What craigslist can teach us about Web 2.0

In a new book, Annenberg’s Jessa Lingel views modern online life through the lens of a site that hasn’t changed much in look or feel since it began 25 years ago.

A person standing in a library stack, with shelves of books on either side.
Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication.

This is an edited excerpt from Jessa Lingel’s new book, “An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of craigslist,” published by Princeton University Press.

You can get anything on craigslist. 

Right now, you can buy a Dolly Parton pinball machine for $750 in San Diego or barter for a custom Star Wars snowmobile in Bend, Oregon. In Philadelphia, someone is selling 40 life-size wax figures in Amish attire, ideally as a set. 

You can also find jobs and people to hire: A Philadelphia county library needs someone to drive the bookmobile, and in Los Angeles, an actor is offering lessons in impersonating Tom Cruise. Used iPhone? A one-bedroom apartment in Cincinnati? You can find it on craigslist. 

In more than 700 cities around the globe, thousands of posts are uploaded to craigslist every day. The site is both a map and time capsule, a snapshot of the informal marketplace, and a mixtape of local opinions. Yet craigslist is more than a window to the world’s ephemera; when it comes to practicing Web 1.0 values of access and democracy, craigslist is an increasingly lonely outpost in a hyper-corporate web. 

Cover of a book that's titled: "An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of craigslist." The words "activities," "artists," "childcare," "classes," "events," "general," "groups," "local news," "lost+found," "missed con," "musicians," and "pets" also appear running across the top.

With its stripped-down functionality and minimalist design, craigslist speaks to an older ethos of online life that contrasts sharply with the values of today’s mainstream internet. In its rejection of venture capitalists, paid advertising, and rapid design changes, craigslist is the internet, ungentrified. 

A Web 1.0 “holdout”

When I call the contemporary internet gentrified, I mean the ways that some online behaviors have become ingrained as the “right” way to use the web, while others are “backward” or “out of date.” The early web was characterized by excitement at connecting with strangers and trial-and-error experimentation with online personas. As more people came online and new platforms sprouted, norms of use developed and stabilized. 

Today’s web is dominated by self-promotion, long-winded legal warnings, and sleek design aesthetics that require constant upgrades. Since the transition from Web 1.0 to 2.0, we’ve moved from an internet of messy serendipity to one of slick commercialism. 

I’m painting in broad strokes here—of course the early web included some self-promotion, and of course DIY hacking is still an important part of modern online life. While much of the web has come to feel developed, safe, and predictable, there’s still messiness and experimentation to be found. But there’s no denying that for a huge number of people, a small number of corporations control how online life looks and feels. 

Google answers our questions about pop culture and local news. When Facebook tweaks its News Feed, it alters what we know about current events, neighborhoods, friends, and family. Amazon redefines what’s normal in the marketplace. 

By normalizing some web uses over others, these companies have altered our expectations of online life. Craigslist represents a different experience, one characterized by aesthetic minimalism, anonymity, and serendipity. In appearance, business model, and policies, the platform is a holdout, a corner of the web light on design changes, heavy on user responsibility—and possibly on the brink of obsolescence. 

Why study craigslist? 

Most people think of craigslist as a simple-looking site with a few basic functions, a way to sell a used couch or find a local handyman. But in terms of the platform’s value to digital culture, craigslist is both popular and multifaceted. It’s the 19th most visited website in the United States, and hosts tens of thousands of daily exchanges. 

Besides for-sale, job, real-estate, and personal ads, craigslist includes a range of discussion boards, for everything from pets to haiku, and until March 2018, an active personals section. A “Community” section contains rideshares, pet adoption, local news, even “missed connections,” where people can post ads that attempt to contact someone from a fleeting encounter. Craigslist is at once a marketplace, job hub, and message board. 

It also offers a unique lens through which to view a history of digital culture. Though a number of sites could offer a starting point to chart the progression of internet norms, I’ve picked craigslist for a couple of key reasons. The first has to do with its unusual approach to being a tech company. 

Craigslist has always been on the small side, with fewer than 50 full-time employees. Its current CEO, Jim Buckmaster, has been at the helm since 2000, and has been described by the business press as “anti-establishment, a communist, and a socialistic anarchist.” Although craigslist is headquartered in San Francisco, the company’s financial model and design values make it feel more like an outsider or a throwback. For people who see mainstream tech companies as beholden to profit and shareholders, often at the expense of users, craigslist presents a fascinating countercase. 

A second reason for studying craigslist is its longevity. Craigslist started in 1995 as an e-mail list and grew into a website the following year. For more than two decades, the platform has weathered the internet’s boom-and-bust cycle. But craigslist isn’t just old, it’s also incredibly stable—the site looks more or less the same today as it did in the late 1990s. 

It isn’t quite accurate to say that the platform hasn’t changed at all: Ad categories have evolved, while features like uploading photos have been added. But on the whole, craigslist has proven profoundly stable. From both a historical and industry view, craigslist is an outlier, giving us a fixed point for considering the current online norm of constant flux and change. 

Hopes and fears for the digital age

You might think this would make craigslist feel safe or comforting to use. Instead, it often summons fear or anxiety, mostly in worry about scams and fraud. It wasn’t always this way. Before Google and Facebook, craigslist generated hype and enthusiasm as a classified-ad site that helped people find local information, job opportunities, and strangers with similar interests. As more people came online, craigslist helped them to accomplish ordinary tasks. But as users became savvier and more sophisticated, so did scammers, crooks, and thieves. 

Online platforms have always had to contend with rule-breaking. Platforms originally designed to build a sense of community and play also had to manage unexpected forms of violence and harassment. On craigslist, harassment and spam are real problems, compounded by a small number of highly publicized violent crimes. Though these incidents represent a tiny fraction of craigslist interactions, the actual number of violent crimes matters less than perceptions that the site is overrun with bad actors. Thinking about craigslist’s transformation, from the first online exchange to a punchline for jokes about online sleaze, opens up questions about what it means to stigmatize certain platforms and the people who use them. What do our fears and judgments say about our relationship to the internet, about our expectations for safe behaviors?

Fears about a technology can, paradoxically, illuminate our hopes. When it comes to the internet, anxieties about fraud and predation contrast sharply with early hype about diversity and tolerance, narratives sometimes critiqued: People who saw the internet as a powerful tool for social change and education were relying on the problematic assumption that access to technology could level out differences of class and privilege, despite radical differences in geography and background. 

But access to technology can only mitigate so much when it comes to significant differences in wealth and education. Moreover, while projects like Wikipedia and Linux align with early web values of collaboration and openness, not everyone is content to cooperate without compensation. Nevertheless, initial aspirations for a technology often linger, sometimes long after early proponents have changed their views. When people describe their anxieties about using craigslist, I hear the echoes of an earlier hope, for an internet that could bring people together to share ideas, solve problems, and build community. 

Publics, politics, and platforms

In thinking about how digital culture has (and has not) changed since craigslist first burst onto the scene, there are social, political, and technological elements to consider—that is, the publics that form online, politics that shape interactions, and platforms that host activities and conversations. 

“Publics” has become a popular term for groups that come together online for a shared activity, whether that means gaming, socializing, or commenting on the news. The term has less baggage than “community” and feels more socially oriented than “network,” with its technical connotations. Thinking about craigslist in terms of publics allows us to sidestep romantic notions of community and avoid overemphasizing the site’s technical components, looking instead at ordinary practices and politics of use. 

In this context, “politics” is not the Politics of federal or international elections, laws, and agreements. Small-p politics are about the daily interactions that make school, work, and neighborhood life possible—decisions about family-leave policies, for example, or judgments about when and how to call the police following a crime. Small-p politics echo the 1960s slogan, “The personal is political.” 

“Platform” is an umbrella term to describe the many tech enterprises that host online conversations and connections, including social media companies. The word also has nontechnological connotations, particularly in the realm of politics, where it’s used to describe politicians’ ideological foundations. Interestingly, the implication in the social-media arena is the opposite—referring to a site as a platform suggests that it’s a neutral stage for people to perform, share, and voice opinions. 

For social-media companies, the term is appealing because it allows them to portray their relationship to content as agnostic, or not ideologically invested in or responsible for the views of any individual user. Alongside the concept of Web 2.0, the term “platform” became popular in the early 2000s as part of Silicon Valley’s efforts to rebrand the internet after the dot-com crash. 

A platform binds together a wide set of actors: tech companies, politicians, law enforcement, and everyday people, which includes good actors and bad, “n00bs” (newbies) and experts, dupes and cons. As an object to study, a platform can provide a broader context for reflection. A range of actors has a stake in craigslist’s operations, from its founder and early employees to competitors and detractors. Beyond painting a well-rounded portrait of craigslist, my goal is to set up a more robust discussion of the changing norms of online publics and platform politics. 

“Promises” of craigslist

In the course of everyday life online, we typically encounter many publics across many platforms, each with different political norms for how we interact. As the web has stabilized, platforms have become more commercial and less democratic. It may be that more people have access to the internet now, but modes of surveillance have become more sophisticated and less visible. 

Despite powerful counterexamples like Wikipedia and Linux, it’s become the norm to assume that tech initiatives must be oriented toward profit. People are encouraged to post content, but don’t then retain the content rights, and platforms can sell user data to third parties, often in ways that users hadn’t imagined. As the internet has gentrified, sites like craigslist start to feel not just outdated but dangerous and sleazy. 

But craigslist has disrupted institutions and set legal precedents set. It has buyers and sellers, devotees and pranksters, plus competitors that tend to have more features, slicker designs, and more corporate orientations. I argue that craigslist can help us understand how the web has changed in the past quarter century. 

It might seem as though I’m setting up craigslist as a white knight or that I’m nostalgic for a simpler, purer internet. The story is much less straightforward. The fact that craigslist has kept its look, feel, and core features for almost three decades makes it a useful object of study, but it’s not perfect. 

Craigslist has not handled requests to use its data well. The site has struggled to overcome a reputation for fraud and crime through a naïve notion that it can doggedly work with law enforcement behind the scenes and expect users and the public to notice. And although there are democratic values in maintaining a simple design, I definitely do not want the entire internet to look like craigslist. 

What I do want is to consider what it means to have a site like craigslist endure for so long, and to think about how its policies and practices can help us understand important changes in online politics. Chances are you or someone you know has sold something on craigslist. Some people find it useful or entertaining, perusing craigslist to check going rates. Most people use craigslist without thinking about how the site manifests a form of technological politics. 

And yet, politics are always present just beneath the surface, in everything from how we describe our neighborhood in a roommate search to how we respond to a suspected scam. From the perspective of craigslist, many of its policies also have a political bent. By looking at the politics and promises of craigslist, we can reflect on how, in the past 25 years, the web has both evolved and stayed the same, what we should protect, and what we should change.

Jessa Lingel is an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania

Excerpt from “An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of craigslist,” by Jessa Lingel, ©2020. Used with permission of Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher