It's a hot, humid night in New York City in early June, and Craig Newmark is trying to play it cool. Newmark, creator of the community Web site craigslist, wipes his brow and walks up to the stage in Gotham Hall to receive the Person of the Year award at the 9th annual Webby Awards. He gives a five-word acceptance speech, shakes the hand of host Rob Corddry, and walks off the stage. "Congratulations, Craig," says Corddry, a deadpan correspondent for The Daily Show, waving his hand in the air. "Thanks for helping me get chlamydia."
The crack drew chuckles, but no one denies that Newmark's creation, craigslist.org, has helped lots of folks hook up. The site, which turns 10 years old this August, is a sprawling classified ad network where visitors find jobs, couches, consorts, and who knows what else.
A 52-year-old native of Morristown, N.J., Newmark began craigslist while working as a freelance software developer in San Francisco. He created an e-mail list to tell his friends about art-and-technology parties he thought were cool. Those friends forwarded the e-mail to others, and soon the list became the de facto grapevine for the Bay Area's geek Establishment. New readers sent Newmark their own bits, and the list's utility grew with its membership. "In a way, I've only had one idea," says Newmark. "Everything comes from the community."
Newmark may be the host of the world's most inclusive happening. In the 1990s, when the tech boom turned the Web into a story about wealth and elitism, Newmark was all about giving the little guy a break. While craigslist charges for help-wanted ads posted in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York -- at $25 to $75 per ad -- elsewhere the listings are free.
That democratic ethos has fueled astonishing growth. The site now spans 34 countries, with listings for 175 cities from Burlington, Vt., to Bangalore. Nielsen/NetRatings says the site's 5.7 million readers -- double the total a year ago -- generate 1.5 billion page views a month, making it the ninth-biggest U.S. portal, alongside megasites such as Yahoo! (YHOO) Consultant Classified Intelligence reckons the site drew $10 million in revenue last year. But Newmark refuses to talk about sales or anything so crass as a business model. "Craigslist is about authenticity," says Howard Rheingold, an authority on online communities. "Craig has paid his dues, and people respect him."
In the early days of the Net, skeptics predicted that virtual communities like craigslist would sink in a sludge of digital vandalism. Newmark proved them wrong. Amid meteoric growth, he and a staff of four police the site, aided by snazzy software and scores of folks who e-mail daily, alerting him to scammers. "We don't run the site. The people who use it run it," he insists. While he has worked at times with prosecutors to put people in jail, "I have no Batman fantasies except recreationally," he jokes.
Like most successful Web phenomena, the site is also a disruptive force, striking fear among newspaper publishers who rely on classifieds revenue. Newmark regrets undercutting other businesses, but he's also eager to contribute to community journalism. He has a blog at cnewmark.com and hopes craigslist can serve as a forum for volunteer journalists who can take on hard-hitting topics, including investigative stories. "I'd be willing to pay," he says.
Newmark seems an unlikely superstar of the Internet Age -- balding, introverted, and uninterested in spinning his equity into gold. So much the better, say many fans. It's that outsider mentality that has made so many people trust this ever-reluctant Net celebrity.
By Spencer E. Ante