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Silicon Valley Can’t Disrupt Craigslist

It’s a messy, old-world web bazaar — and it won’t die

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The open, anonymous, chaotic World Wide Web that thrilled geeks and scared parents in the ’90s has given way to a tightly controlled, orderly online world meted out via smartphone apps. But there is one stubborn holdout: Craig Newmark and his very famous list of goods and services.

Startup founders and investors insist that users demand a “frictionless experience” in today’s mobile era. Well, Craigslist is full of friction — duplicate ads, fake listings, and actual death traps. To browse it is to sift through a junkyard built on top of a minefield. But it’s a messy bazaar that internet users improbably built together, over two decades, and we’re not ready to let it die quite yet.

If you are not an avid Craigslist user, you’d be forgiven for assuming that some company over the past 20 years must have unseated the king of classifieds. The site today doesn’t look substantially different than it did in the ’90s, when it was launched as an expansion of the popular email list Newmark created to share information about local San Francisco events and job postings. It’s still anonymous, largely devoid of the full names or photos of sellers. It’s still mostly text-based. It still doesn’t have an official mobile app. Craigslist is the old web not as we romanticize it but as it was — utilitarian, messy, drab.

Despite a long line of more modern competitors — including Facebook, which relaunched its Marketplace for buying and selling local goods this week — Craigslist is more popular than ever. The site attracted more than 68 million unique visitors in the United States in August, a 6 percent increase over the same period last year, according to comScore. Revenues reached a record $381 million in 2015, and profits exceeded $300 million, according to Advanced Interactive Media Group, a classified advertising consulting firm. “There are dozens of sites that compete with Craigslist or have taken up some of the functions that Craigslist performs, but Craigslist itself is still a very valuable and viable marketplace,” says Peter M. Zollman, founder of the firm.

The Craigslist homepage, overstuffed with plain blue links, looks woefully outdated by today’s web design standards. But the simplicity is key to the site’s appeal. Anyone who is technologically adept enough to operate Windows 95 and who has an email address can probably figure out Craigslist. “The main thing with Craigslist I like is the fact that every generation really knows how to use it,” says Amanda Payne, a 23-year-old Tampa, Florida, resident who’s bought and sold more than 50 items on the site. “It’s compatible really for all ages.”

The sheer breadth of things on offer also makes Craigslist difficult to topple. Among the people I interviewed for this story, users had sold or acquired an apartment, a guitar, a camper, a 2010 Jeep Patriot, a fog machine, a deeply discounted Macy’s gift card, a team of carpenters, a Catahoula Cur, and a boyfriend, among other organic/inorganic objects. And these are just the folks from my social orbit; check the viral headlines and you’ll find much weirder transactions. Craigslist has the scale and the ubiquity of a tech giant — 50 billion monthly page views, 80 million monthly classified ads — but lacks the saccharine altruistic framing. It’s a simple tool to execute simple transactions, with a usability that trumps clever design. “Ultimately, modern doesn’t count,” Zollman says. “What counts is results, and people who use Craigslist get results. It is a great tool for buying or selling or hiring.”

While Craigslist feels like a relic, its caretakers are actively working to ensure its dominance. The company successfully blocked the website PadMapper from including Craigslist ads in its apartment rental listings. It also launched a map view of apartment ads in 2012 to better compete with nascent startups. “The mobile functionality is better than it used to be,” says Zollman. “The list functionality is better than it used to be. Their photo galleries are better than they used to be. Craigslist technology has been modernized; just the look and feel hasn’t.”

But Craigslist has a clear safety problem that the company’s small staff has never seriously addressed. AIM Group has tracked at least 105 killings tied to the service since 2007, including the murder of a Detroit man in September who was meeting a stranger to see a moped advertised on the site. Robberies and scams are also a regular occurrence on Craigslist. Somehow news of these horrific incidents rarely dents activity on the site. While we fear Facebook as an all-powerful monolith and demand that Twitter do more to protect its users, our fears on Craigslist tend to project solely to the person lurking on the other end of the classified ad, hardly ever extending toward the site itself.

Competitors hope increased security will be a big selling point. Facebook Marketplace transactions are tied to users’ accounts on the social network, which require real names. OfferUp has a verification system that scans sellers’ driver’s licenses, as well as a feature to rate merchants. But even if these kinds of precautions can improve safety, they don’t necessarily equate to fairness. It has been found that black users have a harder time conducting business on peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb compared to their white counterparts. A Craigslist that allowed buyers to make snap judgments about a seller’s trustworthiness based on his or her appearance or name would likely run into the same issues.

“Honestly, I don’t believe you can really replace Craigslist,” says Payne. “It’s the genuine, the original type of buy-sell site that is known to a lot of people. Other things have come and gone as far as making the app and making it easier for you to access the site, but not a lot of generations are going to catch onto that.” As long as Craigslist stays out of its own way, people seem to be fine with using it, and sometimes fine is good enough.