David Weinberger
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What's wrong with Craigslist?

29 September 2009

The cover of the September issue of Wired blares "The Tragedy of Craigslist." The story inside, by veteran writer Gary Wolf, is headlined "Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess." The article opens with a few paragraphs of what Craigslist lacks: Basically, every Web 2.0, social media feature that exists. Why, then, do people who trumpet social media and user-based ways of organizing information also trumpet Craigslist? That’s what Wolf wants to know.

The Wired article seems to me to be a bit of a mashup, but not in the good sense. It’s informative about the history of Craigslist and why it is what it is, but the article is quite negative about Craig Newmark and the little list he built for us. The author apparently feels Craigslist ought to be adapting more of the Web 2.0 social media features and ethos, but it’s not entirely clear why. And the author’s implication (which he spells out more precisely in a long back and forth of comments on my blog, http://tinyurl.com/wiredcraig) is that social media boosters like me are hypocrites for not denouncing Craigslist for its failure to hop on board the shiny new bus we’ve been promoting.

I’m just not on the bus that the article’s author thinks I am. Oh, sure, I like Web 2.0, and Ajax tricks, and social filtering and social navigation, and all the other socials we’re inventing for ourselves. Great stuff, and fascinating to watch. But I also love plain old Craigslist.

It’s hard to deny that Craigslist is ugly. It’s crammed and cramped. The design would be at home in the Mosaic 1.0 browser. OK, so Mosaic started out as single column only, but if you wanted to show people what the Web looked like near its beginning, you could take them to Craigstlist.com. And yet, I have at times held Craigslist up as a model of design. It’s crammed with information, but it’s information we want and need. It’s got long lists of links, but it’s easy enough to find the section you want.

But there are no tags! Oh, my beloved tags, why hast Craig forsaken thee? Tags are the poster child of social navigation. How can you be Web 2.0 without tags? Maybe because they wouldn’t do a lot of good at Craigslist, at least in many of the sections. If you’re looking for a queen size bed frame or a HDMI-ready amplifier, those words are very likely to be in the items’ descriptions. What good would tags do? If people are going to Craigslist to browse among offerings at a generic level—furniture or electronics, say—tags might help, but "electronics" and "furniture" are already category names at Craigslist. This just isn’t a place where tags make a lot of sense. They wouldn’t hurt, but it’s not as if Craigslist has failed some sort of test if it doesn’t have tags.

How about social networking? There are certainly occasions when we would rather buy or sell from within our network of friends. People use Facebook and MySpace for doing just that. Older folks even use mailing lists for that purpose; a list I’m on for people who used to work together in the 1980s and early 1990s frequently has postings offering stuff for sale. I suppose Craigslist could expand into social network-based classified, but I don’t feel like it’s betraying us or even disappointing us by not doing so.

It is certainly true that the pace of change at Craigslist.com is glacial. If Newmark decided he wanted Craigslist to be a leading-edge Web 2.0 sort of place that tries out new ideas, and is happy to let many of those ideas fail, I’d be happy to see it. But I’m not unhappy with Craigslist being so stable and slow to change. It says something worth saying: This site isn’t Craig Newmark’s plaything where he gets to try out whatever he thinks is cool. Craigslist does a boring, repetitive job over and over and over and over: connecting buyers and sellers of the quotidian.

In fact, that’s perhaps the main reason I love Craigslist. Everything on that cramped page is designed for us, the users. It is without ego. It is what pure service looks like. Craigslist feels like it’s ours. This sense of service is mirrored in Craig Newmark’s own shy, modest, righteous personality, as documented by Gary Wolf in his Wired article.

That article’s bemoaning of the lack of social media features on Newmark’s site, I think, misses the point. Craigslist is already a profoundly social site. What should have been a gray listing of items for sale and items wanted has instead spawned communities. And marriages. Craigslist is doing what social media is designed to do: Help us be social. The tools of social media can work wonders. But Craigslist is a wonder of sociality already. If it ain’t broke, let’s not whine that we didn’t get to fix it with our shiny new tools. There are lots of other places where they’ll come in handy.