How Craig conquered the world

Never mind the collapse of the US economy, sex scandals and even murder, Craigslist – the ultimate internet car boot sale – is booming. Stephen Foley reports on the geek with the golden touch

To most of its 50 million users, it is the world's largest car boot sale, where a little rummage turns up anything from a model of the F-111 Aardvark bomber to a Legend of Zorro DVD and a million items in between. It is a place to find a house, a car, a new job, or even love.

But to fulminating politicians and law-enforcers in the US, it is "America's pimp", where prostitutes tout for business among the lonely hearts ads. Consumer advocates say it is a seething nest of scam artists and forgers. It is, in other words, the human souk in all its glory, a venue for any and every kind of transaction. It is Craigslist.

Assailed by legal challenges and a high-profile murder charge in Boston for the so-called "Craigslist killer", you might think that this 14-year-old internet phenomenon was cowed and on the defensive. Because its major sources of revenue are job listings in US cities and estate agents in the teetering economy of New York, you might think the recession is giving it a beating. Far from it. According to a new report, Craigslist is bigger and healthier than ever, and is on course to top $100m (£61m) in revenues this year for the first time.

It has been an extraordinary rise, and local newspapers reliant on classified ads are still reeling from the impact. Craigslist itself, though, looks as homespun and dishevelled as any car boot sale, an unadorned page of links, run without fanfare by 28 employees out of a Victorian house in San Francisco.

So, $100m. The figure comes from a US consultancy called the Aim Group, which has been counting the ads on Craigslist and doing the sums since 2003. Most of the postings on the site are free but with the massive audience has come the chance to charge professional advertisers. Recruiters in Silicon Valley pay $75 to list job vacancies; recruiters in other major US cities pay $25.

Six years ago, the website could have had revenues of barely $7m, says Peter Zollman, the Aim Group founder. The jump this year is projected to be 23 per cent. "It just continues to grow," he said. "There is absolutely nothing fancy about it, nothing glitzy or glamorous, but it works... And the website has grown almost entirely by word-of-mouth and through free publicity, because they spend a minuscule amount on marketing."

The Craig whose list it is is Craig Newmark, now aged 56, balding and bespectacled and looking nothing like the dot.com squillionaire you might expect. A New Jersey native, he relocated to Silicon Valley and was working in an IT security job at a stockbroking firm when he began emailing local listings news among a small circle in 1995. A year later, that email list became a website bulletin board where others could submit events, list items for sale, or see if there was anyone nearby who might want to have sex with them. As word spread, users in other cities asked for their own pages and now the phenomenon spans the globe, covering 570 cities in 50 countries.

The reason that Mr Newmark does not look like a dot.com squillionaire is that he has no ambitions to live like one. He is happy running Craigslist according to what he calls "nerd values" – taking enough out to maintain a decent living, paying more attention to creating a community.

That might not seem so charming to his rivals. One of the profound consequences of Craigslist's rise is that newspapers have seen a massive erosion in their sales of classified adverts. Classified revenue plunged 29 per cent in 2008 at US newspapers, where Craigslist's revenue growth was an estimated 47 per cent.

All this talk of revenue is a touch distasteful to the folks at Craigslist. They have never confirmed any of the Aim Group's figures. It is not clear how much Mr Newmark and his chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, own between them, although we know that eBay owns 25 per cent because they are having a furious legal battle over that investment. In 2004, the auction site bought into Craigslist expecting Messrs Newmark and Buckmaster to capitalise on the goldmine they had created, yet five years on, only a fraction of listings are paid for and there are no ads on the site.

In the past year, politicians have seized on Craigslist as a place where prostitutes tout for business. The issue was brought into stark relief when a medical student, Philip Markoff, was charged with killing a prostitute, Julissa Brisman, he contacted through the site. Attorneys general have been pressuring the site to stamp out the ads. It agreed last month to replace its "erotic services" category – which charged for ads but gave the revenue to charity – with a more closely monitored "adult services" category.

To say that Mr Buckmaster is aggrieved would be an understatement. In the company's latest blog post, he lists dozens of adult adverts that appear on other websites and railed against "the absolute disinterest shown by politicians and journalists in hardcore sex-for-money ads featured in journalistic media, no matter how numerous or graphic they may be".

In other words, this stuff will always be with us; Craigslist is just one of any number of meeting places for the dizzying array of human transactions. Fulminating against Craigslist is like fulminating against the human condition.

Craigslist by numbers

50 million Users of Craigslist every month.

1.15 billion Classified ads that have been posted so far.

24 minutes Average time users spend on "erotic services" ads.

23 per cent Estimated growth in revenue for 2009 28 Members of staff running the site.

Rhodri Marsden on the impact of the net independent.co.uk/cyberclinic

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Marketing and Business Development Officer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hull based charity providing except...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Female Support Worker

£9464 - £10396 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will ne...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future