How Craig Newmark Went from Craigslist Creator to Internet Do-GooderS

Craigstlist: it's the place we find apartments, pets, and love connections. Started by its namesake, Craig Newmark, in 1995 as an emailed newsletter circulated among friends, it's grown to become the proxy classifieds page for people all over the world. Craig isn't running things there anymore, but he's still very much involved in the company. On top of that, he does a lot of non-profit work with his organization craigconnects, and sits on the board of several other organizations like the Center for Public Integrity, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Here's how he went from internet pioneer to charity machine:

Gizmodo: As a kid, were you always interested in technology?

Craig: Yup, I fulfilled the whole nerd stereotype. In third grade, I wanted to be a paleontologist, few years later, decided to try physics.

Gizmodo: Where did the idea for craigslist come from? Did you ever think it would get so big?

Craig: The seminal idea was that in '94 and before, I saw a lot of people, on The WELL and elsewhere, helping each other out. Early '95, seemed to be the right thing to do was to reciprocate. First craigslist was a cc list for arts and tech in SF, then industry events (launch parties), then jobs (based on feedback), then apartments.

On day one, I started a cycle of asking what people want and need, listening to feedback, doing something about that. That cycle continues today.

Gizmodo: Why is open internet so important to you?

Craig: I feel that everyone on the planet should have the means to have a public voice, in addition to U.S. Bill of Rights issues. Also, it's a big deal to me that the "press is the immune system of democracy."

FYI... I'm spending a lot of time and giving money helping people get this done.

Gizmodo: What must be done to maintain it, in terms of legislation and advocacy? Were you active in working against SOPA and PIPA?

Craig: Well, people of good will need to work together to promote the kind of issues involving SOPA and the above. That involves the Internet Defense League and other groups, mostly potential.

I've talked with a lot of people about how I might be most effective, and a lot of it's about messaging, including framing, construction, and delivery. When I speak up, and become visible, that means someone figured my voice would be of value. Normally, I prefer to stay outta the way.

Gizmodo: Do you think San Francisco was key to craigslist's founding? Do you think it would have caught on if it were founded in another area?

Craig: People want to help each other out wherever they are. Maybe SF had one advantage in '95, lots early early Internet adopters.

Gizmodo: Do you see your work with the internet and technology as an alturistic thing?

Craig: Not all all, it's just following through with what I believe in. A nerd's gotta do what a nerd's gotta do.

Gizmodo: You have a background in programming, of course. I noticed you recently mentioned Girls Who Code on your blog, and lately there's been this sort of democratization of coding languages—a lot of people are learning code. Do you think coding is becoming an essential skill?

Craig: I don't think coding is essential, but for some time, knowledge of coding empowers you to get your message out most effectively, and enables you to actuall have a conversation with others who might build code for you.

Gizmodo: In terms of the tech world, who has (or continues to) influence you?

Craig: Tech world strictly, Linus Torvalds, Vint Cerf.

Gizmodo: What's a normal day like for you? You do some tech support for craigslist, right?

Craig: I do limited customer service, mostly handling simple issues, and passing on the rest. Sometimes I ask the emailer to add tech info to their question, and sometimes I only know what to request, since I used to write code.

Gizmodo: What are your main goals with your organization craigconnects? And what have you achieved thus far?

Craig: Main goal over twenty years or more, would be to get everyone the voice they might want, via tech. I feel that rebalances power, where it flows from moneied elites into a balance with regular people, people who learn how to work together.

In the short term, I'm supporting local groups helping military families and vets, also people who need a break, like homeless people or the Mission district of SF. That also includes national groups doing similar work, and international efforts.

Long term, the groups I support tell me I'm helping them become far more effective with social media. (I'd like to see numbers measuring social impact, but that's hard to do.)

Image credit: Stephanie Canciello/unali artists