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21st Century Bulletin Board 

It seems like you can't walk five blocks in New York City without hearing someone say, "Yeah, I met this guy on craigslist last night," or "Have you tried looking on craigslist for a place?" And some San Franciscans might tell you they can hardly remember what life was like before they discovered the site.

Begun in the Bay Area in 1999, www.craigslist.org, a no-frills online bulletin board, has grown to provide services for cities across the country and throughout the world, becoming an indispensable part of millions of peoples' lives. Just five years old, it's already one of the top 20 Internet companies in terms of page views, with more than six million souls coming to the site every month.

And now Craig has come to Spokane. After numerous entreaties from Spokanites hungry for the List, the Web site -- spokane.craigslist.org -- lit up on Nov. 18.

For those newbies and Luddites who haven't yet logged on to the revolution, allow us to introduce you.

First, think of craigslist as the kind of cork bulletin board you might find at Rosauers or Huckleberry's, covered in lost-puppy mug shots and tear-off phone numbers for French horn lessons.

That's craigslist, in a nutshell. Broken into eight primary sections (jobs, for sale, discussion forums, etc.) and littered with countless sub-sections, it's a virtual bazaar of information. Want to talk to someone about childcare, haiku or sex? Looking for a used computer? Seahawks tickets? Craigslist devotees exult in the fact that you can find practically anything on the site. And unless you're an employer looking to post a job for San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, it's all free.

What's more, the sites allows users to edit and publish their own posts, and empowers them to "flag" posts they find inappropriate (making the site almost self-supporting).

So what's the catch?

There's no catch, says the Craig behind the craig. The idea began in early 1995, at the beginning of the dotcom bubble, when Craig Newmark, a San Franciscan and self-described nerd, got to feeling philanthropic. He observed people on the early local networks (Usenet, WELL) using the connection to help each other out. Feeling inspired, Newmark started sending out group e-mails to friends, keeping them up on events happening around San Francisco. As his e-mails were forwarded to others, and as word of mouth spread the news, the list of e-mail recipients started growing. It quickly grew long enough to require a list server, which needed a name. When Newmark wanted to call it "sf-events," his friends stepped in and (much to his embarrassment) suggested calling it what everybody was already calling it anyway: Craig's List.

Eventually people began using the list to post ads and announcements -- job offerings, apartments for rent, chicken wire for sale, etc. In 1997, Newmark was approached about running banner ads on the site but turned the offer down after deciding "some things should be about money [and] some shouldn't" (besides, as a contract programmer at the beginning of the boom, he says, he had already made plenty). By 1999, the list had grown large enough to make it a profitable venture, and craigslist was officially born. The following year, Newmark and his fledgling company launched sites in nine cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland.

In five years, craigslist has taken the grocery store cork board and stretched it out into 74 cities and 27 countries, from Scotland and Hong Kong to India and Brazil. Of those sites, 30 (including Spokane and Boise) were launched in the last six months. In the last three years, their audience has grown 800 percent. And last week a story on internetweek.com reported that, in its rise to becoming the Bay Area's No. 1 job search resource, craigslist has cost newspapers in the Bay Area between $50 and $65 million in employment advertising revenue, and millions more in other classified revenue.

For a grassroots start-up hoping to hang on to its "nerd values," such monumental growth presents its challenges. In August, it was announced that a former shareholder sold his 25 percent share of the company to online auction juggernaut eBay, drawing cries of "sell-out" from fans who relished its cozy independent spirit. Newmark and company CEO Jim Buckmaster, however, downplayed the significance of the deal, claiming that not only will eBay have no control over how the company is run, but that craigslist might learn a few things about spam control and consumer protection from its new shareholder.

As it has expanded, the company has also faced significant translation problems. For now, the text for all sites remains in English, even in cities where English is not the native language. And since no one in the company's dilapidated San Francisco office speaks fluent Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish or Japanese, postings in these languages make for a customer service nightmare.

Cultural translations are equally worrisome. Newmark admits that sites for foreign cities have not taken off quite like their domestic counterparts (with the exception of London). And some haven't taken off at all. A few years back, craigslist launched sites in Sydney and Melbourne "prematurely." Nobody in Australia showed up, and the sites were scrapped (though they were successfully relaunched later).

Newmark says that no American city's site, however, has ever gone under, despite allegations in an early post on Spokane's craigslist that the city once had its own site that had been scrapped because of disuse. He says "everything surprises me" as far as which cities fail and which succeed. He points to the sites for cities like Austin and Denver, which took off very slowly but in time became quite large.

How Spokane's site will fare is anybody's guess. So far things have been slow. But the beauty of craigslist, Newmark says, is that it's driven by users -- meaning that a given city's site will live or die according to local interest. While some worry that craigslist's usually racy, often explicit personal ads will drive away users in conservative Spokane, others suggest they might just draw them in. The personals section is, after all, only the fourth-most visited section on the site.

Whatever the case, it appears that there's no slowing craigslist down. Last week Newsweek counted Newmark, along with Democratic dreamboat Barack Obama and new MIT president Susan Hockfield among the 10 people "who will shape our world" in their "Who's Next 2005" cover story.

While Newmark agrees with that assertion, he tries to be modest about it -- just like the site that bears his name. "I kind of have a sense that the craigslist community is kind of changing the world a little bit," he says, "And what can be better than that?"

Publication date: 1/06/04

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