Ask senior Justine McCarthy how she ended up living in a house with nine Kappa Sigma fraternity members, or how she got a $300 fridge for $25. She will answer with one word: “Craigslist.”
Over the past 11 years, Craigslist has become students’ one-stop shop for jobs, off-campus housing and various goods and services. Particularly in big cities where people frequently move and reroute their career paths, the site operates on the basic principle that someone in your local area probably needs what you have or has what you need, and that in most cases, you should be able to connect with them for free.
McCarthy, who transferred to GW from the University of Colorado this year, said she was disappointed with the University’s off-campus housing book, which mostly lists efficiencies at $1,200 and up.
“I was looking for a place off campus where I could meet new people,” she said, explaining how she responded to a vague ad for a townhouse on N street “with students.” McCarthy pays $900 a month plus utilities and has her own room and a bathroom she shares with a male student.
Her housemate, junior Josh Hauser, raves about their $25 refrigerator, for which he chipped in $12.50. “I just thought: Craigslist has everything. So I went online and it was the second post that came up. All I had to do was go and pick it up. People are really desperate to get rid of stuff when they move.”
As for employment, job Web sites Monster, CareerBuilder and HotJobs charge employers $300 to $400 to post job listings, but all posts on the D.C. Craigslist boards are free, though site founder Craig Newmark said in a keynote interview at the South by Southwest music festival that he may soon start charging for D.C. job posts. Craigslist supports its operations by charging $25 to $75 to post help wanted ads in San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles.
“(We) charge people who would otherwise be paying more for less effective ads,” Newmark said, citing a nationwide study conducted by Forrester Research Inc. that shows job recruiters believe Craigslist is the most effective place to post help wanted ads.
Starting March 1, Craigslist began charging $10 for New York City apartment listings at the request of realtors who wanted to decrease the number of repeat listings.
Newmark began the site in 1995 to tell people about cool events around the San Francisco area. The stocky, self-proclaimed “nerd who actually had plastic pocket protectors, tape on his glasses and the social skills you’d expect with that” wrote software that automatically posted other people’s e-mails to the site, allowing them to advertise jobs, apartments and stuff for sale.
Craigslist.org was formed in 1999 and has since expanded to 190 cities across 35 countries based on user requests. It retains the .ORG domain to symbolize its “service mission and non-corporate culture.” Newmark said at the Austin, Texas, festival that he believes his online community will continue to build wonderful things as long as his site stays true to what made it work in the first place.
He has pledged to keep the site ad-free and to maintain its straightforward bulletin board style. He said that, with the exception of 19 staff members, who handle tech infrastructure and mediate conflicts, “the people run the site.”
“Getting out of the way is important. With (Hurricane) Katrina, the biggest thing we did was get out of the way. People repurposed our site as they needed it,” he said, describing the user-created “Katrina Relief” section, in which people helped people find lost loved ones and offered housing, jobs, personals, goods and services specifically for hurricane survivors.
Although Newmark said he doesn’t know how much money the Web site generates, he knows it is “doing well,” but more importantly, so are millions of users worldwide.
Newmark said the site works because of an online “culture of trust. We built an environment where we trust others and expect to be trusted. That’s why we allow people so much control over the site.”
The self-proclaimed, “uniter, not a divider” said that one of the most striking features of his site is that “people have a lot more in common than they like to think. All over the world people need a place to live and a job. They want some stuff and to go on a date every now and then.”
Several students have reported using Craigslist to go on such “dates.” Alumnus Rob Collins said he “hooked up with lots of girls from Craigslist,” while he was at GW, both through posting and responding to Craigslist personals. He said that while some subcategories advertise people looking for their soul mate, his favorite was “Casual Encounters,” which typically advertises for no more than sex. However, there is some blurring of the lines.
“I dated a chick from ‘Casual Encounters.’ She was a medical student at Georgetown,” he said, after recounting some less committed relationships, including random sex with a 30-year-old English teacher at “some Budget Inn.”
“It’s hard to meet people in D.C.,” he said, adding that his Craigslist dating has recently tapered off because most of the people are “shady” and 90 percent of “Casual Encounters” are fake ads trying to lure men to pornography Web sites.
Some students described Craigslist as a great place to “people-watch” because anonymous posting means people can very honestly explore their interests without social stigma. Craigslist “people-watching” is reflected in the fact that Craigslist “Personals” receive thousands more page views that actual posts.
Newmark said he is continually amazed by similar desires expressed in “Casual Encounters” across the world. “People everywhere have a lot of the same interests,” he said.
Newmark said he and his staff remain heavily involved in customer service in order to stay in touch with the site’s “reality.” In his role as “customer service rep” Newmark said that with the exception of a few “trolls who want to pick a fight, people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and good. The motivating value system is the whole ‘do unto others’ thing.”
The biggest problem Newmark said he has encountered is with people circulating political disinformation around election time. He said he takes all of Craigslist’s content personally – from the sexual fetishes involving Hillary Clinton to the peace sign emblem the automatically pops up next to the URL – because at the end of the day, his name is the only one associated with the site.
For the foreseeable future, Newmark said that his site will offer more of the same – expanding to more cities or possibly incorporating additional community platforms through Google Maps. However, he recently has gotten personally involved in other social arenas. Much of his recent work and personal blogging has focused on “citizen journalism” – a term that describes when citizens help collect, analyze and disseminate news.
Despite his interest in citizen journalism, his role is limited by different Craigslist’s customer service demands.
“I don’t have time for it. I’m dealing with people bickering in the pets forum.”
*Name has been changed