Arvind Narayanan's journal - Why Craigslist needs to die [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Why Craigslist needs to die [Jan. 27th, 2009|12:37 pm]
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Edit. There is a bit of name-calling and emotionally charged responses both here and on news.yc, where someone seems to have posted it. I guess I brought that on myself with my inflammatory tone, for which I apologize. But I stand by the content.

Craig Newmark, the Craig in Craigslist, is a do-gooder thoroughly uninterested in profits. When I saw him on Colbert, I got the feeling he didn't particularly aspire to anything in life. The site charges for job ads -- its sole source of revenue -- because companies that post them begged Craig to do so. This was because legitimate job ads were getting drowned out in a sea of pranks and frauds. Late last year, when the government essentially forced Craigslist to charge for erotic services ads, they decided to donate the revenues to charity.

Normally, that would all be just fine. The problem is that Craigslist is a monopoly. Let's get that completely straight: Craigslist is what it is because the site got lucky (having been founded back in '95) and quickly reached a position of dominance in a few different classifieds categories. Just like Microsoft did with Internet explorer until a couple of years ago, Craigslist has been able to stay on top without having to improve a single thing.

I have personally talked to multiple people who were planning or trying to build Craiglist competitors, and it became clear to me how much better the site could be, and how big a disservice Craigslist is doing the general public by not improving their technology and their interface. It was also clear that all of its potential competitors were intimidated by the task of trying to unseat a behemoth from its monopoly position in the face of the network effect.

When I talk about Craigslist's lack of technological progress, people assume I'm talking about the front page design, and get all defensive. Actually, that's one of the more effective aspects of the site's UI. Rather, I mean the lack of any sophistication in the search, the absence of any form of user reputation tracking, the unavailability of map views, the lack of an API that might enable third parties to provide any of these functionalities, and many, many other things.

And that's why Craigslist needs to die. I believe they are holding back a huge market segment in a significant way, and aren't going to change. Y Combinator is looking to fund a Craigslist killer. Whoever they end up funding, I wish them the best of luck.

Let me end by saying that the Craigslist story is a great example of why even if your goal is public service, a non-profit is often not the way to go because you lose your motivation to improve once the founders' personal hopes/aspirations/fantasies are realized.

Edit. Some clarifications. Many people have a problem with my calling Craigslist a monopoly. First of all, monopoly doesn't automatically mean "evil." I didn't call them the latter. As a matter of fact, though, they've shut down services which screen scraped them to provide value-added services. Perfectly within their legal rights? Of course. Good behavior? I don't know.

Second, in case it isn't perfectly obvious, all I'm saying is that it's time for a competitor to rise up by building something better. I'm not calling for a boycott or a government intervention of any sort. There is nothing hateful about my post, the title notwithstanding.

Third, many people have trouble imagining how you can make Craigslist far better. Let me paint you a picture. (This is a comment I made below, but worth promoting here.)

Let's say you're searching for apartments. Hit the street, forget Craigslist. Just start driving. As you drive, the apartment listings in the neighborhood will appear on your iPhone (or dashboard). It will integrate with GPS to tell you where is the next place to stop. When you come to the location of a listing, if you don't like the location/looks, etc., keep driving on. If you like it, pull up pictures of it right there.

I can similarly envisage making each activity on Craigslist far superior in terms of user-experience. As it is, Craigslist is more like a backend for data on top of which you'd imagine apps would have to be built, except that Craigslist won't build those apps nor let other people build them.

Further reading: Is Craigslist rotting on the vine?
LinkReply

Comments:
From: shazow
2009-01-27 07:12 pm (UTC)

Not quite true

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Sophistication != Usefulness.

It's not true that there are no other options: http://www.google.com/search?q=online+classifieds

It's not true that they're not improving their technology, like their search: http://jeremy.zawodny.com/blog/archives/010869.html

It's not true that anonymity is a bad thing.

I have also talked to multiple people who want to build "craigslist killers", and I don't think they will succeed because they don't value... value. Every new feature like an API could have just as many negative effects as positive.

Another example: plentyoffish. Same scenario; one man runs it, bare minimum in terms of design and functionality. Read his blog: http://plentyoffish.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/listening-to-users-is-bad/
He intentionally avoids fixing broken things (like thumbnail scaling) and adding additional features, for precisely the reason that what he has works, and what other sites have, despite their sophistication, doesn't.

Craigslist is a fantastic service, and I admire Craig Newmark for providing it in an altruistic fashion. I hope it continues to be part of the foundation of the 'tubes and continues to evolve around peoples' true needs (and not developers' wet dreams).
[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-27 11:34 pm (UTC)

Re: Not quite true

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the existence of other options doesn't mean craigslist isn't a monopoly. no one has heard of the other options because of the critical mass problem. they can't attract users until they have users. see?

"It's not true that anonymity is a bad thing."

you say that based on what?

"Every new feature like an API could have just as many negative effects as positive."

i just don't know what to say to that. nobody would ever build anything with that kind of attitude.

"He intentionally avoids fixing broken things (like thumbnail scaling)"

funny you should bring up plentyoffish. i'm fully familiar with the markus situation. there's a very good reason he doesn't fix thumbnails. that forces people to click on thumbnails to get to the picture with the right aspect ratio, this increasing page views and ad revenue. it's a perfect example of a site built around the developer's wet dreams instead of users' needs.

"I admire Craig Newmark for providing it in an altruistic fashion."

yeah. let's see how the altruist is doing in a few years.
From: shazow
2009-01-27 11:54 pm (UTC)

Re: Not quite true

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Critical mass has little to do with monopolies. If there are plenty of viable alternatives and yet everyone continues to use the one service then it's not a monopoly but a superior service. Is Google a monopoly just because it has a majority market share of the web search engine business?

It's not true that anonymity is a bad thing. Based on what? I just don't know what to say to that, as you put it. How many people would sell their home-made sex toys if they had to have their credentials posted with the ad? That's an extreme, but I'm sure you can imagine many scenarios where it's beneficial for the seller to dictate the terms of the contact process.

"i just don't know what to say to that. nobody would ever build anything with that kind of attitude."

Google builds all their services with that kind of attitude, it's called pilot releases and A/B testing. Doing minor incremental improvements instead of huge risky changes is understandable for a small operation like Craigslist. Better location awareness would be a nice feature, but what good would an API do? Introduce automated posting? There's plenty of screen scrapers for reading.

"it's a perfect example of a site built around the developer's wet dreams instead of users' needs."

Directing user behaviour is not quite a developer's wet dream, it's a psychologist's wet dream. Incidentally, it benefits the user. Are you saying that forcing people to click on thumbnails has reduced the number of plenty of fish users (the only decent metric of success)?

"yeah. let's see how the altruist is doing in a few years."

Probably better than people with poisonous attitudes toward people who are just trying to do a nice thing. No offense. :-)

He has a solid degree and experience, he donates tens of thousands to charities, he has a nice home in California. I'm sure he'll be fine in a few years, even if craigslist is surpassed by a "craigslist killer".
From: (Anonymous)
2009-01-27 07:31 pm (UTC)

Craigslist

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You seem to have a problem with choice.
[User Picture]From: skittish_derby
2009-01-27 07:37 pm (UTC)

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i found my babysitter on craigslist and i love her. i sold my scooter on craigslist. it was sort of risky finding a sitter, but she posted a picture and i interviewed her with my husband before i let her alone with hazel.

i love craigslist. it provides an amazing service to people who don't want to pay to sell things or hire part time people.

i dunno. why would being a monopoly be a bad thing? especially when they don't even keep their profit. we supposedly have a free market... putting restrictions on things just to hold companies down is not what i would call free.

i understand why it would make someone nervous, but they aren't purposely putting other people out of business... being the best is not a bad thing.

why is being the best a bad thing? especially for a service that allows everyday people to buy and sell from individuals.

i am sorry, maybe i just don't understand why you want to kill craigslist... i find it very useful.

i am not saying i am trying to remain ignorant. as soon as i found out that nestle uses slaves to harvest and make their chocolate, i boycotted them... but that is true damage to a people's freedom... i don't see how unintentionally preventing other "craigslist" type companies from forming is reeking havok on personal freedom.


<3
[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-27 11:29 pm (UTC)

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yes, i've found things i wanted on craigslist as well. i'm not claiming the site is useless.

i think you misunderstand my use of the term "craigslist killer." it's a term-of-art. what it means is that i'm looking forward to a service that's so good that people will flock to it and leave craigslist in the dust. i'm not talking about building something to hurt craigslist specifically. that wouldn't be in anyone's interest.

i believe that it's possible to build something that's vastly better than craigslist. you may not agree with that. that's totally cool. if you turn out to be right, the craigslist killer will never materialize. if i turn out to be right, you'll have something that even better to use instead of craigslist. it's a win-win.

nothing that i'm saying is related to personal freedom. i'm not calling for anyone to boycott craigslist. i'm not calling for the government to regulate them. i'm simply predicting how the free market will work. i believe that craigslist has become a monopoly and stagnated, and that a better service will come along and (eventually) lure away craigslist's users. that's all.
[User Picture]From: skittish_derby
2009-01-28 12:50 am (UTC)

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well, maybe you are right. maybe some awesome company will come up with a craigslist type thing with better graphics.

i don't mind the simplistic nature, and the fact that there aren't a bunch of ads.

though they may be a monopoly, they are not using that status to overcharge or under supply...

i really just don't see anything wrong with it, :shrug:

i think the government should rarely (if ever) step in... especially if the free market has spoken. but really, most people disagree, so it is pointless to say over and over.

<3
[User Picture]From: skittish_derby
2009-01-28 01:59 am (UTC)

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oops.. read it again... you didn't say anything about gov't interference... it just seems that whenever someone says "monopoly" it feels like what they are really saying is "someone should do something" and when someone says that, most people think the government first...

sorry.

but anyway.. i hope you don't think i was attacking you with emotional and unreasonable reactions... just voicing my reaction.

<3
[User Picture]From: dannyman
2009-01-27 09:18 pm (UTC)

Oh God this argument is dumb

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My favorite part is you explain that Craigslist is a monopoly because it happened to be in the right place at the right time. Like Internet Explorer!

Ahh . . . there was this web browser called Netscape that had like 80% market share. Netscape had 80% market share because it was first to market. Right place. Right time. Microsoft was PISSED about that so they launched all their resources at unseating Netscape. They succeeded. And yet . . . Netscape gave way to Firefox, and these days Explorer has maybe 60% market share.

Yes, Craigslist could be better. What it is is newspaper classifieds online: faster and freer. That's about it! And it works 90%+ of the time! And yet it could be better and there are other web sites to use depending on what you seek. For example, Craigslist is pretty horrible for personals, so there's sites like okcupid.

Have you ever used a competing "apartment finder" or real estate web site? They tend to suck. Too much bloated gui and features and a need to make money. Craigslist doesn't give you much, and while that may feel like a curse, the minimalism is also a virtue. "Here's what we got ... make of it what you will" as opposed to "here is what we would like you to experience. We're probably assuming you use Explorer and you want to spend the most money possible. Woe unto you if that's not your desire."

As for map views or an API, there's that housing map thing that just scrapes the site for content. Yeah, an API might be nice but whatever: craigslist is a mostly-free service, you get what you pay for, and it works 90% of the time. In order to build a craigslist killer you'd need something nearly free that works 98% of the time. Good luck with that!

Sincerely,
-danny
[User Picture]From: normalcyispasse
2009-01-27 11:13 pm (UTC)

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For Craigslist to die, a single, unified competition has to assert itself. Remember the search engine wars of the late '90s? There was Yahoo, Metasearch, Dogpile. . . all sorts of stuff, and all sorts of results. It took Google to unseat everyone, and that still took quite a while.

CL is going to be around for a bit yet.
[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-27 11:37 pm (UTC)

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thank you for a rational comment instead of an emotional-defensive response!

i totally agree that craigslist is going to be around for a while; it has become almost a cultural institution. however, i believe that within a couple of years it will become clear what will eventually replace it.
From: fixious
2009-01-28 02:23 am (UTC)

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Don't have a strong opinion either way about what you're saying, but I have noticed that simpler UIs and relative anonymity work better for online classifieds. My previous university had a fairly sophisticated system -- authentication, ratings, tracking of ads, an internal message system, whatever. There were maybe two ads posted per day. The classifieds at Chicago is basically a nicer-looking craigslist. Even controlling for the differences in student body size, it gets used way more than the other one.

Maybe it's that apartment hunts and garage sales are not quite the same as e-mail and social networking -- they're stressful and boring one-time necessities for which you just want a quick and dirty tool to initiate transactions.
[User Picture]From: rfc9000
2009-01-28 03:25 am (UTC)

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I think things like Web2.0 UI, API/plugin support, user accounts/social networks integration, etc., dont necessarily make a site better in general. Atleast craigslist is not badly crippled without these things.
I agree the site could do with some improvements/new features. I just cant think of any killer feature that would suddenly make it cooler off the top of my head. The features you suggested don't seem that killer IMO.

the lack of any sophistication in the search
content gets stale so fast that most of the time just scrolling through the last day or two's posts suffices

the absence of any form of user reputation tracking
yes spam is a problem, but reputation system would mean the best part about craigslist, anonymity, would be lost.

the unavailability of map views
yep that could be a cool feature, IFF people give out precise locations. but then most of the time ppl dont want to.

the lack of an API that might enable third parties to provide any of these functionalities
APIs come with their own problems.. security holes.. privacy leaks..

[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-28 04:41 am (UTC)

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when something has not yet been invented it's hard to realize how badly you want it. i've been giving this problem some thought for quite a while and talking to people, so i'm in a better position to envision what might be.

each one of those points is not individually a deal-killer. together it's hopeless. think beyond craigslist. you're starting from the assumption that i just want to make cragslist a little bit better. that's the problem. think of something that will blow it away.

here's one single application. to search for apartments, hit the street. forget craigslist. just start driving. as you drive, the apartment listings in the neighborhood will appear on your dashboard. it will integrate with gps to tell you where is the next place to stop. when you come to the location of a listing, if you don't like the location/looks, etc., keep driving on. if you like it, pull up pictures of it right there.

now, this is not a 2x faster way to search for apartments, it's a whole different category. in dense areas like SF and NYC, once you have this, no one will go back to the old way. that's just one example. if i had more time i could list half a dozen like that.
[User Picture]From: rfc9000
2009-01-28 04:58 am (UTC)

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yep, your craigslist IPhone/in-dash app idea is indeed a cool idea.
But yes, like you said, its an entirely different category (like dodgeball and zogo are not eharmony/match.com killers, they are a new app domain altogether).
[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-28 05:08 am (UTC)

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it's a different category like email is a different category from telegrams written in morse code. why the hell would anyone prefer the latter? of course it's a craigslist killer. what is it about this topic that blinds people to the obvious? yikes!
From: (Anonymous)
2009-01-28 05:21 pm (UTC)

Craigslist.

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I am NOT intimidated by Craigslist, see www.SacramentoGrapevine.com

We take the BEST of Craigslist, Kijiji, MySpace, FaceBook and YouTube and combine them into a single website.
From: (Anonymous)
2009-01-28 10:11 pm (UTC)

How to beat a gorilla

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Just a tip for anyone planning on supplanting Craigslist or another established 800lb gorilla: start niche. Pick a niche, win it over with exceptional features and content (even if you have to seed it manually), and when you have dominated that niche, then gradually expand into related verticals.

Otherwise, your only alternative for success is a crapload of advertising to overcome the established content and audience of the gorilla.
From: (Anonymous)
2009-01-29 12:41 am (UTC)

Robin Hood

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Sorry: to me Craig is a hero of the first order. I'll happily put up with the wabi-sabi interface for that reason.

Craig isn't a monopolist. People chose utility and price over appearance. It works. Don't fix it. He chose service over greatly enriching himself. NICE WORK ROBIN HOOD!

Whoever has a better idea, I wish them luck. Instead of whining, put Craig out of business with a superior product ... which is guaranteed to remain the same price.
From: (Anonymous)
2009-01-30 12:29 am (UTC)

Craig Newmark: Altruistic? Please.

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My stance is that Craigslist is effective because of user compromise.

There is no doubt that it is painful to retrieve information on the website, where websites like Google show that it can be done easily and effectively. On Craigslist, users are exposed to a high amount of noise and are expected to filter through it manually. However, Americans, given our capitalistic society and abundance of choices, have grown to be extremely particular and always expect to get what we want. What we want isn't always available, though, and by having Craigslist expose us to other options (i.e., the "noise"), people settle for the next best thing. This makes the marketplace effective for the largest possible audience, which is why the Craigslist feedback loop was borne.

I hate the misconception that Craiglist is altruistic and that Craig Newmark is some kind of demigod. The marketplace that Craigslist consolidates would exist in some form or another regardless of Craigslist. It previously existed on Ebay. It previously existed in physical newspapers. Craig has simply consolidated it into a business with an outrageous profit margin and doesn't seek to take any risks to increase its value.

The TRUE altruism would be to open this data to everyone. Disseminating it unto the masses via an API would surely lead the market to use it in the most innovative ways possible. Like Arvind says, "As it is, Craigslist is more like a backend for data on top of which you'd imagine apps would have to be built, except that Craigslist won't build those apps nor let other people build them."

Craigslist should EMBRACE this concept.

Of course, there is the problem of fragmenting the classifieds market and destroying the network effect. There are two ways I can think of alleviating this problem:

1) Make it so easy for API users to write back to the Craigslist 'database' that it would be stupid not to use them as a database.

2) Charge for your data (many companies would happily pay) and make it a requirement of the agreement that any new classifieds listings posted to these third-companies be posted back to Craigslist, keeping the repository central. This is the more realistic approach, and company's would hence compete for providing the highest value on the interface level, while Craigslist could remain a small data provider (which they basically are now).

There's a business model there that can increase the amount of Good Craigslist provides the world, but Craig Newmark is no business man, and I don't believe he intends to be.
From: (Anonymous)
2009-01-30 12:30 am (UTC)

Whoops...

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The last comment, "Craig Newmark: Altruistic? Please." was written by me, Adam Bossy. I wasn't paying attention and didn't realize that LJ was posting it anonymously.
[User Picture]From: skthewimp
2009-02-01 03:18 pm (UTC)

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as you mention in your edit, this has to happen through a natural process. "boycott craigslist" campaigns won't work. neither should you want to go through any government. it has to happen naturally. maybe slowly.

i'm reminded of orkut-facebook. orkut had the first mover advantage in india, since facebook ws then limited to US univs. and soon practically everyone in india was on orkut. then facebook opened up. people found that the extra privacy on that meant that girls put better pictures over there. and so tehre was a little migration. it was slow and steady for a while.

then all that spam happened on orkut which dealt the death-blow. moral of the story is that once there is a dominating product (one that is better than the current one in almost every sense), migration will happen. it may be slow but it'll happen.
[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-02-01 07:09 pm (UTC)

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oh, orkut is dying in india? i thought it would never happen.. glad to hear that!
[User Picture]From: flipzagging
2009-03-02 06:40 am (UTC)

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Hi Arvind. I happened to see this post while I was catching up on your blog this morning and I wanted to return to it.

Is it fair to say that you are actually disgusted with Craig Newmark, on a personal level? This seems to be informing a lot of your critique; your assumption that he is unambitious.

I don't get that sense at all. Unambitious people would have taken the money and run a long time ago. He clearly has different ambitions.

And Craig hasn't even run Craigslist since 2000. It's all Jim Buckmaster. That guy was already a reasonably accomplished programmer when he joined, although he had a similar anti-capitalistic streak. Finally, they just hired Jeremy Zawodny away from Yahoo. That guy is one of the top MySQL developers on the planet. So they are not standing still. My sense is that they are looking to create a different sort of business, one that isn't bulking up fast, but something more like an oak tree, with deep roots.

In my opinion Craigslist could definitely charge a little more, or in more places, and could plow the money into site improvements. But they have a different vision and I respect that.

For what it's worth, I don't think that the conventional startup path is a good idea any more. Remember: you only get one life. And it's almost certainly better in my opinion to achieve control over your life and its purpose rather than simply the largest amount of money. If Craigslist sold banner ads, they would be beholden to corporate America and Craig and Jim would be wasting their lives in endless meetings with the makers of Downy or Doritos or something. (That's what life is like at Yahoo.) Is it such a horrible ambition to be merely very rich, have full control over your destiny, and serve the needs of millions?
[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-03-02 06:43 am (UTC)

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didn't know some of that, esp. jeremy zawodny working for them. that certainly puts a different perspective on things. thanks for the comments.