Craigslist, the website, is one of the few inhabitants of the rarified air reserved for the upper-echelon of consumer-facing websites such as Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon. With over 20 billion (yes, billion) page views each month, it claims to be in the top 10 of all companies by English language pages served. Over 50 million Americans use the site each month — with craigslist having only 30 or so employees. Not thirty thousand. Thirty.
The service — a mostly unfiltered, almost entirely free series of local forums — seems incredibly simple, so simple that many copycats have tried to enter the space. If you build it, they will come, the copycats believe. Grab a domain name, install some software, maybe put up some flyers and wait. People will post jobs they need filled, apartment listings, and try and buy and sell everything from baseball tickets and used books to old couches and broken electronics. After all, that’s how the Craig of craigslist did it. A fool-proof plan.
Except that isn’t how craigslist came to be.
In 1994, a java developer named Craig Newmark was living in San Francisco, working for Charles Schwab, the investment services firm. Being connected to the nascent consumer Internet, he caught onto a salient fact rather early: people were using the new technologies available to them to self-organize around topics, helping each other out by sharing knowledge and information. Newmark himself was looking for more social events in and involving the SF technology scene, so he started his own online community — an informal email list consisting of a handful of friends. Newmark would email out events that he thought looked interesting. No heavy technology involved; just a simple email — basically, a way to manage a liberally-used “cc:” field.
Pretty quickly, the list grew, in both size and scope. List members told friends about this guy Craig’s list. And recipients of the email began requesting posts for things other than events — jobs, stuff for sale, etc. Newmark himself realized that apartment listings were also a natural fit. By the middle of 1995, about 250 people were on the list. Not huge, but significant, especially for his mail server — which could no longer handle the list size. He installed a list server (called majordomo) to manage the emails, and intended to call the list “SF Events.” But list members were already calling it “Craig’s List,” and he deferred.
But users were clamoring for more; specifically, a web interface. In the fall of 1997, Newmark registered the domain craigslist.org. And the rest is history — the history you already knew.
Bonus fact: Craigslist is still a privately held company, but is 25% owned by eBay, which purchased its share from an early, former employee of craigslist.
From the Archives: Wikipedia Can’t Decide on Wikipedia Founder’s Birthday: Another story from an Internet pioneer.
Related reading: “Wanted – Bear Cubs for My Children: One Hundred of the Weirdest Posts on Craigslists (and Their Responses)“ by Gary Fingercastle. Five reviews, mixed — but the book is only about $8. (And you can probably find a cheaper version on craigslist.)
Thank you to Craig Newmark for his help in drafting the above.