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Unnamed and Unsurveilled

Craigslist is the last holdout of a vanishing internet ethos

An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of craigslist by Jessa Lingel. Princeton University Press, 208 pages.

Looking at craigslist can feel like you’ve clipped through the internet’s glossy exoskeleton and into its raw architecture. Its styrofoam-colored background and low-luminosity hyperlinks look like the wireframe of a commercial website before it’s been re-skinned, hallway-tested, and subjected to the multitude of characterless burnishments that constitute the “user experience” of the contemporary internet. There are no hamburger menus, hover states, or embedded content modules. Instead, craigslist’s functionality is practically tautological: what you see is what you get. Even its URL seems designed to evoke a particular kind of shoulder-shrugging drabness: “craig,” a name so boring you can’t even be bothered to hold down the shift key.

Perhaps this spartan interface partially explains why the media has always been attracted to the seedier side of the transactions that take place on the site. As in a David Lynch film, we’re encouraged to imagine that beneath craigslist’s aesthetic banality lurks a hidden world of bad actors, where the desperate and the ignorant fall prey to false advertisements, labor scams, and even human trafficking. (See the Lifetime made-for-TV-movie The Craigslist Killer for a representative portrayal of craigslist as demimonde, or consider that the German murderer Armin Meiwes is often erroneously referred to as “the Craigslist Cannibal,” despite the fact that he met his meal on the anthropophagy-friendly site Cannibal Cafe.) As the internet becomes increasingly sanitized, more hidebound by TOS agreements and identity authentifications, craigslist has become its de facto junk shop, hustler’s corner, and darkened alleyway; a place where bad people can still do bad things; an undredged home for the fast, cheap, and out of control.

Jessa Lingel’s An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of craigslist tells the story of how craigslist came to be viewed as a central node in the “poor people’s internet,” but also the ways in which craigslist is defined by a set of Web 1.0 values that grew out of the pre-crash salad days of the Bay Area tech scene—values that seem more out of place in the current tech industry with each financial quarter. In outlining the pillars of craiglist’s design philosophy, Lingel also analyzes the growing pains of Silicon Valley’s second generation, who inherited the countercultural bent of their forebears but came of age as information technology was becoming more closely enmeshed with the service-based economy of the latter half of the twentieth century.

We’re encouraged to imagine that beneath craigslist’s aesthetic banality lurks a hidden world of bad actors, where the desperate and the ignorant fall prey to false advertisements, labor scams, and even human trafficking.

Craigslist emerged out of the same ideological soup as other major players from the Dot-com boom, but its sources of inspiration came from an earlier, more marginalized era of online life: countercultural touchstones like the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (the WELL), distributed models of electronic communication like UseNet, and offline forms of community messaging like classified ads and meet-ups. Craig Newmark had been a programmer with IBM for almost twenty years by the time he arrived in San Francisco in the 1990s, having worked in the decidedly less Elysian environs of Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan—places where the local tech ecosystem was presumably not robust enough to spawn an eponymous ideology. He brought an engineer’s singleness of purpose to the problem of how to organize a nascent but disorganized tech culture in the city. Craigslist started as an email tool for local tech workers to chase jobs and generally hang out, an activity that grew more appealing as increased connectivity allowed internet users to think about the sites they frequented less as tools they used and more as spaces they spent time in.

Throughout An Internet for the People, Newmark, as well as current craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, fit comfortably into their reputations: charming and a little outmoded, holdouts from a simpler, different era. Buckmaster looks like a 1990s sitcom father, while Newmark is avuncular and owns an extensive collection of driving caps. It’s easy to imagine craigslist as a Web 1.0 relic, whose anachronistic appearance and functionality have more to do with neglect or misapprehension of the contemporary web than anything else. But Lingel skillfully parses the intentional choices that makes craigslist feel like an Oldsmobile among Teslas, and how Newmark and co. have held the line against a commercial internet culture that cares less about functionality than it does about shoehorning in as many profit-generating mechanisms as it estimates its users will tolerate.

Lingel paraphrases Newmark and Buckmaster’s vision of the site as an example of “efficient, lightweight programming,” the kind of elbow-greased, old school software where form still follows function and it’s still reasonable to assume social problems may have technical solutions. The site is practically allergic to significant design updates, the most serious round of changes having occurred in 2012, when it was optimized for mobile viewing. This allows craigslist to function with an anemic amount of overhead, having a core employee base of under a hundred, and to function off of a fraction of the server power of comparably recognizable sites. It’s also led to the bare-bones interface that makes craigslist resemble one of the abandoned internet spaces of the early world wide web, where a gangly design language and the pubescent thrill of discovery made the online world a weird and mysterious place. But craigslist doesn’t just look like the old internet; it feels like it too. The people running it arguably approach the site in the same way they did when it was launched in 1993.

Besides its operational simplicity, what separates craigslist from its contemporaries most concretely is its devotion to user anonymity and privacy. Users aren’t required to authenticate their identities, and the terms of their transactions are left up to them, so that the site operates like the print classified ads it was intended to supplant: on the premise of good faith but mutual suspicion. It’s perhaps because of this that there has always been a preconception, both within and outside of its community of users, that an unspecified majority of the transactions that occur on craigslist involve some type of shady dealing. Beyond the reassurance of the blue check, there can only be bad checks. Craigslist explicitly labels a portion of its employment listings as “gigs” rather than “jobs,” and unlike apps such as Fiverr or Taskrabbit that repackage high-risk, low-reward freelance labor as desirable, this is often seen as evidence of the site’s depreciation. Craigslist has a reputation as a repository for capitalism’s detritus, where the arrangement is always precarious. It is part of a constellation that includes fake news and multi-level marketing scams to form our understanding of where people go to be poor on the internet, free of protection if not scrutiny.

Much of that scrutiny has been directed at craigslist’s personals section, once a haven for people seeking kinds of connection they either could not or didn’t feel comfortable pursuing offline (at least not initially). Its policy of anonymity allowed users to pursue pleasure without endangering their real-life reputations. But in a culture where security theater is largely equated with real safety, and sex work can only be interpreted in the most exploitative terms, craigslist has long had to deal with accusations that it enabled sadists, predators, and pimps. This conception went a long way toward undermining craigslist’s reputation. The site closed its adult services boards in 2010 and ceased hosting personals entirely in 2018, after the passing of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, a law that ostensibly targeted human traffickers by going after online spaces where sex workers could freely advertise but which many have argued actually endangered those workers by removing one the few tools they possessed for screening clients and communicating with each other.

Craigslist’s example shows that it’s simplistic and inaccurate to equate the kinds of identity authentication that sites like Facebook and Google require of users with a commitment to transparency or protecting data. While scams undoubtedly occur on craigslist, and its anonymity has been mobilized to nefarious ends, one only has to look at the brain-melting task of discerning what’s real and what’s bullshit on Facebook or Twitter, or how algorithmic software like that used by Google entrenches its creators’ biases while also obscuring them, to understand that nothing so simple as a log-in page will suffice to make the internet honest. Of course, that’s only part of it: platforms like Facebook do more than provide a platform for snake oil and misinformation; they have long operated as high-level scams themselves, offering users a “free” service while extracting information and data from them without their informed consent. This grift is at the core of Facebook’s monetization strategy, not a byproduct or unintended consequence.

Craigslist, on the other hand, views scamming as a vulnerability it must contend with if it wants to afford its users the right of anonymity and offer them the freedom to negotiate transactions with whatever degree of caution they see fit. The robustness of its complaints and customer service desk, one of the few arms of the business Newmark still has a hand in, makes it clear that it’s a problem the site engages with seriously and often.

What separates craigslist from its contemporaries most concretely is its devotion to user anonymity and privacy.

The critic Lewis Mumford once described how the invention of the mechanical clock abstracted and quantified our understanding time—a key point in the history of human civilization, where a technology imposed itself on reality. The internet similarly transforms time, but rather than regiment it, it has unmoored time, mixing nostalgia and futurity and an ever-fuzzier present at whim. Sites like craigslist feel like islands in the slipstream, evidence of an online past where improvisation and commonality superseded hierarchy and standard practices. The reality is that on the internet, as in the real world, these islands are sinking. The future of sites like craigslist is neither rosy nor clear.

Early in An Internet for the People, Lingel describes how the very terms Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 imply that the internet functions as a holistic operating system that can be improved and iterated upon all at once, like an app seeking its place at the top of the download charts. But craigslist shows that the internet is a leaky, patchwork contraption whose metaphysics will always be more debatable than they are confirmable. Lingel compellingly argues that if we lose craigslist, we’ll not only lose one of the last self-consciously unmanicured spaces online; we’ll also lose an example of how an enterprise can reject the noxious, antisocial, and predatory practices that companies like Facebook and Amazon insist are the costs of doing business.

The internet, like a city, is a place to practice politics, and it is subject to the same rapacious, exclusionary forms of gentrification that have made cities like San Francisco virtually unlivable for anyone who can’t ride this wave of immiserating history. One reason to worry about the internet without craigslist is that the internet, as Lingel quotes one craigslist user, “has no historical preservation society that says this thing has value simply because it existed.” It’s tempting to mistake this kind of acceleration as the speed of life. It feels impossible, as single nodes in the network, to do anything other than watch the streets change. In doing so, we lose our grip on spaces where we can be conspicuously ourselves, unnamed and unsurveilled. Easier to log on and forget what was there a moment ago.