The Real Community Organizer

Craig Newmark on Craigslist, libertarianism, online democracy, and nerd values

If you’re an American urbanite under the age of 30, Craig Newmark has probably helped you or someone you know get a job, get a sofa, or get laid. Newmark, 55, is the founder of Craigslist, the massively popular classified ads website. He’s also a member of a loosely affiliated fraternity of power geeks, along with figures such as Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and Google’s Larry Page.

What do these guys have in common? Newmark calls it “nerd values,” the drive to earn a comfortable living doing something geeky and then use the money to do some good. Newmark’s extracurricular activities include pushing for greater government transparency via the Sunlight Foundation and helping Barack Obama formulate tech policy.

But the power nerds have something else in common too: Many of them use the word libertarian when describing their politics, though usually hesitantly and always with multiple caveats. They see themselves as part of an entrepreneurial class; they like openness and voluntary cooperation; they tend to be skeptical of top-down power structures. But they also see themselves as something new, a little different from the categories that came before. Some of them even endorse new regulations, with Newmark joining Page and others in support of “net neutrality” rules.

Though market-friendly, Newmark and his crew are hardly cut-throat capitalists. Craigslist is not especially profitable, and this is by design. Newmark sees the site primarily as an experiment in building community and creating trust through commercial interactions. “People are not as materialistic as we think,” he says, and the Net “reminds us that people are trustworthy.”

Newmark founded the site in 1995 after moving to San Francisco and feeling isolated. It now serves more than 450 cities in 50 countries. Though no longer running the day-to-day operation, Newmark still works in the Craigslist customer service department, troubleshooting and answering user queries.

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Newmark in October. To see an edited video version of his comments, go to

reason: You’re suddenly fascinated by politics. What happened?

Craig Newmark: A couple hundred years ago the founders of this country invented representative democracy, moving us away from a monarchical system, which was pretty good. They also allowed for a kind of grassroots democracy, but it’s tough to do when communication is hard. Now, through the Internet, communication is easy, so we’re seeing networked grassroots democracy, where millions of people can be involved in the process. This election marks the beginning of a transition. It’s just a start, but what may matter more is the amount of networking you have compared to the amount of money you can raise.

reason: Is the more transformative element the money, the information, or something else?

Newmark: If your campaign is based on a network of a lot of people working together, fund raising, organizing, making their voices known, I think that’s the way elections of the future will be won.

Walking to an event, One-Web-Day, in New York City, suddenly I realized that I’m a community organizer—that is, someone who gets people together, online in my case, to speak up for themselves. It’s where people give themselves a voice and actually get real stuff done, not for money but because it’s the right thing. I’ve done that as a customer service rep at Craigslist, and now I’m helping out other people outside of Craigslist.

Doing customer service for over 13 years, I see that people are overwhelmingly trustworthy. There are bad guys out there, but not a lot of them. People know to look out for each other and to look out for the bad guys, so people have this expectation of trust despite what we feel sometimes, and the Net facilitates that. When you’re on the Net, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see bad guys out there. But if you think about it, you see far more trustworthy people out there, so the Net facilitates trust. It reminds us that people are trustworthy.

reason: How does the anonymity fit into that?

Newmark: Anonymity is a two-edged sword. Anonymity is needed for whistleblowers or sometimes to express yourself if you’re in a fairly repressive regime, and yet anonymity is also sometimes a problem when people do need to be held accountable.

(Story continues after the video box.)

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  • ||

    I would like to thank Mr. Newmark for two things: One, all of the fantastic furniture I've found on Craigslist on the super-cheap, and Two: the "best of Craigslist" section of the site, which as far as I'm concerned is the funniest part of the internet.

    So thanks! Pretty good interview, too.

  • ||

    Where else can you shop for used furniture, sell computer equipment, find a part-time job, bitch about politics, and find a midnight booty-call all on one site?

    I've been trying on Hit&Run for years, but have yet to manage all of them at once

  • ||

    A couple hundred years ago the founders of this country invented representative democracy

    They did?

  • ||

    Some of them even endorse new regulations, with Newmark joining Page and others in support of "net neutrality" rules.

    Huh? How is holding a gun to the heads of networks and coercing them into adopting your geek preferences in any way libertarian? Net neutrality is price controls, pure and simple. They're demanding that one byte of pipe-clogging streaming video be priced identically to one byte is plain text email. Or charging the same bridge toll for eighteen wheeler as for a bicycle.

    I remember when libertarians used to talk about auctioning off the airwaves, now they're using airwaves as an excuse to regulate.

  • squarooticus||

    How is holding a gun to the heads of networks and coercing them into adopting your geek preferences in any way libertarian? Net neutrality is price controls, pure and simple.


  • Um||

    Um. Brandybuck doesn't understand what a byte is.

    "That's like charging the same for a 10-ton rig as a 10-ton bicycle to cross a bridge."

    I suppose so.

    Where did you get the 10-ton bicycle from?

    And who pays by the byte downloaded? Isn't everyone on monthly plans now? Not relevant to net neutrality, amigo.

  • ed||

    Newmark: "The market has failed to provide good health care for people."

    What? Free enterprise has not failed anyone who can afford to see a doctor. Perhaps he meant to say that a mixed economy has failed to provide rationed, means-tested, politicized health care for all the people, regardless of their ability to pay? I suppose that is what is meant by "[T]heir [libertarian] politics...always with multiple caveats."

  • Smitty||

    Newmark is as much a libertarian as W is a conservative.

  • ed||

    Or Nancy Pelosi is a human.

  • T||

    Or Nancy Pelosi is a human.

    Look, botox and plastic surgery don't disqualify you until the combined total of the two exceeds half your body weight.

  • Pepe||

    "If you're an American urbanite under the age of 30, Craig Newmark has probably helped you or someone you know get a job, get a sofa, or get laid."

    Under 30? It's been around for 13 years.

  • Egosumabbas||

    As far as advancing the cause of market anarchy (c.f. agorism), I have Craig Newmark to thank for helping in that regard.

    When it comes to libertarian philosophy he's near a dud (as people have already pointed out). At most he's a market-friendly liberal.

  • ||

    "The market has failed to provide good health care for people"

    Perhaps he meant "the highly regulated market (that remains despite 50% of health care dollars being paid by government)".

    Regulations help to tie health insurance to your employer, make insurance more expensive because of legal coverage requirements, HIPAA, not to mention the tremendous amount of regulation on drugs and medical devices. And the trillion dollars a year subsidized by the government pushes private costs up as well...

  • Bob||

    Hey, Mr. Newmark, want to see what Ralph Fucetola's doing these days? (name changed from Libertarian Congregational Church when IRS objected that "Libertarian" was the name of a political party) and .

  • Ralph Fucetola JD||

    Newmark said, "...connected with a guy named Ralph Fucetola. I don't know what's happened to him..."

    As my my friend Bob noted above, I'm still here... and still making trouble when I can... and missing those extraordinary discussions in Muarry Rothbard's book-lined living room in NYC... Nice to know that some of the participants went on to such interesting things!

    In addition to the web pages Bob posted, I'm also maintaining a blog at:

    And I work with my co-trustees Gen. Bert Stubblebine and Dr. Rima Laibow through Natural Solutions Foundation:

  • JGR||

    I use Craigslist all the time (actually, I use Crazedlist, which polls a number of different Craigslist sites on shared searches), but I can't consider it to be in the least "libertarian" when there is an absolute prohibition on listing guns, gun parts, etc.

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