`I'm not a nerd anymore'

Craig Newmark was just another lonely guy living in San Francisco. Then he discovered the Internet. Now, his `Craig's List' is bringing all sorts of loners out of their shells. Richard Kelly Heft reports

This is the story of a lonely guy - a bona fide, pocket-protector- wearing, glasses-taped-together nerd - and the community he created because he didn't want to be lonely any more.

Craig Newmark didn't start out to make a community, just to make contact with people. But his Web site, unofficially called Craig's List (http://www. listfoundation.org), brings thousands of people together every day, looking for jobs, housing and social life in the San Francisco Bay area.

"I'm just a techie who just sort of stumbled on to this community thing," he says. "A few years ago I just figured I wanted to connect better with people."

He is uncomfortable in the spotlight. He speaks slowly and purposefully - often frustratingly so. Questions are frequently met with a thoughtful pause, followed by a simple "Yes" or "No".

He also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Seinfeld character George Costanza, as he'll tell you if you're about to meet him for the first time.

Up until a few months ago, Newmark, a freelance computer consultant, was single-handedly running an operation that tailor-delivered up to 40 messages a day to more than 6,000 subscribers. He also edited and archived most of the thousands of notices that came his way, and wrote much of the software that runs the site. All because he wanted to make a few friends.

It started out simply enough. In 1994, Newmark, a New Jersey native who had just moved to San Francisco, began e-mailing a small group of friends and acquaintances about upcoming events in the city's arts scene. It was a time when Newmark admits he had few social skills, but felt that if he was to meet people he ought to begin by reaching out to them.

Within six months his mailing list had grown to 200 people, and his makeshift computer system was starting to overload. A friend offered to create an electronic mailing system, and Craig's List was born.

In the early days, it was simply Newmark sending out notices on events, gallery openings and dance performances. But slowly things started changing in a way he never imagined. People using his list began to ask him for help with other things: finding jobs, homes for stray cats or, in San Francisco's brutal housing market, apartments to rent. Before long the list had taken on a new life: rather than being generated by Newmark, it was mostly self-generating, with content largely provided by users of the site.

Last July, after three years of running the service by himself, Newmark finally got some help. Three friends who shared an enthusiasm for Craig's List - former KPMG consultant Nancy Melone, recruiter Christina Murphy and web designer Weezy Muth - offered to lend a hand.

With their help, the site has taken on the official name List Foundation, as part of its metamorphosis from a one-man outfit to a group-run non- profit organisation. Now, with an operational structure in place, there are big plans for the future.

Among other things, the group wants to start an employment programme, hooking up subscribers with people in the community and a salary-matching scheme to help first-time job seekers get a head start. They also want to start what Newmark refers to as "threaded discussions" - a chat group - for the site.

It hasn't been easy for Newmark even partially to let go of the reins. "Part of me wants to be a control freak and run it all alone, but I think I've grown out of that," he says.

Traditionally, everything on the service, from announcements to subscriptions, has been free. But to fund expansion, the site now charges $25 for job placement ads - less than a third of what comparable profit-making sites charge.

The site remains decidedly plain, however. There are no advertisements flashing at subscribers - in fact, it is devoid of graphics altogether - just headings, some simple instructions and links to its beloved lists.

Newmark says he has been approached many times by commercial services looking to buy the rights to his site but isn't interested. "The whole reason why we have a sense of community on this list is that people know why we're doing this, and that's not about money. It's about keeping people connected."

That is something that has been fostered by people like Melone, who is now CEO of the List Foundation. "I proposed an analogue component," she says. Translation: a party to let List regulars meet face-to-face. Newmark had long wanted to do just that but felt incapable of pulling it off on his own.

The first event - called a "block party" to emphasise the sense of community - drew 600 to the Anon Salon, a techno-art gathering place in San Francisco's warehouse district. A second, equally successful party was held in January. A third is planned for June.

The foundation wants to help set up similar services in other cities. Newmark says he often receives e-mail from people in New York, Boston and Seattle, wondering if there isn't a local service they could sign up for. He has had inquiries from Britain and France about creating a Craig's List in those countries.

Newmark is willing to give people the tools to run the service, but few are willing to put in the time - about eight hours a week - to support the service.

No type of listing is banned from the site, although announcements are regularly rejected on the basis of style. "If the writing's stale or very commercial, I'll send it back and get them to make it a little more personal," he says. "I don't want anything that even resembles spam [Internet junk mail] or which could get someone flamed [sent irate responses]."

It is the personal touch which separates the list from the myriad of commercial services that do much the same thing, insists Melone. "Our readers know that behind the list we are real people with real names."

These days, when Newmark goes to parties - especially hi-tech events - he is often recognised. He is no John Travolta hitting the local disco in Saturday Night Fever, but for someone who felt the sting of isolation most of his life, it is a good feeling. The list may be about helping others as he insists, but it has also done wonders for him. "I'm not a nerd any more," he says.

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