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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 498: Craig of Craigslist

Did you know that Craigslist, the classified ad website, got its start on the West side? Nicole talks with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark about how it all happened.
by Nicole Meldahl - Apr 1, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 498: Craig of Craigslist Outside Lands Podcast Episode 498: Craig of Craigslist

Podcast Transcription

WNP498 – Craigslist

Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project. Your weekly dose of friendly neighborhood history. And hello Outside Landers. I'm Nicole Meldahl and it's great to be with you again this week. And if you read the title of today's episode and thought this must be an April Fool's joke, I'm here to assure you that it's absolutely 100% true. Our special guest is none other than Craig Newmark, aka, Craig of Craigslist. So, thank you so much for being with us today, Craig.

Craig: Hey, it's my pleasure. It's a way for me to be back in San Francisco in a little way.

Nicole: It is, and I have to tell you, being a West side focused organization, we don't record too many things early in the morning with folks on the East Coast. So, [00:01:00] pardon me, everybody if I'm a little slow to the uptake. But we're here to answer all the questions maybe you never had, but maybe do now about Craig's life. So, Craig, maybe we can start with how did you get to San Francisco? What's your background?

Craig: Well, I was working for IBM at the time. I had worked for IBM in Florida. Had worked for IBM in Detroit, and then Pittsburgh. I figured it was time to leave the company, overdue in fact. It was time to try someplace new where I might be happy, where a lot of technology was hurt, was happening. I took a look at Seattle. And it, then I took a look at San Francisco. San Francisco seemed to be more age appropriate for me, and it had the right level of stuff going on that I wanted. So, I got lucky. I got Charles Schwab to hire me away from IBM.

Nicole: And what year was [00:02:00] this and how old were you?

Craig: ‘93 and I was about 40 at the time.

Nicole: Oh yeah. That is a great age to move to San Francisco, actually. And you said you were with IBM. What got you into tech? Like why, how did, why IBM?

Craig: Well, I was good at tech from the from my earliest years. I wanted to do the dinosaur thing like many kids. And later on, I don't know, sixth, seventh grade, I thought physics would be fun. Particularly particle and quantum physics. When I started school, ’70, ‘71 or so, I realized that I just wasn't smart enough to go into physics, but I could go into computer sciences, like large language models, natural language processing. So, in 1973, I wanted to do the stuff that people are just getting excited about right now, with ChatGPT, four large language models [00:03:00] and all that. I retain an interest enough to understand a lot of it, but I don't really get it well enough to actually be a practitioner, I don't know deep neural networks.

Nicole: Nor do I, Craig, nor do I. So, you come to San Francisco and where did you move when you got here? What neighborhood did you settle in?

Craig: First started off in Russian Hill. And I liked the neighborhood. I would like going down to a Polk Street and hanging out at a coffee place. But I got a lot, a little tired, and then I decided, well, maybe I should try something in the real western neighborhoods, just to try. So, someone showed me places in Cole Valley. And I was lucky, this was ‘94 when real estate prices were at their lowest in a long time. And bought a place on Cole Street. Really liked it, and that's where I, not long after I started something called Craigslist.

Nicole: So, let's get into that. [00:04:00] So, you're in San Francisco, in Cole Valley working for Charles Schwab. What gave you the idea that something like Craigslist needed to exist?

Craig: Well, I had left Charles Schwab at that point. I was thinking about lots of people help me out. And so, that's a good thing to help other people out in return. I mean, in Sunday school they taught us that we're our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper. But I think that means is just helping out in little ways that accumulate into big help for everyone. So, I thought I'd do my part, simple mailing list for arts and technology events in San Francisco. That grew. People wanted to be added to the mailing list. And then, oh, people started sending me stuff. So much stuff that, so many people wanted to be involved, that by the middle of ‘95, I had to give the thing a name, which was going to be San Francisco Events, people around me that were smarter [00:05:00] than me and they said, created a brand. I didn't know what a brand was. They had to tell me. I'd created a brand. It's already called Craigslist. I should keep that signifying. It would be personal and quirky. They were right and we just kept doing what we were doing.

Nicole: It's hard to imagine now any era in which kids aren't born knowing what a brand is intuitively. But this is, for our younger listeners Craig, can you explain why the internet was so incredible for doing what you did? Because it was so hard to find out about things like this. You relied on the newspaper. You relied on word of mouth. So, what was San Francisco like in 1995?

Craig: Well, it's just that the internet came along and provided what amounted to a printing press for everyone. You were limited by your skills and your creativity. And as it turns out, there were a lot of people who had the [00:06:00] skills and creativity to do stuff. A lot of people did a lot smarter stuff than I did. I just plotted along with what turned into a classified site, but it was a classified site for everyone, for regular people. And that was very different than a lot of things. We resisted gentrification. And we're one of the few ungentrified sites on the internet. Meaning it hasn't gotten fancy and expensive. Where Craigslist is a very simple site, you have something to do like putting food on the table, you can get some help and you're done. And that, I think, onboarded tens of millions of Americans onto the internet. Maybe somewhere between one and 200 million thinking that the internet showing people, regular people that the internet is useful and reasonably easy to use.

Nicole: It is really easy to use and, in fact, we [00:07:00] ourselves just recently sold some of our office chairs via Craigslist, so thank you.

Craig: You're welcome.

Nicole: So, the reason why you're on our podcast today is because your first like physical office space was in the west side. Can you tell us where that is?

Craig: Well, the very, very first one was at my old place on Cole Street near Parnassas. And that's where I lived. I got lucky buying a condo. And we ran it that way when it was just me, which was, I guess, through ‘96 and maybe ‘7. Then I started hiring a few people. But we realized we were gonna run outta space immediately. So, we found a place on Ninth Avenue in the Sunset. Which is a very cool street right now. And I do like going back there.

Nicole: It's the first place you go when you get off the plane in San Francisco?

Craig: Not quite.

Nicole: So, what was the neighborhood like in the [00:08:00] ‘90s?

Craig: It was very down to earth. And lots of regular people, lots of good food. Chinese places, Japanese places, Thai, and that's my favorite food.

Nicole: Oh, that's a good one. So, you opened the office on Ninth Avenue. What year was that about?

Craig: We opened the office, and I'm guessing, it was around ’99, 2000. We outgrew it quickly. And we had to get a space downtown. Although with the pandemic, I really don't know if that's gonna remain in the office. And since I've retired from Craigslist, I am not, I'm not aware of the day-to-day stuff.

Nicole: That's fair. So, Craigslist is still headquartered in San Francisco,

Craig: But now it's a distributed network. The people who lead it are like Jim Buckmaster and Mabel Hsu.

Nicole: And when did you step away from daily [00:09:00] operations?

Craig: Well, I stepped away from daily management operations in the year 2000. I realized that, as a manager, I suck. And we already had someone who would be a better manager than me, and so, I stepped down to be a customer service rep. That's to say we already hired enough tech people. They didn't need me. So, I was managing and doing customer service, but I realized I'm a lousy manager and that, but I'm a great customer service rep. To be clear, I did not manage customer service. I was a customer service rep and I'm really good at that. But by the time, oh, in the mid-2010s, 2015, ‘16, I started to realize that the customer service team didn't need me. And, by the time [00:10:00] 2018 rolled around, it seemed that the world of philanthropy, well, there was really good stuff that I should do there. So, I retired at the end of 2018. I'm busier than I've ever been. And through Craigslist, I, well, we did well monetarily. We did better than I thought we would do. So, I have a lot to give away and I'm giving away the vast majority of it. I've now locked up most of my income generation in a 501(c)(4), meaning it's going to charity. I can't legally take any of that out.

Nicole: The world is so grateful for people like you. I feel like folks like you who do well in business aren't as prolific as they once were, who give it all away to charity. This is amazing to learn, Craig. It's also amazing to learn that at one point you could email Craigslist for technical help and Craig would respond.

Craig: That [00:11:00] remained true throughout the, my employment there. It's just that people assumed that Craig at Craigslist would just get like management or PR person. Now you'd have to get me to using a different address. And if anyone wants my attention, what you normally do is you go to, well the short version is craignewmark.org. That becomes my philanthropy site.

Nicole: Right.

Craig: And then there's a contact form there.

Nicole: Got it. So, what kind of causes do you prefer to support in your philanthropic life?

Craig Newmark: Overall I'm, I'm supporting efforts that help protect our country. Sometimes rewarding the people who have protected the country. For example, I support vets and military families in a big way. I'm supporting the efforts of, oh, people who protect our country in the cybersecurity sphere. Our foreign adversaries and some of our domestic adversaries are attacking [00:12:00] our country. And we gotta fight back. And I help support the people who are fighting back. There's other people who need help. Journalists, good, honest journalists protect our country. So, I'm supporting the coalition against online violence. And the Journalism Protection Initiative. So, I'm helping out with those kind of things. Finally, since I love birds and have a sense of humor, I do support pigeon rescue.

Nicole: Oh my gosh. I have to tell you, one of my closest girlfriends is obsessed with pigeons, and so, so many of our texts back and forth are pigeon pictures, so I can't wait to tell her this tidbit.

Craig: She should look up, should look up a site, a group called Palomacy, like pigeon diplomacy in the Bay Area. They will have pigeons for her that need homes.

Nicole: That's amazing. Also, one of our good friends, Joey Yee, keeps pigeons. [00:13:00] Like, he helps like foster pigeons. So, there's quite a vast pigeon rescue network out there that I had no idea about.

Craig: I'd wager that he's connected with the same group, or should be.

Nicole: Well, I have to tell you, this is not how I thought this interview would go, Craig, but it's delightful.

Craig: Sure.

Nicole: So, you split your time between New York and San Francisco now, how often do you find yourself back in the Bay Area?

Craig: We live in New York now. We are back in San Francisco occasionally. We have friends and family there. And where our house is, it's adjacent to the, to Sutro Forest.

Nicole: Oh.

Craig: I'm not a nature guy, but I find it I find it therapeutic and I really do need that therapeutic setting.

Nicole: I am out on the west side for the same reason. There's something about the sea being so close to the coast here and Sutro Forest is, I think, one of my favorite places in San Francisco.

Craig: Okay, yeah, I'm [00:14:00] not a beach guy. I think sand is basically a elitist dirt. It feels, it's better than regular dirt. And so, I don't like that. I'm a kind of an anti-snob snob, I guess.

Nicole: Well, you know, you being connected to Sutro Forest actually makes complete sense for me because Adolph Sutro was himself a great giver to San Francisco and especially the West side. So, I do see some synergy in that pairing. Is there anything else about your time in San Francisco that you can think of that was particularly memorable while you were creating Craigslist that you'd like to leave our listeners with before we move on to our next section of the podcast?

Craig: The atmosphere in Craigslist, maybe it helped us make a decision, helped me make a decision, that the site should be minimally monetized. That is, that we don't have to charge for everything we could. That [00:15:00] did originate in Sunday school for me, probably late ‘50s, where Mr. And Mrs. Levin taught us that you should know when enough is enough. They also did tell me that you should treat people like you wanna be treated.

Nicole: That is a wonderful thing to keep in mind. Absolutely. And I think what's so wonderful about Craigslist is, besides now that I know so much more about how it came about and the ethos behind it, is it truly is a pure democratic space online. Which is kind of how the internet started, right?

Craig: Yeah.

Nicole: Where it was this freewill place, but it's not, it hasn't retained that you feel, I feel like I hit paywalls all the time and there's always an agenda behind so many websites who are gathering data and things like that. But your space has remained pure and clean in many ways. So, I just so appreciate what you built and what you continue to maintain.

Craig: Okay, well, everyone needs to make a living, but you just don't have to make it crazy. [00:16:00]

Nicole: Yes. I think that will be the tagline of the podcast, Craig.

Craig: Oh, okay.

Nicole: So now we're going to move into our section that we lovingly refer to as the Barbara Walters section, which is full of hard-hitting questions. Are you ready, Craig?

Craig: Yes.

Nicole: Okay. So number one, what is the best meal you've ever eaten in San Francisco?

Craig: Hard to say. I do like some of the stuff that I get at, we'll take Korean barbecue at Hahn’s Hibachi.

Nicole: Oh yes.

Craig: I used to like a great deal at the Nanking Bistro, but they're gone now.

Nicole: It’s true. There's been a lot of change in San Francisco for the last few years.

Craig: Yeah.

Nicole: So, number two, what is your favorite place in San Francisco? The one place that you missed most?

Craig: Well I missed Reverie Cafe where I met my wife, but they went outta business about a month ago. Apparently high rents. [00:17:00]

Nicole: Oh my gosh. And your wife, by the way listeners, is the reason why we even have you on the podcast. She reached out about some Cliff House memorabilia that she wanted to…

Craig: Aah.

Nicole: Make sure we saw, in case we had the budget to buy it, which we do not, cause we have no money. But…

Craig: Oh.

Nicole: But she was very sweet in thinking of us. So, thank you to her again for making this happen. Alright, number three. What's one San Francisco thing you would bring back if you could?

Craig: If it's a thing itself. Oh, I'd like to bring back a collection of the birds that are native. They're not in New York, and I'd like them for the garden here. Like here we have blue jays. In San Francisco, they have scrub jays and Stellar's jays. I'd like to bring a whole bunch of of hummingbirds here. Maybe the parrots. We do have hawks here, so we don't need more hawks. That would be a good [00:18:00] start.

Nicole: So, number four, and this is one that we ask all of our guests, why do you think history is important?

Craig: You gotta know where you, where you come from, so you can get anywhere else.

Nicole: Very true. Thank you for being with us today.

Craig: Hey, it's my pleasure. Have fun.

Nicole: Now we're going to listener mail. So first of all, how do you send us listener mail listeners? Well, you just email us. It's very simple, podcast@outsidelands.org. Or you can take advantage of our social media presence on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And you can post a podcast comment there. We'll find it, we'll read it. It's very simple. Or you can, you know, send us an email, of course, like always. Or you can send us old-fashioned mail. We love getting old-fashioned mail.

So, after listening to episode [00:19:00] number 495 on Chain of Lakes, our dear friend Margaret went on a research mission in search of our foul-tempered fowl. Which is appropriate for reading on this podcast because apparently Craig of Craigslist is a fan of birds. Which is one of my favorite takeaways of this entire podcast. So, Margaret said, “I found the three original Chronicle articles hoping for more detail. But they've left me even more confused. The 1920 account almost sounds like a Muscovy duck, and I quote, ‘a big lump of a bird nearly as large as the black swan, but squat built body is black. His breasts and lower body are white.’” She goes on to say, “there's actually a Muscovy who's been living at Stow Lake for the last few years, but then where is this ‘head covered in long gray hair hairs’ coming from? Long gray hairs sound [00:20:00] like the brief breeding plumage of a Double-Crested Cormorant’s nuptial crests. Muscovy’s hybridize with other ducks, but what duck has gray whiskers? Double-Crested Cormorants can hybridize with Neotropic Cormorants, but wouldn't be big and squat.” So, aah! What could it be?

“Frankly, the 1921 marriage situation was just as confusing.” And you'll have to listen to our podcast to figure out what she's talking about. So, she said, “I have questions about this ‘Princess’ Blue Crane. Blue cranes are native to South Africa. So sure, she could have been in a captive park flock. But then how'd she take off with the mystery bird?” So, she says, “sorry, I have more bird questions than answers, but I'll leave you with one pontification. Those Chain of Lakes birds are tricksy.” She then told us about how Charlie the history poodle, which is our unofficial, okay, maybe more like [00:21:00] now official mascot, normally doesn't care for bird watching, but was mesmerized by the birds at Chain of Lakes. And he actually fell into the water when they came to inspect his treats. Proof, she said, that there is some shifty bird business happening at Chain of Lakes. Thank you, Margaret. And thank you Charlie, our dear history poodle friend for your courage in going back to Chain of Lakes after this horrific episode in your tiny, fuzzy life.

And I have to say Margaret also, if you are a member of WNP, she and Paul Judge are the, the force behind Where in West SF. She does incredible research, as does Paul. We're very lucky to have them as friends. And that is just one benefit of membership. I think I should maybe tell you more about the benefits [00:22:00] of membership and donating now.

So dear listeners, you've heard it a thousand times, right? If you clickety, clickety, clack the big orange button, the top of any page on either website, either outsidelands.org or OpenSFHistory.org. You can send us money, which financially supports all the incredible things that we do. Right? We've got this podcast, which we make available for free in the same ethos that Craig provides this free communal, supportive space on the internet. We try to do that too, in our little history nonprofit. You also, if you donate over $50 a year, you get  amazing perks as members. You get the quarterly membership magazine that I mentioned earlier. You also get discounts on events and other exclusive perks. And, of course, you support our OpenSFHistory [00:23:00] photo archive, which we're getting jamming again with some new equipment and some other nerd backend efficiencies that we're baking in to the revived and expanded program. You also support the Cliff House care and it, or I'm sorry, you support the care and exhibition of our Cliff House collection. Which is still very much an active collection.

I mentioned on our last podcast, and I'll mention again, the National Park Service has requested that we remove the Whitney family totem pole from its long time forever home next to the Cliff House. And we're actively working on that. All of that takes time. All of that takes creativity. And all of that is possible because of your financial support. So, please make a donation today. Even if it's just $5, that goes a long way.

And now, it’s time for what you've all been waiting for, besides [00:24:00] Craig's, Craig of Craigslist. It's time for announcements. So, I'm very excited to announce so many events coming up in April. Like a wild amount of events in April. So, on April 6th, that's a Thursday at 6:00 PM, I hope you join us at the Internet Archive on Funston Avenue. Because we are hosting a Garden Neighborhoods of San Francisco book party. Our dear friend Richard Brandi wrote a wonderful book all about residence parks and in San Francisco, many of which are on the West side. He'll be giving an illustrated talk on resident parks history. He's an incredibly engaging speaker. He's one of my favorite people to tootle around San Francisco on history walks and well, you know, just get a drink and have fun, cause he's delightful. And here's a really fun thing. You can buy a book. You can buy his book. [00:25:00] You can have him sign his book. And WNP sells it for the lowest amount anywhere in the world. We are selling it cheaper than Amazon. Which is a hard feat. Because we're not trying to make a bunch of money off you. We're just trying to cover our costs and spread the history of the West side, courtesy of Richard Brandi. So, I encourage you to register. This program is $10 for WNP members and we absorb your Eventbrite fees and $20 for non-members. Like I said before, copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event. That's $35 plus tax. So come ready to spend some money. Doors open at 6:00 PM and where you can check in, and the main program will start at 6:30, running for about an hour. This will be really fun. Plus, you get to get inside the Internet Archive and thank you to them for providing the space for absolutely nothing. So, thank you. Internet Archive.

Next up, on [00:26:00] April 8th, that's a Saturday at 10:00 AM, we are joined by John Martini once again for a super fun Mountain Lake history walk. Of course, you know John. He's our dear friend. Retired park ranger. We'll learn all about lake and creek natural history, a Spanish colonialist campground, the public health service hospital and its little known cemetery, a restored valley, and, of course, a former military balloon launch site. Can you believe that? It's gonna be so much fun. The journey begins at 10:00 AM, lasts about one and a half hours, and this one's an easy one, easy paved walking route, but with one long flight of stairs. So, keep that in mind when you register. Again, $10 for members and we absorb your fees. $20 for non-members. You can register through Eventbrite and you can see the listing on our website.

I also encourage you to follow us on Eventbrite, because every time we add a new [00:27:00] event, you are immediately emailed. Otherwise, you can sign up for our email list and we send you an email about once a month telling you what we're up to over the course of that month. But, you know, things happen quickly and sometimes we put up event listings after the fact. So, you might want to register or follow us on Eventbrite.

And then, on April 10th, we don't even have a listing up for this yet, but on April 10th, we're partnering with Fort Point Beer Company on what I hope will be a series of trivia nights at historic pubs and bars across San Francisco. We're starting in our own backyard, where we'll be launching the evening of Monday, April 10th. It's at the Little Shamrock. So, get your Sunset, put your Sunset hats on. We're gonna give you all sorts of trivia about the district that we've worked up with a dear friend of ours, Angus Macfarlane and who you met on this podcast [00:28:00] before. So, keep an eye on our website. Fort Point will be listing the event and we'll share that listing. It's free, but they do ask that you register in advance because you know, I, I have a feeling there's gonna be some beer in the house and we need to know how many folks will be there.

So, we should probably give you a preview for next week, and that is, we're finally giving you the Blackthorn Tavern podcast you've been waiting for. You know, to stay on this pub, this pub train. Or maybe you haven't been waiting for it. But either way, cheers to that. Until next time, I'm Nicole Meldahl. And this has been another episode of Outside Lands San Francisco. Thanks for being with us history friends.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. [00:29:00] You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

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