Craigslist founder Craig Newmark turned an online forum of ads and discussion boards into a virtual community. He believes its citizens are trustworthy and usually abide by “that Golden Rule thing.”
I used to share the cynicism common to many nerds — that people were frequently malicious and opportunistic. But of course you don’t get treated well wearing a plastic pocket protector and thick black glasses taped together, and now I get that. Years of customer service has changed the way I think about people.
Now I believe that people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and deeply okay. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or syrupy, but for the past seven years I’ve been doing full-time customer service for Craigslist, interacting with thousands of people. I see that most people share a similar moral compass: They play fair, they give each other a break and they generally get along. I see that pretty much everyone operates by that Golden Rule thing.
When Katrina hit, for instance, people figured out what other people needed. They didn’t ask for permission to repurpose our New Orleans site. They just turned it into a bulletin board for people to find friends and loved ones. Others offered housing for survivors, and soon jobs were being offered to survivors.
Many of us have lost a sense of neighborhood and community, and we really crave that. In today’s culture, sometimes we can find that on the web. Like, it’s easy to connect with someone who’s just trying to sell a used sofa, and it’s really hard to hate a person who’s trying to do that.
To be clear, there are bad guys out there and they’re drawn to any trust-based, democratic system, like our site. For example, I spend a lot of time dealing with just a few apartment rental brokers in New York who might be, let’s say, ethically challenged. A few seem to feel that if others are being sleazy, it’s okay for them to do the same. Under pressure from the Craigslist community, though, they are forced to behave. We reason with brokers, explaining our principles, and that usually works.
I started my site to help people help each other. I created the original platform and then I got out of the way. The people who run our site really are the people who use it. They are worthy of trust, and I believe in them.
Craig Newmark is customer service representative for Craigslist.org, the online community featuring classified ads and discussion forums he founded in 1995. He is also helping foster net-based participatory journalism. Newmark lives in San Francisco.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Gene X Hwang.
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