I am not a networker. I don’t Facebook. (Yes, it is a verb.) I do not tweet. I do write a blog, though. And, lately, I have become a frequent traveler on the now-infamous craigslist. I used to browse the job offerings there but, currently, I find that the “for sale” classified section is far more satisfying. You can browse or you can search, whatever your predilection. There is something for everyone on the list.
It is not a new concept of merchandising, but rather its delivery system is, having a similarity of style to Amazon’s retail selling, which went online in the mid-nineties, too. Craigslist began in 1995 as a local community service for the San Francisco Bay area before expanding to other cities about five years later. Although it is many things to many people, craigslist, according to founder and developer (and namesake) Craig Newmark, “craigslist works because it gives people a voice, a sense of community trust and even intimacy. Other factors he cites are consistency of down-to-earth values, customer service and simplicity.”
Despite all the usual human tendencies to push limits or to be completely self-serving, and even, sometimes, malicious – here we won’t bother to discuss the spammers – there is a kind of public internet policing that maintains a general level of decorum and civility that rises to the surface in the community of craig. Sure, it is not without its scandals and tests of appropriateness, but, basically, it works. And yes, it has hurt the print medium, whose classifieds format it has mimicked. That is its strength and its weakness. In both versions, paper or electronic, messages are sent out in a bottle in the hope that someone – the right person – finds them.
What I have found is that craigslist is an important medium for bringing people together – in my case, as a purchaser of other peoples’ discards. This is an early form of reuse and recycling. Look at the alternative: A merchant opens a storefront or sets up a booth to sell wares – how many customers could potentially stop and purchase something from a store in a day, or a month? (Don’t think Apple.) And how would that item find the right buyer? With the old inked classified ads, the odds improved if the readership was large – but how many of that pool of readers really desired that one particular item for sale? And, since ads were sold by the line, how many listed items could one afford to pay for with the possibility of no payback? In the online listings, the audience comes and searches for the very item that they can’t live without. The seller just needs to get all those pesky keywords in a row. It doesn’t get any easier. One doesn’t even have to build a better mousetrap, or build anything at all – just search terms.
I have had a handful of interactions with the public on craigslist and, knock wood, they have been positive. There is a placeness found in a good communication and outcome – both parties pleased with the transaction. It starts with a lot of preliminary emailing, sort of feeling-out the seller while he/she feels out you, the buyer. Once a meeting of minds is achieved, a comfort level reached, there is a designated place of commerce similar to going into a store or a flea market booth. Only, many times, it is at the seller’s home. I feel odd invading someone’s privacy after finding the item I want in such a public forum. Some of the sellers are fine with it, others are visibly nervous. But in the end, if the sale works out to everyone’s satisfaction, it is a triumph of basic human endeavor – a gain/gain situation. A real person-to-person exchange in the 21st century marketplace, despite the technical medium that brought them together. Maybe craigslist is a catalyst of placeness. And you know it is a cultural phenomenon when “Weird Al” Yankovic writes a song about it.
I hope I am never disillusioned about craigslist. There is nothing fancy about it; in fact, its interface is still very like the early look of web style. There is no glitzy packaging, no annoying ads popping out in your face, no images except for the one or two that are necessary for describing the piece of merchandise … but you have to choose to look at it. The format is simple, basic even. What is there is electronically delivered, but human-powered, and the outcome is entirely in human hands. It is but a stage for acting ourselves in the new world order.