Craig Newmark, the Principled Jerk
I was recently approached by a newspaper owner about an idea he thought Craig Newmark might be interested in. In light of the recent shutting down of PadMapper, reopening of PadMapper, and Craigslist’s lawsuit I think it makes sense to post the exchange from a few months ago:
I would like to approach Craigslist with an idea. Given the state of local newsrooms, I do not think that Craig imagined that his efforts would lead to the end of watchdog and investigative journalism, leaving only the trash that fills most websites as the papers get thinner.
If Craigslist were to become the classifieds platform for newspapers, that might fix the problem.
Here was my response:
Yes. But Craig won’t. There would be if Craig were rational. The problem with Craig Newmark is he’s a principled jerk. He has very odd priorities. Craig spends his days manually removing flagged spam in a terminal view. You and me, we can’t understand someone like this.
Craigslist hasn’t embraced any new technology in years. They’re not concerned with fixing anything for newspapers because Craig refuses to accept responsibility for helping break them. You need to understand that he hasn’t been able to be shamed into helping fund journalism in any meaningful way yet.
They also have an ownership structure designed to make it impossible to sell a piece or invest in the company. eBay only got a piece after they bribed one of the guys Craig gave shares to in an effort to prevent him from ever selling out. He never saw a dime of this money, but you can just tell he’s been reluctant to trust anyone ever since.
Here’s the thing, people like Craig because he’s left so much money on the table. He’s a for-profit that masquerades as a non-profit. He’s permanently shrunk an industry. He’s rich to the tune of $300+ million and they’ve gotten by with under 50 employees. Estimates of revenue range widely from $50 million a year to more than $200 million.
Worst of all, he thinks his project called Craig Connects announced last year will solve journalism’s problems by aiding openness and transparency (two qualities that aren’t embraced at Craigslist). As if good quality journalism can exist without someone to pay for all the stories that don’t pan out or cost more money than they’ll generate in revenue. He’s essentially duplicating the old Knight Foundation grant model that Knight is wisely moving away from.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Craig on some level. I think most people in the tech world like him, but he’s delusional, reckless, and created one hell of a cockroach of a business. He’s hypocritical (On the board of the Sunlight Foundation and advisor to Wikimedia but users can’t use CL data to create cool things) and on some level he lacks self-awareness. He’s no different than a capitalist who milks his business for profits instead of innovating. He’s smart enough to hide behind an “aw shucks, golly gee, I didn’t know I was making so much money” personality. The truth is this is the same personality as the guys who missed the boat on innovation at their newspaper business for the last 20 years.
The newspapers aren’t dead yet. Craigslist will die, but like the newspapers it’s just going to take longer than we think is reasonable.“
About three years ago, I was approached by Romy Maxwell at Startup School in 2009. He asked my advice about the tool they were building to help people do radius searches for Craigslist apartments, remove duplicate listings, and let you know when pictures are duplicated to avoid scams. I urged him to contact Craig Newmark directly and share. I figured the reasonable response from Craig would have been to hire Romy and his partner or buy their technology. It’s literally what every reasonable company in the world does when innovative young people come along and make something your users want.
What happened next tells you all you need to know. Romy corresponded politely, explained how they were going about building their software, even decided to keep it non-revenue generating. They sent a link to Craig so he could check out their work and even while acting super friendly, he encouraged them, and then without communication or warning, blocked them.
When I went back and looked to see if I had previously written about it, it turns out not much has changed. This is the comment I posted on a Hacker News nearly 3 years ago:
For the life of me, I can’t understand why craigslist has had this mentality. I basically have to chalk it up to Craig being stubborn. He was burned by ebay grabbing 20%, he hasn’t changed the design ever, and may constantly live in fear of being co-opted by the man. But like it or not, Craigslist is the man. And when your users go out of their way to create pieces of software that actually improve the experience for your users (like letting me sort through the pile of duplicate, spam, and misleading listings) don’t shut them down. Open up and help them. Craigslist lets people post their information for free in many cases, but for some strange reason won’t let people take information out.
I had hoped that the culture might become more developer friendly after Jeremy Zawodny (formerly at Yahoo) joined up. Zawodny even wrote an article about how all this terrific data was available via RSS, but there was no good way to piece it together: http://jeremy.zawodny.com/blog/archives/008513.html
Craig is a programmer and he comes across as a normal, humble sort of guy. We like him and we like his service. I don’t understand his obsession with keeping craigslist a) locked in the dark ages for functionality and b) not letting anyone build something that adds useful features. It really starts to make you think. Is he just strange or (if you don’t give him the benefit of the doubt like I do) evil?
Now that Craigslist is actively suing PadMapper, a service which undoubtedly makes Craigslist better (and in my mind, reinforces their dominance), I no longer can even hope to give Craigslist the benefit of the doubt.
The way I see it, Craigslist really has six great options available to them. They could:
- Kill PadMapper by implementing a map feature themselves. Simple and fair.
- Elect not to build the map feature because this feature is trivial and they believe their users don’t want it anyway. So this external website should languish and provide only a small marginal benefit to those who find it useful and no harm to your users.
- Buy the company for a bit of money and implement the feature. Recognizing talent and rewarding someone for their foresight is never a bad move.
- Offer to hire Eric DeMenthon, founder of PadMapper, to help them make their product better.
- Give the external website their blessing and perhaps invest a little money so that if it builds a big audience they win too.
- Ask PadMapper to pay a data access fee and charge per query.
Instead, Craig turned to the lawyers. It’s quite hard to reconcile an advisory board member of Wikimedia and a board member of The Sunlight Foundation behaving this way.
Even if evil may be a bit harsh, principled jerk seems to fit quite nicely.
Update I: After Craigslist has decided to implement exclusive post ownership, I’d like to revise "principled jerk” to just “jerk”.
Update II: I received a communication from Craig Newmark’s “media liaison”, Bruce Bonafede. He specializes in public relations, crisis communications, and reputation management. I imagine he’s busy today. Here it is in full:
I’m the media liaison for Craig Newmark and his craigconnects initiative. I’ve read your post “Craig Newmark, the Principled Jerk.”
From reading your post, it appears you are not aware that while Craig retains a high-level oversight position as chairman of the board of craigslist, he turned over the management of the company to CEO Jim Buckmaster 12 years ago. Mr. Buckmaster has had sole responsibility for managing business operations ever since. We recognize that this is an atypical arrangement compared to many other companies, but no one ever accused craigslist of being “typical”. In your post you repeatedly criticize Craig for decisions related to craigslist with which he was not involved.
I’m sure you care about being accurate and fair, and therefore we’re requesting you revise your post accordingly, and that you take these facts into account in future postings related to Craig Newmark or craigslist.
Thank you for your cooperation.
media liaison, craigconnects.org
So there you have it. According to Mr. Bonafede, Mr. Buckmaster is solely responsible, Craig Newmark bears no responsibility for the decisions of the company he’s chairman of, and Craig Newmark, customer service representative, has a PR firm specializing in crisis and reputation management.