By Susan J. Marks Need a job, a place to live, a lover, a day-care provider, or a hard-to-get concert ticket? What about an events calendar, a computer for your school, even venture capital for your organization? You can, in theory, find them all at craigslist.com, a nonprofit forum with a for-profit job board. The folksy brainchild of Craig Newmark, a self-described former pocket-protector-wearing programmer, craigslist is a refreshing antidote to the Web's growing commercialization.
I stumbled onto the San Francisco-based site while doing a story about online job boards. Several human-resource types on either coast raved about the high-tech talent they always hired at the site, so I was curious why this low-key David beat out the unabashedly commercial Goliaths.
Then it was nominated for a 2001 Webby award for community site of the year. Founded in 1995, it now serves six distinct parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and 15 cities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
NATIONAL PRESENCE. The original site for San Francisco has spawned sites for the city of San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Area, North Bay, South Bay, East Bay, and Peninsula. Last year it went national. Among the cities craigslist serves are New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. It has also expanded internationally to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, and Vancouver, B.C.
All of them have job and event listings. Depending on how established craigslist is in a given city, it might also have personal ads, apartment listings, online classified ads for merchandise or pet adoption, and open forums for talking about politics or life in the city.
Most of the newer siblings, though, rate a poor second to their San Francisco brethren. They have fewer categories and many fewer listings within each category. To be fair, the sites outside Northern California are still new, and because Newmark counts on site users to spread the word rather than buying ads, building the community into something useful is slow going. Newmark says the New York and Los Angeles sites are doing well, and they do have a fair number of postings. But even those sites are hardly must-reads, and outdated listings often aren't removed.
The Denver site has just 20 events-and-entertainment listings, compared with literally hundreds of calendar items that users contribute to the San Francisco sites. San Diego's craigslist, on the other hand, has just 135 housing postings.
HOUSING RESOURCE. Participation in New York is a little better. There are almost 3,500 postings under housing options. That compares with The Village Voice's online version, which has 1,892 rental listings online. But The Voice also has pages of calendar/events listings, while craigslist has just 46.
Quantity, however, doesn't tell the full tale. The San Diego housing postings did look interesting, and I pulled one beach condo listing to check out later as a vacation getaway. But even that pales when compared with The San Diego Union-Tribune's online site (SignOnSanDiego.com) which includes six regions under housing, with a minimum half-dozen communities under each of those -- a total 1,371 total San Diego rental listings.
Under just one community, North Coastal area, there were 63 listings. It's tough to beat that much choice, except that craigslist's postings are free. Housing postings in the Union-Tribune are $38.40 for a standard two-line classified that runs for seven days. Add $3 more for the online posting.
ALL BUSINESS. So how is craigslist different from job boards like Monster.com or from community entertainment guide like AOL's Digital Cities? It's what craigslist doesn't do. Absent is the typical graphic clutter that slows typical sites. There are no banner ads, no fancy presentations, no flashy e-commerce, no elaborate pricing structures for job postings, and not even much color or photos. It's all business. Click on a link, and you get a straightforward-looking text message, period.
Looking at craigslist reminded me of checking out The Sunday New York Times classifieds, only with click and easy seek-and-sort capabilities, thanks to a pretty good internal search engine.
Craigslist is also a much cheaper place to advertise than its more profit-seeking, publicly traded peers. After checking out the job board, I decided it's time to move over Monster.com, with its $295-a-pop job postings. That'll run a flat $75 on craigslist for 30 days on the San Francisco area sites, and it's still free elsewhere as a way to generate interest. Other types of postings are free.
But don't head to craigslist for career advice. There isn't any, unlike at Monster. Myself, I liked that strictly business approach. Craigslist is also small enough not to be overwhelming. Monster has almost 450,000 job postings and 11 million resumes! Craigslist has a mere 4,500 jobs and 12,000 resumes. But there was still enough that I downloaded an ad for myself (journalists are always looking!).
COMMUNITY COMMITMENT. Craigslist seems to take its community commitment seriously too, sponsoring online and offline forums for nonprofits to tout causes, find grants, and get advice. These groups also get free job postings in the nonprofit job category, exempt from the $75 fee corporations pay.
The sites also have a nifty pilot program called school/nonprofit wishlists where craigslist, working with Cole Hardware, a San Francisco area company, links teachers and nonprofits with people willing to pick up the tab for supplies ranging from Dixie cups to fire extinguishers. The nonprofit signs up, checks out a Cole catalog and lists online their needs.
As a community and a job board, craigslist clicks. It's an easy-to-use must-read for the San Francisco and surrounding area sites. It's also, as promised, a community service. But it's not strong enough to matter yet beyond the Golden Gate. Without enough promotion to give the other craigslist sites around the world the grassroots recognition Newmark has achieved on his home turf, the sites are in danger of remaining just another stop in a cluttered cyberworld. Marks writes about technology from Denver