In 1995, Craig Newmark started an email distribution list for events in the San Francisco Bay Area. It moved to the web in 1996. Today, the non-profit company’s classifieds community – craigslist, in case you hadn’t guessed – is available in over 500 cities around the world.
We briefly caught up with Craig in advance of his appearance at next month’s Traveling Geeks roundtables hosted by Econsultancy in London (other participants include Robert Scoble, Howard Rheingold and Susan Bratton). Here he answers a few questions on craigslist’s history, Web 2.0 and dealing with customers.
You founded craigslist in 1995 and took it to the web in 1996. That’s almost a full decade before ‘Web 2.0’ really went mainstream in a big way. What has it been like to watch Web 2.0 emerge and grow into a mainstream, global phenomenon?
In the sense that Web 2.0 is about collaboration, it feels really good, maintaining and increasing my confidence in humanity.
As the web became more commercialized in the late 1990s, did you believe that the principle of sharing would ever regain a foothold with internet entrepreneurs?
It never went away, it was merely overshadowed in conversation and media by commercialism. Not a bad thing.
Which of today’s community-oriented services do you find the most interesting? Do you think the Facebooks and Twitters of the world will continue to dominate this new crop of ‘social media’ upstarts?
I’m using Twitter and Facebook a lot, and they seem dominant, but it’s all just beginning. Let’s wait and see.
It may be hard for many people to believe but you still do customer service for craigslist. Obviously you could have someone else do this so I’ll ask the question: why do you do it?
It feels right, in terms of my commitment to our community and to public service.
It also helps me stay in touch with what’s real, which is the same reason a President needs to keep his Blackberry.
Do you think companies would do a better job at attracting and retaining customers if their executives took some time to focus on customer service?
Sure! Consider how much brand loyalty a company has that only pays lip service to customer service.
By my reckoning the last decade has been all about customer acquisition, and am hoping that the next one shifts to customer retention. What are the most vital things to get right when trying to improve customer satisfaction and retention rates?
Treat people like you want to be treated.
A lot of people have tried to do ‘local’ on the internet and failed. craigslist stands out as one of the few ventures that has succeeded with local online. What’s your recipe for success?
Keep it simple and fast, keep listening to your community.
Some media folks point at the likes of craigslist and Google for killing the newspaper business. What do you say to that? Isn’t it just shifting the blame for not future-proofing their revenue streams?
Our effect on newspapers is largely an urban legend, they have plenty of other issues.
You’re passionate about open government and have written quite a bit about it. What is open government and why is it important?
Very long story, but it’s about genuine grassroots democracy complementing representative democracy. People talk, figure out what matters, then government listens and acts.
It also involves the government telling us what it’s doing, so that it can be held accountable.
Tell us a little bit about the craigslist Foundation and your Boot Camp.
The Foundation and the Boot Camp is mostly about helping people be more effective helping each other out. That includes other foundations learning how to write grants, use technology, and to find volunteers.
What keeps you engaged with craigslist after more than a decade?
My sense of commitment to my community.