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Exclusive Web-only 'Austin Chronicle' coverage of the wonks, the weekend, and the wilder side of cyberspace

Craigslist and Online Community

Saturday, March 13
Don't be fooled: Craigslist, the free San Francisco-based classified ad and discussion site, is not thrilling, exciting, or revolutionary. It is, as founder Craig Newmark repeatedly reminded attendees of his Saturday panel, really quite mundane.

"This is all very down-to-earth, mundane, everyday kinds of stuff," Newmark said.

But in its quiet, no-frills ability to help individuals help one another find a roommate or a job, an apartment or a sofa, Newmark admits that it is part of the same reinvention of democracy and reinvigoration of community as political blogging or MoveOn.org.

"The world exists in mundane stuff. So the only way to change the world is through doing everyday, mundane stuff and doing it every day."

Craigslist began in 1995, when Newmark began e-mailing notices of political, artistic, and social events to his friends in the Bay area. As more and more people began realizing its potential as an alternative, people-based marketplace of ideas, opportunities, and stuff to sell, it grew. Explosively. Now, the list has around 4 million unique visitors a month in 35 cities.

Of course, that growth has come with the challenges that always accompany popularity and attention in a capitalist society. Real estate agents have used the site to farm e-mail addresses, New Yorkers complain of misuse by sneaky apartment brokers, and recently there has been an outbreak of the Nigerian scam-of-the-month. Newmark now spends hours a day putting out fires, such as blocking IP addresses or researching whether to exclude particularly bothersome trolls from discussion boards. However, he believes protecting the site's integrity as a place where individuals can help each other out is an all-important mission – both for Craigslist, and for the Internet as a whole.

"When you look in the newspapers, the Internet is always covered in the technology section," Newmark said. "But the Internet isn't really about technology. It's about connecting people."

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