Jessa Lingel talks about Craigslist

Interview by Nazli Azergun

https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691188904/an-internet-for-the-people

Nazli Azergun: In your book, you describe craigslist as a precedent to current platform economy, almost as an ancestor platform that isn’t necessarily function like its current day counterparts. You also claim that craigslist is a holdout from the olden days of Web 1.0, enacting an ethics of collaboration and access––like an island in today’s gentrified ocean of Web 2.0 mentality. For those who are yet to read your book, could you tell us about the publics of craigslist? Who are these people who use craigslist today for finding a collectible item, hitching a ride, and whatnot––instead of its function-specific counterparts? Why do they prefer craigslist?

Jessa Lingel: Craigslist has always been home to a number of different publics. It’s been online since 1996, which is a very long time in the context of the Internet. In the early days, its home was the San Francisco tech scene, and the site built a reputation for finding elite tech jobs. Over the next decade, craigslist became incredibly popular, for everything from finding apartments to buying and selling used goods to getting dates. By the time I was conducting research, craigslist’s reputation had slipped somewhat, and many people associated it with seedy personals and bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. But for many folks I talked to, craigslist filled an important niche, helping them find temporary jobs, affordable used goods like cars and electronics, and places to live. All in all, I interviewed dozens of people who used craigslist.  None of them only used craigslist, instead it was part of a constellation of platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace and others. But what still draws people to craigslist after all these years is its simplicity, as well as the fact that it’s free from ads.

Nazli Azergun: You also talk about the transition from Web1.0 mentality to a Web2.0 one, which indicates a passage from openness, collaboration, and accessibility towards exclusivity and a world of pay-per-view. What, in your opinion, has caused this transition towards a more gentrified worldwide web? What is it with craigslist that it made it through this transition mostly intact?

Jessa Lingel: If I could point to a single thing that pushed us towards a more gentrified web, it would be Facebook. I know it’s kind of passé at this point to kvetch [complain] about Facebook but it’s difficult to overstate how important Facebook is as a turning point in digital culture. It’s not like there was a clean break, where before Facebook everything was anonymous, free and open, while after Facebook, the internet became commercialized and closed off. But as Facebook became the dominant platform, other modes of being online became less appealing to users, to the point that platforms like craigslist can seem hopelessly backwards or out-of-date. Unlike a lot of platforms, craigslist never went for major platform overhauls or redesigns. Instead it stayed true to the early 1990s internet values of its founder, Craig Newmark and its CEO, Jim Buckmaster. The platform reflects their ideas of what the internet should look like, and because craigslist has been run by the same people for most of its 25-year history, it’s never had to change its appearance or values. It’s never had to gentrify.

Nazli Azergun: You state that you intentionally omitted housing-related craigslist interactions from your book as they did not raise significant tensions among users. I think this is a very significant choice. How do you read this phenomenon, this lack of tensions? What does it tell you about the current state of housing markets, housing-related racism and discrimination, and the precarity of individuals, if anything?

Jessa Lingel: No book can cover everything, and although An Internet for the People is a deep dive into craigslist, there are a number of things I didn’t cover, like the events section, the message boards and housing.  I’m sure there are a lot of tensions to be uncovered about craigslist housing out there, but they didn’t pop up in my interviews. Because housing isn’t a major focus of the data I have, I can only make educated guesses about what craigslist has to show us about the current state of housing markets. One theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews was the idea that craigslist was part of “the poor people’s internet”, meaning that it was mostly a tool for people who felt excluded from fancy platforms. In terms of jobs, this meant looking for certain kinds of work on craigslist rather than more professionalized sites like Indeed. In terms of housing, the parallel would be that for people on a certain budget, it makes more sense to look on craigslist than on Zillow or Redfin.

One thing that COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is the intense divide between rich and poor in terms of property – while buying a second home has become popular in the midst of a pandemic, millions of poor people in the US are facing eviction and housing insecurity. A platform like craigslist could, perhaps troublingly, see a boom in the use of its housing section as poor folks look to it as a platform that’s geared towards affordable, temporary housing arrangements.

Nazli Azergun: Based on your book, I get the sense that craigslist has a particular ethical orientation regarding the monetization of user data and user anonymity. It exclusively seeks transparent monetization and considers anonymity as a useful tool instead of as a dangerous way of being online. How do you situate craigslist in the current universe of discussions around user data and privacy, especially in the context of competing approaches from the likes of Facebook, which seek infinite monetization at the expense of users’ rights, and the likes of EU legislation, which aims for transparency and user protection?

Jessa Lingel: Companies like Facebook would have us believe that user privacy is dead, and that their business models are the only ones that are sustainable. In terms of platform politics and privacy, the most important thing about craigslist is that it provides an example of how a platform can be successful and profitable without exploiting user privacy and turning people into data points. I am very much in favor of federal legislation for Big Tech, but I’m not sure EU legislation really goes far enough. Living in the US, I’m impressed by the willingness of the EU to go after Big Tech when it comes to anti-trust and the Right to Be Forgotten, and the EU General Data Protection Regulation has done some work to increase literacy around cookies. But ultimately, users are mostly just given a notification that their options are either to give up their data or not use the site. In the US, I’m hopeful that legislation around anti-trust and privacy will surface, without sacrificing the important protections of CDA 230, which protects websites from being held responsible for the bad acts of individual users. I don’t think the answer to needing more robust forms of content moderation should come at the cost of user privacy or platform experimentation.

Nazli Azergun: Finally, I think your work is an important piece of Internet history and many appreciate you as a successful historian of the Internet and digital culture. Could you give some tips on how to conduct good historical research on digital culture? What are your approaches to archives and methods?

Jessa Lingel: Thanks, I’m really glad you see the book that way. The most important thing with this book was getting Craig Newmark on board. Journalists haven’t always been kind to him or craigslist in the past, and so I wasn’t entirely sure he’d want to talk to me. But he wound up being the very first person I interviewed. He was very generous with his time and put me in touch with folks who’d been involved with craigslist during its early days. From there, my challenge was making sure I could talk to a range of people who had different perspectives on craigslist, because I didn’t want to be totally beholden to Craig’s views.

Aside from getting insiders on board, the best piece of advice I could give for digital history of a particular platform is to be really expansive in the initial literature review. It took me a long time to figure out the structure of this book, and what took shape grew out of reading widely on anything and everything related to craigslist – academic work, journalism, legal scholarship, as well as how-to guides for buying and selling online, true crime novels and even erotica. After categorizing the different themes that emerged across these sources, the book’s structure started to become clearer to me. It was both a blessing and a curse that there are no other monographs out there on craigslist – it meant I had total freedom to do what I want, but it also meant that there wasn’t much to contrast with. Reading widely was essential for helping me figure out what questions I should ask about craigslist, and what questions about the internet craigslist could help me answer.