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GovLoop Member of the Week – Craig Newmark, Customer Service Rep and Founder, craigslist.org

His envelopes are addressed to Mr. Newmark, but the founder of the online classified list website is better known for his first name: Craig. When not busy with craigslist, or working with the Craigslist Foundation, a community-building platform, Craig is a member of GovLoop.

Craig graciously agreed to be profiled as a GovLoop member of the week. He talked to us about President Obama’s great start, and we learned he’s a nerd at heart–but not a traditional one.

Heather Krasna: Thanks for offering to be a GovLoop member of the week. Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you started craigslist?

Craig Newmark: The craigslist site started by using email log files as a database, and I rewrote the code using MySQL. That occurred late in 1999, which means I haven’t done anything technical for almost 10 years. You may recall I talk about growing up as a nerd, classic pocket protector and all? That’s literally true. I also wore thick black glasses in high school. They were taped together on two different periods. Seriously. And that’s just the way my life went. I’m still a nerd at heart, but in ways I think are good, in that when you grow up as a nerd, you do remember what it feels like a little to be left out. In turning that around, it reminds you that the internet includes, or potentially includes, everyone. That’s preamble. As you may have heard in the panel about five weeks ago, with some of the federal web manager’s council members, I talked about rise of the nerds. And, just to overindulge the cliché, I did the Vulcan hand thing and the “live long and prosper.” I’m not, nor have I ever been, a Trekkie, but I’m doing what I can to enlist people in technology to make things better for everyone.

H: That’s great. So, I noticed on your blog that you mentioned how the “wonks” or policy wonks are coming back into government, or they’ve been hiding and now they’re coming out. I work in a graduate school of public administration, and some of my students are definitely, well, you could them wonky, or you could call them nerdy. They’re wonderful people, really smart, and really passionate about making government work, and making sure that policies are implemented that really will help people. So what I’d love to do with this chat is to hear from your point of view about why you decided to join GovLoop, and your experience with craigslist and how that might help us develop a more responsive government.

C: In this context, I’ll just remind that one of my favorite quotes is Oscar Wilde, “if you want to tell people truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” And you’ll see that in much that I say or blog. But coming back to your theme, in September I suddenly realized that my job overall, beyond craigslist–in craigslist my primary job is customer service–but what I really am, not only craigslist and beyond, is a kind of a community organizer. To be more precise, I’m a community meta-organizer.

H: That’s a very profound statement, and it makes a lot of sense considering how your site has changed society. I’d love for you to tell me a little more about that, and how that changed your view of what you do.

C:You do customer service for 14 years or so, and that changes you. You interact with thousands of people, you see, if you’re really paying attention, that you’ll have to handle a lot of negative situations.
But you do see that people are overwhelmingly good. You do see that people normally want to give each other a break. In fact I see that people all over the country are pretty happy to help out. I mean, you hear people who differentiate small town values versus big city values. But to me, that is a kind of scam. Cities are collections of neighborhoods, which is to say small towns. And everywhere, people are more motivated to help out, than not. Just about a week ago, I saw a quote by Clay Shirky, that says there’s an excess of people who want to participate in making things better. And I heard Jay Rosen use the phrase “culture of participation,” and you’ll see that in my blog if I think more about it. What we’re seeing, now that the darkness has lifted, is lots and lots of people who want to make things better for everyone.

H: I know that you mentioned in the blog, and I noticed it too, that the Obama administration has put out a new community service website, which has posted something like 3,000 community service projects in a very short period of time. And I know that craigslist, for years, has had sections of the site where people can get organized together to create a positive event, or just get together and have fun. So I’m interested in hearing your perspective on some of the new initiative that the administration is taking to make “Gov 2.0.”

C: They’re off to a really great start. There’s a lot more to go. I’ve seen with government in different places, the hard part will be changing the inertia of the entrenched powers. I’ll point to the papers that the federal webmasters have published. I think they really got them out at TechPresident.com. Specifically, there’s Bev Godwin and Sheila Campbell, who you probably should interview next, and they point out some of the real problems for people in government in terms of using new tools, but they also offer constructive solutions. And so, they really know this stuff. You’ll see here that my role, while I know something about online community organizing or whatever, people like Bev and Sheila are the real practitioners. You’ll also see that Vivek Kundra, there was just a big rumor published in www.nextgov.com, (you need to start reading that regularly)—it looks like he’ll be head of OMB. And I just blogged it, frankly. I see it’s the headline article in NextGov. The deal is that there’s a lot happening, and my role seems to be just pointing to it happening, and encouraging people, and being some combination of encouraging and annoying. Which is not a traditional nerd role.

Well it seems like if the administration is open to nerds, then that’s a great role.

C: I think so.

Where do you see yourself as being annoying versus encouraging?

Well, being a little facetious, again that’s my sense of humor. What I’m really trying to do is find really good efforts, get out the word on them, and get people to talk to each other. There may be more, but that’s another conversation to go on.

So is that one of the reasons you joined GovLoop, is that you saw this as a good way to get people to talk to each other, and to point out a good effort?

Yes, although my instincts tell me there’s more I can do, I just don’t know what it is. And my feeling is that, oh, as I learn more, as I get engaged more, I’ll find more that I can do. But the big thing is this culture of participation, which is linked to a concept about a culture of trust. They seem to go together. From my point of view, this all stems from one core value, the notion that you treat people like you want to be treated. And as far as I can tell, that’s a universally shared value everywhere. Its corollaries are stuff like live and let live, and sometime you want to give the other person a break.

I was wondering, based on what you just said–there are some people who, depending on their perspective, are afraid of this new interactivity that’s produced by the web, and they usually have concerns that either things won’t be confidential that should be, or else that people won’t follow this culture of trust, that someone will break into something. I’m sure you see that all the time as the customer service person at craigslist, that there are occasionally people who use these tools in a negative way. So, what would you say to those people who are worried about this next step of government becoming more interactive?

Well, the idea is that whenever you run things a democratic way, in fact it does provide opportunities for bad guys. That’s not only true on the web, but in everyday life. That’s one of the problems with democracy. The good news that I observe, dealing with bad guys–which is part of the customer service job–is that aren’t that many bad guys out there. They’re busy, they’re noisy, and we perceive them out of proportion to reality. But to deal with them, you’ve got to give some power to everyone else. On our site, it’s called “flag for removal.” On other sites it’s called “report for abuse.” And for the most part, American culture and places like craigslist are self-policing. Sometimes you need to have cops, but you know, things only work if the majority of policing is done by citizens. Now, there are some other kinds of sites, for example the Sunlight Foundation. It’s more and more stuff online that may expose information some people won’t want to be in the public eye, but that’s good for the country. You probably want to talk at some point with Ellen Miller. You’ll see on my blog, which should go live in 10 minutes, Ars Technica, which is a big tech blog, has a list of top tech policy people to look for, and 4 of them I know. Ellen is one—look at the whole list. It’ll be pretty interesting. It gives a good idea of the direction.

H: I’ve been meeting more people on Twitter lately—I met the webmaster of the EPA on twitter, Jeffrey Levy, and some really interesting people in government are on there.

There’s a lot of folks on there. The CTO of Cisco, is a woman named Padmasree Warrior, not exactly your domain but not that far out. She’s been mentioned as a possible CTO of the country.

H: I know your organization has been active with philanthropy and supporting nonprofits, and wanted to know if you had ideas of how other entrepreneurs could help the sector.

Well, I hadn’t thought about that question. But something we need to do is pitch in with public-private partnerships. There’s that metaphor of Craigslist for Service. There’s other areas too. Frankly I’ve talked to a lot of cops. Something we’ve done for years when there’s a possible criminal situation. You want to do the right thing for cops and the victims of crime. And you need to get the cops the information they need without jerking them around. And frankly, that’s a complaint the cops have confided in me. You also have to do that in a way that respects due process and the rights of the accused. Now prior to January 20, that was an option. It was optional to respect the Bill of Rights. Now we have the rule of law again, and you have to do the right thing. Am I being too subtle here? Again this is real life experience.

H: How can those in government work more closely with technology entrepreneurs like you to better leverage the resources we have in this weakening economy? What are your thoughts on public-private partnerships, especially between technology entrepreneurs and government? What kind of partnerships do you think could happen?

C: Again, I think we have to get together to figure out how to better implement this national pull to service, we need to get word out better for full time service, like military, Peace Corps, or federal webmasters. We need to help build and focus on mechanisms that have people volunteer, either on an ongoing basis, or either just for the day, like to help clean out a river. It goes on from there. That’s the craigslist for service metaphor.

H: I know there’ve been efforts for a while to get people more engaged, especially younger people. One of the things we’re doing here at the University of Washington is to get more students to consider working for the federal government. And for a long time, for many reasons–partly the different administrations we’ve had, but also just the reputation of government–a lot of people haven’t considered it as a career. It’s also actually not that easy to get into that career. It’s not that simple to get a job with the federal government. So we’re making an effort here to encourage students to think about federal careers.

C: I have some ideas about that. But they’ve very half-baked right now. But what has to do with that is making federal I.T. cool.

H: Exactly. I think just making government cool is what the current administration is trying to do.

C: That’s a lot, considering I describe myself as a liberatarian moderate. The deal there, is that in doing customer service, I’ve learned to balance. Sometimes you need government to solve problems, because sometimes the market doesn’t work so well. The current economic situation illustrates that in a big way. And again, my life is full of irony and the surreal. Just to be sure, my title here (at craigslist) is “Customer Service Rep and Founder.” To be clear, my boss is the manager of customer service. I am the founder, but like I said, my life is surreal.

H: When I found out I could interview you for GovLoop, I asked some of the other folks on GovLoop what their questions might be, and one person suggested I ask that about the fact that you decided to give up the CEO role of craigslist—it’s an interesting point, and it seems that this kind of humility of knowing who might be better to be CEO, might be good for many companies and government systems to recognize. How could government learn from your model that you chose, of being customer service person?

C: The lesson, which actually Jeff Jarvis talks about in his new book “What Would Google Do?” is that sometimes you’ve got to know when to get out of the way. An example of that is stepping down as CEO. A more pertinent example, for your audience, is Hurricane Katrina and how the people of New Orleans and so on repurposed our site, because survivors used it to let friends and family know where they were headed. Friends and family asked where their survivors might be. A little later on, people were offering survivors housing and jobs. The deal there, is sometimes you have to know when to get out of the way and let your community take control as much as possible. That’s maybe a big deal.

H: Anything else you’d like to be on your GovLoop member of the week profile?

C: Just you might enjoy my blog at www.cnewmark.com.

H: I was enjoying the pictures of the birds on your blog site. I’m a birdwatcher too.

C: My Townsend’s warbler was back yesterday. I do love that, it’s so odd, but I’m lucky in terms of the location I got in my house. I genuinely got lucky and that ain’t bad. Sometimes things just work.

H: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I know this will sound funny, but I want to thank you—it’s because of you that I recently got rid of my futon that was taking up space. (Craig laughs). I’m sure I can give you a long list of great things your site has done for millions of people.

C: You’re at the University of Washington, right?

H: That’s right, I’m the director of career services at the Evans School of Public Affairs, which is a Master of Public Administration program. And I guess I just happen to be a little bit geeky and into the Web 2.0 and EGov, and so I was very excited when GovLoop got started. I think Steve Ressler had a great idea with that.

C: I don’t want to forget to mention—please thank your computer science department, for a very advanced email tool I use right now, called PINE.

H: That’s been around forever.

C: In fact, version 1 of the craigslist code used mail folders for the database, and used PINE as the database tool. You know we started as an email list, and the big breakthrough is I wrote code which turned email into html. Probably it’s good minimalism.

They still use PINE around here from time to time and I was amazed because they used it when I was an undergrad, which was a long time ago.

C: Mighty mighty good.

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Great interview. A great chat between two great smart GovLoopers.

Would love to hear your ideas about making federal IT cool. Before GovLoop, I co-founded a group called Young Government Leaders and I often spoke about how to recruit/retain. And a big part is just better marketing and making it cool. C’mon – I was at the movies last night and however, cheesy they may be to some, that National Guard commercial with a Kid Rock song is pretty top-notch for its demographic. And if you ever check out Teach for America they have done a brilliant job doing marketing and outreach. They took $20k/yr teaching jobs in rural Mississippi and made them cool and now have the top kids at all these great colleges fighting for the job.

Gabriela Dow

I think Craig (or Mr. Newmark 😉 offers a terrific example of drawing in the masses by putting forth a simple but powerful method for people to have a simple, but very real and tangible need met (helping Heather find a new home for her futon). I see so many government websites that look great but am not always sure what transactional or informational ability they offer to solve a need a constituent would have… and sometimes the sites are so fancy and packed with info that it can be hard for infrequent web users to find what they need, much less complete a transaction.

So I think federal IT will become “cooler” as new applications are released that help people accomplish a very specific, neccesary objective — the trick is to figure out what the most desried objective is and if a platform is offered to easily achieve it then usage will grow by positive word of mouth. Even better if somehow a federal initiative can help its users help each other — kind of how craigslist became the place, without fancy marketing or images to sell/trade items, find a fun class, recycle moving boxes (my thank you shout out!), etc. Now that would be a great change and so fulfilling to see the public utilizing federal IT resources to help their neighbors and communities.

Great article – thanks so much! I was feeling down this week with the passing of Millard Fuller (I served on a Habitat board for many years here in San Diego and traveled to South Africa with Habitat, so Millard’s work touched me deeply). But it is wonderful to see that there are others, like Craig, that carry forth this type of passion — to build platforms that allow communities help themselves and each other.

Carla Mays

Craigslist Foundation is awesome! I have been to many Nonprofit Boot Camps in the Bay Area. Wonderful training and networking opportunities for all professionals in business, civil and community services. Craig, my friends and I, owe you big time for creating an opportunity to find apartments and jobs! I would love to help organize a Nonprofit Boot Camp in Orange or San Diego County! I enjoyed meeting you at the Obama event at Tosca’s in North Beach! YES WE DID, because of awesome philanthropist like you! Love to be a part of any new adventure you or the Foundation are doing in SoCal! Peace & blessings, Carla!

Charles A. Ray

Craig is a prime example supporting an article I recently wrote about the importance of everyone learning to be comfortable on the Internet and interacting in virtual communities. If he is a nerd, I am proud to be part of the same herd.

Phil A.

Awesome article…very well done…don’t see that type of in-depth Q&A on LinkedIn…I am invigorated to invite everyone I know in government to join GovLoop!

Lauren Modeen

Very cool to read about Craig’s insight (I don’t know what I would do without craigslist!) Great interview questions Heather!

Jeffrey Levy

I’ll echo others’ thoughts – very good interview, interesting insights, and I’ve enjoyed meeting you on Twitter, too, Heather, and now in real life!

For anyone interested in the Federal Web Managers Council that Craig mentioned, it’s a group of top-level Web managers from cabinet departments and several independent agencies (I represent EPA). We owe Craig many thanks for his advocacy on our behalf!

More info on the Council
The Council’s papers on onling government and social media.


How do we translate the idea of a “culture of participation” that Craig mentions, referring to Jay Rosen, into reality? Is they key in the design of Internet-based tools (web 2.0, but also search engines, database crawlers, mobile apps, etc)? Or grassroots and top-down support “offline”? Or both? Something third? Fascinating interview – thanks.