• June 5, 2008
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Looking for Trust, Security, and Good Times

SEATTLE—Craig Newmark is someone you can trust. At least, that’s how you might have felt after his discussion yesterday morning with David Daniels, vice president at Jupiter Research, during the Authentication and Online Trust Alliance Summit 2008 keynote here. The founder of craigslist—who still holds the title of "customer service representative," as well—Newmark knows a thing or two about how to run a Web site: craigslist is one of the most highly trafficked sites on the Internet. Though Web technology has gotten more sophisticated since craigslist came on the scene in 1995, Newmark explained how the site continues to maintain its simplistic nature without compromising the trust of its users.

As a site devoted to serving the needs of people—whether they're looking for an apartment, a pet, or a significant other—craigslist has become an integral source for those who use the digital world to make their real world fulfilling. The success of craigslist would have been impossible had it not had one thing—trust. "Trust is about shared values," Newmark told the audience. "It sounds basic and trite but it's what we try to do, and we follow through on it in an obsessive manner."

He mentioned how, just this week, the craigslist team had put new security measures in place to protect against what he called "the bad guys"—those who spam the site with "disinformation." In actuality, these posts are relatively small in number, he said, but the irritation they arouse is disproportionately significant. Therefore, the site has developed a similar community where policing efforts are in the hands of the general public, similar to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

There are warnings posted at the top of most posts that haven’t been paid for by legitimate businesses. Moreover, at the top right corner of every listing, users are provided with the option to flag a post as one of the following:

  • miscategorized;
  • prohibited;
  • spam/overpost; or even
  • best of craigslist.
When enough members of the community share the same opinion about a listing, it automatically earns that label. Craigslist itself has also built internal tools in its effort to track down the bad guys and remove them from the community. This priority, Newmark told the crowd, was one of the main reasons craigslist—once recognized as the "anti-eBay," a reference to the popular online auction site—agreed to let eBay acquire a roughly 25 percent stake in 2004, despite user accusations of "selling out." ("Trust" is also a critical element in the boardroom, it seems: There's been recent tension between eBay and craigslist themselves, as both parties have filed suit over craigslist executives' preemptive reorganization in light of what they called a potential conflict of interest regarding eBay's Kijiji classified-ad site. That suit is pending in a Delaware court.)

In an interview with BusinessWeek shortly after eBay became a minority stakeholder, craigslist Chief Executive Officer Jim Buckmaster spoke about how the partnership would enhance the security of the site. "EBay has the resources to put people behind bars," he told the magazine, adding that, "In Romania alone, [eBay has] put 100 scammers behind bars."

Newmark admitted that he is terrible at management, which is why he leaves that arena to Buckmaster, freeing time for Newmark to focus on what he’s good at—customer service. "I do recommend getting yourself one of those gigantic CEOs (Buckmaster is 6’7", Newmark is 5’7"). They're very effective," he joked. Newmark prides himself on his ability to respond to consumer demands promptly and sincerely. His email (craig@craigslist.org ) is public knowledge and anyone who wants his phone number, he said, can just ask. "It's not altruistic, or noble. It's pretty much sharing values and following through—and following through some more," he added.

The ultimate goal is to increase the bad guys' pain in spamming craigslist until the cost exceeds the value. Even local authorities are taking it upon themselves to report fraudulent activity, sometimes with 3 a.m. calls, which of course, Newmark said, are promptly forwarded to Buckmaster. Spam advertisements continue to be craigslist’s top challenge and Newmark says that he expects it will continue to be for some time to come. As of now, he doesn’t know what more to do, but is lucky to have a strong community of users devoted to protecting the site against contamination. Not surprisingly, Newmark believes people are "overwhelmingly trustworthy" and "good."

Moving forward, craigslist’s responsibility, he told attendees, is to continue to listen and respond accordingly—one complaint at a time. Perhaps one day, Newmark mused, everyone will have to be authenticated through digital certification, but he doesn’t see that happening in the next few years. As the online world continues to open up and the demand for security increases, though, Newmark doesn’t think the solution will be in technology. Rather, he said, "it comes down to the human things."

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