For Craigslist, Good Enough Has Been Perfect

You might think that you’ve hit a dead link, that you have been inexplicably transported back ten years, to when it would have been acceptable to write about the innovation and disruption that Craigslist signifies. It was a time when we were still figuring out what the web was, when the real world was still being translated online.

Things are different now. The internet is increasingly co-opted by business activity, while the “social web” more or less creates opportunities to relate to others online—a virtual world. It treats the web as no different than the offline world or “real world.” It’s less about taking things we do in real life and making them workable online. Often enough, it’s fussing with things already online to make them work better, or in absence of any particular motivation related to users, to make them better at data mining.


As you might guess, it turns out to be a very good economic motivation for that. Data mining allows sites both to track what’s working for users, and advertise to their tastes. No matter that it is a massive cop-out for the potential of the web as a community with some other ethos than just selling each other stuff. But it’s not just the web, business interests seem to have co-opted every aspect of our lives, taking over from us the meat of life and leaving us gravy, delicious but just a topping.

The way people use Facebook with a slight feeling of guilt convinces me that the less the web pings back to the outside world, the more it feels as if we’re gorging on gravy.

Good Enough is Perfect

Craigslist is known for making it easy to sell stuff you no longer want, or to look for an apartment. But it started out as a listserv for techie people to meet each other in San Francisco. Then it quickly became the place to advertise anything, and the scapegoat for the death of the newspaper industry. Craigslist was not built to change or kill an industry. It is a good early example of something online being used differently (and better) than intended, but that itself is nothing new. One person invents something, purely harmless or even helpful to humanity, and then someone else monetizes it.

Craigslist, for the most part, has remained the same as it ever was. Its ultimate utility was in nimbly catering to whatever people used it for, as its audience expanded out of the tech community, and out of San Fran to other major cities, and then, out of the United States. Craigslist’s sticky user experience seems quaint in a world where stagnation equals death. And it’s possible to be too nostalgic, of course. But Craigslist’s continued existence and success questions the “inevitable” speeding up of technological progress, whether it’s necessary, and whom it serves.

So what, if anything, can a young entrepreneur in online selling, or business creation, learn from Craigslist?

Craigslist is one of the few for-profit online companies I can think of that seems to operate on the basis that, once it has a good user base and income stream, all a company needs to do is maintain an equilibrium and work out problems as they crop up. This is antithetical to the almost religious idea that everything must keep getting better, an ideation that conveniently supports a rat-race ethos, and keeps expensive software engineers busy.

Any company or website might be a fad, riding out a trend, and so successful websites start to do things almost immediately to diversify their income and to avoid stagnation. Update early and often, and figure out what you’re doing as you go.

This has led to a culture of updating. Many, many companies offer very little in the way of actual services, but get into the race to create more wealth, leaving users cold with incessant upgrades, tweaks, ominously vague terms of use changes, and unintelligible licensing agreements. Forcing users to relearn how to use something every few months that was only ever supposed to be a cool or useful tool is not a clever business strategy. At least, not outside of the small echo chamber of those for whom tech is the end, and not a means.

Create Something Real

There are so many apps out there for productivity, for payments, processing, keeping track of your work, admin, email, renaming files, deleting duplicate files, figuring out which applications are slowing your computer down, all this stuff that is really side-show action. Then you need things like distraction monitors, or apps that forbid you to go online so that you don’t spend your day on frivolous tasks.

Craigslist is kind of basic and unpretty, but it’s nice for users, as long as you don’t expect too much and want a powerful and encompassing local search engine. Again, it refers back so immediately to the real world in a way other websites don’t, anchoring it there very literally, in a city or region. Any website (or app) now that does local is in some sense a facilitator of outside activities, which also makes them seem somehow quaint. How comforting this might be to you should skew quite tidily to your age demographic. The more feel that the web should be primarily a tool rather than be a world unto itself, the more you might take Craigslist as a sort of reality-check as you create real-world value with your business.


The profusion of things like OkCupid, Tindr and, prove that people want real-world connections along with random distraction and information online. The beauty of sites like Amazon seems to matter less than their ease of use and connectivity to others. And so it seems that if you can make these things easier for people, not harder, you have something.

Craigslist in a way does too much.. Why hasn’t it created a business model to spin off some of its offerings, selling other sites the right to scrape its data? Well, beyond the question of whether it can sell something that websites can already do for free, it has to do with its user experience.

Creating different websites for each category is a great thing to do if you want to create functionality that doesn’t need to exist for everything—like Padmapper tied Craigslist apartment rentals to Google maps. But then, there are already car sales sites, sex sites, apartment and housing sites, etc. Craigslist has it all, and the way that the different kinds of posts smash up next to each other is another way in which Craigslist more nearly resembles the outside world—it’s about everything, and in the world, you might find a weird job opportunity while you’re searching for a date.

There is an exception to the rule that the more nearly the web links to the real world, the more it is successful, and that’s when it comes to two venues—games and porn. I will not discuss games here because I’m not qualified, except to say that games offer a unique virtual experience that offers an escape from real life in the way movies do, so its proximity to real life is unimportant, except maybe in content (i.e. realism).

But porn and other “antisocial” activities are so successful online because they offer an interactive experience behind a shield of anonymity that it’s harder to find in real life. That’s not to say that these activities never refer to the world outside, or are taken offline, but the reason they successfully start online is because it’s possible to find them anonymously and to dabble with little risk in suspect activity. Craigslist had a very successful escort advertising platform for several years, until its popularity kind of ruined it, like the great restaurant spoiled by a rave from the mainstream paper. It also attracted the wrong kind of attention from law enforcement that saw Craigslist profiting off of illegal activity (or gray market activity).

Privacy Isn’t Just a Nice-to-Have, While Profitability Can Be Blinding

So the lesson there is that if there’s something anti-social about your offerings, something people might shrink from in real life, even if they’re interested, then it matters less that you offer real world products in conjunction with it, because advertising will do the trick. Anonymity, a safe space, is the selling point for our deep and dark perversions, because, however widespread they end up being, they are private and most people like them that way.

And increasingly, you cannot offer off-line contraband online without it becoming known. See the Silk Road trial. But sites where people can have an honest opinion, a fairly open dialogue, are getting rarer in an online economy that has found the preferred economic model to be based on advertising. This is something that people are only beginning to recognize, and think on, but it does signal a future where to be real online (without signaling your craziness to some imaginary future employer) will be a going concern. Not having to sign in to websites to post something will be a bonus, and the reverse a real turn-off. The model for that still doesn’t really exist, except in a non-corporate milieu. Again, back to quaint listservs, chat rooms, and forums. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has always stated that he wanted Craigslist to have a community-minded more than a corporate ethos.

Over the years Craigslist has taken measures to discourage business activity, for a few reasons. They did not have the resources in the beginning to get a handle on that size of commerce. They didn’t need to be eBay, as there was already eBay, and Craigslist was more local. And until the sexy portion of Craigslist started attracting too much attention, there had been a lot of randy social content on Craigslist, including anonymous hookups and varying degrees of prostitution and solicitation. So to discourage illegal activity, the site had no choice but to discourage business activity in general in order to keep on top of this black market. It instead thrives on the gray market, which is becoming more and more important as the used market grows in this country.

The social web is the old new thing, by now. Everything is there to offer people a way to gather. Whoever figured this out was a marketing genius. Well, Craigslist figured it out. It was really that simple. And though it has been surpassed by a few different generations of social sites by now, it is still a pretty fun place to be social, anonymously. And not just for sex. The Rants and raves, the strange offerings for sale or trade, etc. always offer up some voyeuristic thrill. A new app called Happn seems to have modeled its offerings on Craigslist’s Missed Connections. Craigslist is not just a business model but a business-model idea generator.

Whether Craigslist is as egalitarian and hippie as it suggests is debatable, now that Craigslist uses its muscle to stop other sites from piggybacking on its content. Behind that is a corporation’s ideal web rather than a user’s ideal. But a user’s ideal web, where everything is free and plenteous, while our personal privacy is also protected, is a myth as we’ve so abundantly seen. But Craigslist does seem to prioritize usability over profitability, while not invading privacy, and that is not quaint—it’s smart.

During the course of writing this article I have researched vintage diesel Mercedes Benzes and Volkswagons, black-out curtains (it’s seemingly impossible to find really heavy curtains for not a ton of money), various tools for the house, and looked on several dating posts as informal research for a relationship column I write. I still haven’t found anything like Craigslist that encompasses such a wide breadth of interests, outside of the internet considered as a whole. As our interests are codified and specialized online in service of advertisers, the place that feels less like a walled garden and more like the unpredictable and wild world outside, is still an exciting place to be. Even with the scams, the stupidity, and the bad spelling. Versus being protected from these things, I’ll take the freedom of Craigslist.

Emily Johnson