instead, he went for craigslist.org.  Why?  Because ".org" exudes a feeling of community and trust, something Newmark loves.

The story of how his business progressed is really amazing; after working all day, Newmark would work through the night hours on the website and has said that, "If I was billing for my own hours, it would have been a great deal of money."  Essentially, he worked his ass off.  It was still more of a hobby at that point but one he took great pride in.

His main concern was providing a quality service that was useful to others (but isn't capitalism merely selfish?).  Soon enough the site was gaining heavy traffic and there were numerous opportunities to make money on his creation, which would have been completely acceptable.  There is nothing wrong with making money on one's own hard work.  However, Newmark didn't want to do that at that particular point in time and he especially did not want to run banner ads.  Newmark recalled, "I was already doing well as a contractor.  So I figured I would just not [put up ads]."  The more one learns about Newmark the more his humility shines through.

So, he continued to grow his business and in 1998/99 he "took a good look at the morality of charging for something [on the site]."  With craiglist.org eventually becoming his full-time job, the need for some revenue was obvious.  In order to figure out what he should charge and how much it should cost, Newmark went to the customers.  "We asked people, 'Hey, what do you think we should charge for, if anything?"  The customers -- knowing that the site needed to generate some revenue to continue and wanting to keep the service going due to its value to them -- said that he should "charge people who would otherwise be paying more money for less effective ads."  Today, the only services that cost money on craigslist.org are brokered apartments in NYC, job posts in the SF Bay Area as well as other select metropolitan areas, and posts for theuraputic services.  That's it.  Everything else is free because Newmark wants the site to be a community driven, quality service.

As we know, the liberty movement is not prejudiced against those who wish to make money; in fact, we kind of celebrate that drive.  However, we also celebrate those who volunteer, give more than they get back, or willingly provide services at a lower cost than they could.  Certainly, it is honorable to start a business and charge for one's services or products.  But if money is not one's perogative and helping others through affordable services is, that is equally honorable.  Craig Newmark is that type of individual.

But he knows that -- in a very libertarian sense -- he cannot judge others for making reasonable decisions.  "I'm not implicitly judging any one else," Newmark states.  He knows that most others would have monetized the website with ads and that's their personal decision.  "We just made a specific decision based on our specific values and followed through."

And so because of this principally driven individual, the world has been altered greatly.  Craig's List, which turned into craigslist.org, has transformed the way people do business; it has opened an online marketplace that is simple, personal, and valuable.  But it wasn't easy.  Newmark had to work through rough patches and through legal battles.  

In possibly the most pro-liberty statement made in the interview in Founders at Work, Newmark says this: "The thing is, like a lot of laws like [anti-corruption ones], people who are crooked always find ways around the laws, and so the constraints just make it more difficult for the honest people." I added the emphasis for a reason.  Newmark recognizes, just as we do, that more laws don't necessarily yield the results intended.  In fact, they often do the opposite.  Imagine if craigslist.org hadn't persevered through laws that made it difficult to function?  The world wouldn't seem dramatically different but it would certainly be without a great service.

That's why the free market should be allowed to take care of corruption.  And Newmark has just the blueprint for it.  On craigslist.org, this is the philosophy of dealing with corruption and bad motives: "We have a really good culture of trust on the site -- of goodwill.  You know, we're finding that pretty much everyone out there shares, more or less, the same moral compass as we do and as my personal one," Newmark states.  Although I'd say nobody is the same, his general thought that people are good is a fairly uplifting, optimistic outlook.  He continues, "People are good.  There are some bad guys out there, but they are a very tiny minority and our community is self-policing.  People want other people to play fair, and that works."  Self-policing in action, online.  That's pretty cool.

Craiglist.org is not without its flaws; it is not perfect, by any means.  But Craig Newmark and the service he created are shining examples of how liberty works in this world.  Freedom and creativity are fostered in a pro-liberty environment; with any more government regulations, I might not have been writing this post about one of the largest, most influential online communities.