Craig Newmark of Craiglist recently gave a talk as part of my Social Entrepreneurship class. I’ve attached my notes from the talk here (Notes: Craig Newmark on Craigslist), and you can listen to the audio on the ischool podcast.
Craig, as a self-proclaimed-and-proud-of-it geek is a fun speaker with lots of interesting perspectives. As someone who has lucked out by having some really good insights into what people want (simple, functional, straightforward ways of linking people with things to people that want them), he looks at his brainchild from a very technologically deterministic perspective. Give them what you have, listen to what they want. And if they don’t like the principles you stick to, its okay – there’s always another community that will.
And so it turns out that the stuff that I think is really interesting about craigslist (besides the fact that it is so useful) isn’t really all that interesting to Craig. I asked if he could highlight any differences in how different communities have picked up craigslist – if perhaps there were certain characteristics that lend towards the craiglist-principles being more appropriate or not. At the very least, there’s a tipping point – if there aren’t a lot of postings then it’s less useful as a resource for people that are looking for things. Craigslist apartment listings, for example are probably more useful in the bay area, than some random small town. There was a time where it was only useful in the bay area. Although it’s in a lot of cities now so maybe we aren’t so different after all. But try to transfer the idea to another country (madrid?) and see what happens. Do the categories and everything reflect some structural element of American culture, or is their model flexible enough to reflect any culture?
What I’d really like to see is a sort of Craiglist-free tag for connecting specific NGO-needs with micro-donors. A micro-donation marketplace, where approved social entrepreneurs can list their needs and be matched with people willing to donate time or money, either on a one-time or an ongoing basis. We’d have to be careful not to inculcate dependence, but to make sure the projects listed are well thought out. I guess instead of craigslist you could think of it as a kiva.org, extended to allow micro-donations and not just micro-loans, crossed with an idealist.org that recruits people to come and do particular tasks. For example, HEAL Africa, a hospital I do some volunteer/missions work for in the Dem Rep of Congo, could list their needs: salaries for their employees, school fees for the families that take in orphans, oxygenators, etc, and individuals could adopt particular needs, rather than donating to an unlabeled bin called “HEAL Africa”. People like being connected to specific achievements; it just feels more engaging to pay a particular doctor’s salary, than to be writing a yearly check to a faceless NGO.
Getting back to the topic at hand, I’m really glad Craig never sold out – especially to the banner ad people. I stopped using Yahoo! Mail because the banner ads kept getting more and more…umm…skanky. I didn’t really appreciate always having some half-naked model on a banner ad occupying my screen while I was reading email. (Besides, threaded conversations are just so much easier to track/manage.) It’s amazing to realize that a site with 9 billion page views per month is managed by only 24 paid employees. An ongoing problem is that of scammers, something that is as much as possible policed by users, but still a serious concern. And a recurring theme is the one of listening to the users. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. It’s not just about listening, but about hearing what they are saying and knowing what to do about it. And I think that’s what a lot of development-speak boils down to: take the time to listen to your users and you might actually be able to work with them to develop something they will actually use!