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an open letter to Craig Newmark - Pope Salmon the Lesser Mungojelly

Mar. 17th, 2009

05:30 pm - an open letter to Craig Newmark

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Craig,

I've seen numerous interviews with you over the years, and I've always been impressed with your wit, modesty and individuality. I am of the mind that something of the general shape of Craigslist was inevitable, but OTOH it was a wonderful surprise to see it done with such grace and class. I wish therefore it were a different circumstance that brought myself to your attention than this tweet of mine:

mungojelly: @jayrosen_nyu Craigslist is completely untrustworthy. You'd think there'd be a new niche in providing some sort of local trust relationship.


To which you responded with this tweet of yours:

craignewmark: @mungojelly Can you clarify your remark re #craigslist ? Thanks! craig at craigslist.org


I was going to say that you were completely justified in taking offense, but upon rereading your tweet I see that it's completely diplomatic! That's what I'm talking about-- classy. Anyway, since you asked, certainly I'll do my best to explain the point that I so failed to cram into those 140.



Craigslist as a website can certainly be trusted to do what it does. It's so simple and stable, in fact, that it has become both an institution and an archetype. Indeed the intended context of my tweet is the increasingly echoed and accepted (if unsettling to many) notion that newspaper classified advertising in its entirety has gone up against Craigslist and lost.

What cannot be trusted at all are the unwashed, unfiltered masses who use Craigslist. Almost all of them are trustworthy as individuals, of course, but any particular unknown one of them can't be trusted to be anything in particular, can't be trusted to be what they claim to be. We all compensate heavily for the fact that the people who we encounter in a public space like Craigslist are strangers, unknown actors: We meet in public places. We ask for money upfront. We inspect the merchandise.

In this arena traditional newspaper classified advertising, unfortunately for the industry it sustains, has hardly any advantage whatsoever over Craigslist. Its barrier to entry is a fee, which quite obviously rules out almost all positive contributions-- while also providing no protection at all against any assailant who finds an attack sufficiently valuable. Phone or credit card verification can be done as easily by a centralized online competitor as a local newspaper, and I don't see any reason to consider it all that valuable anyway: It's not as if we trust someone very much given only the information that they have a phone or a credit card.

Where I think my local newspapers still have a thin advantage, if they could wake up to take it, is that they occupy physical space just a few blocks from where I'm sitting. If they could look up from the supposedly important facts on their desks out at the supposedly unimportant, unnewsworthy people strolling by outside their office, I think they could find that they have access to a flavor of information which is uselessly ordinary in the real world, but just what the internet is hungry for. The solid knowledge that someone lives somewhere, that they work somewhere, that they have certain ongoing relationships with their community, just the fact that they exist at all-- it doesn't seem like much, but it's completely missing on the internet. You don't know me from Adam. So if the Burlington Free Press could verify to you even simply that I often walk by their bricks and gilded letters just down the way, which I do, you'd know with much more certainty and authority that I am who and where I say that I am.

Systems of trust and identity are certain to become increasingly important, and we should all play some role in shaping that future. I thought of it as a possible niche for the local newspapers partly because they are supposedly in the business of seeking out and verifying facts, but mostly because you've so innocently crushed their old business model. Whoever ends up creating them, though, I am sure that we will over time come to rely on systems of trust that do allow us to take immediate actions to invest substantial resources on the basis of internet communications.

I believe in time this will even allow a new economy built upon voluntary collective activity, which will empower not just those who can sniff out marginal opportunities, but also those who can deserve and build wide trust. You should do well!

<3,
Pope Salmon the Lesser Mungojelly
aka Brett Douglas Williams