The Real Community Organizer: Craig Newmark on Craigslist, Libertarianism, Online Democracy, and Nerd Values

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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 cutthroat 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.tv/ video/show/588.html.

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, OneWebDay, 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. …