Q&A: Craig Newmark, of 'Craigslist' fame, looks back -- and ahead

He calls his online creation a 'happy accident'

Twelve years ago, Craigslist.org founder Craig Newmark was still a software programmer at Charles Schwab & Co. But that changed after he began sending out self-composed e-mails to a small group of friends to tell them of cool art exhibits and high-tech events going on in his adopted city of San Francisco. Newmark quit his job, did freelance programming and dove into what he saw as the promise of the Internet as a place to share information. From those original, e-mailed events lists arose Craigslist.org, a mostly free site for online classified ads. It's now grown into listings for some 450 cities and towns around the world, where people can buy and sell, find a date, and barter for goods and services. Newmark, 55, founded Craigslist -- it was incorporated in 1999 -- as a for-profit company, and works there today as a customer service representative. More than 30 million people globally use the site each month. He talked with Computerworld recently about how his site began and where it's going.

Excerpts from that interview follow:

So how did it happen that you created Craigslist? The effort started in 1994 when I was at Charles Schwab, working then on overall security architecture. But I also saw people using the Internet and figured it was going to be important eventually for anyone in the brokerage business. So I started evangelizing that at Schwab. While I was looking around at the Internet, I saw a lot of people helping each other out and thought that I should do something, too. So in 1995, I began to e-mail a bunch of friends about art and technical events in San Francisco. Over the months that followed, people kept asking if I could add the occasional job posting and listings for things to sell, too. Then I said, "Let's add apartment listings, too." It was all done through a very simple e-mail, a cc: list. This is the sort of pattern we still have today -- people suggest stuff to us, we do what makes sense and then we ask for more feedback.

I left Schwab around the same time I began Craigslist. Soon I went freelance and had a lot of fun, while working on Craigslist as a hobby. One milestone was hit in the middle of 1995. At that point, I was sending my e-mails to about 240 people, but the list at that point had gotten around to friends of friends as well. At 240 addresses, though, the cc: list mechanism broke. Then I had to use a listserve. I was going to call it SF Events, since it was still mostly events, but friends told me that they already called it Craigslist, that I had created a brand unintentionally and that I should keep calling it that because it was personal and quirky.

The thing just kept growing. Later on in 1995, I remembered that I was a programmer and that I could turn code into HTML, so I would be able to do instant publishing. It suddenly occurred to me that I could write code and that I could make Craigslist into a Web site where the code would do most of the work for me.

Was making the move from the listserve to a Web site a big transition for you? Not much at first. People started using the site, but the mailing list was still the big deal then for users. In a sense, back then it was not much different than it is now. At that point, the mailing list was still more popular than the Web site, but I have no idea when the crossover occurred. I'm guessing in the early 2000s.

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