For people who grew up digitally savvy, Craigslist has been a part of the online landscape seemingly forever. However, the history of Craigslist reveals that that’s not actually the case; even so, it is still a venerable institution, having just celebrated its 25th birthday.
Before Craigslist became the go-to website for people all over the United States—and, these days, the world—to find everything from used furniture to job listings, it was something very different. At first, it didn’t focus on selling things, for one thing—and for another, it wasn’t even a website.
Just so you know, there is an actual Craig, and yes, he did, in fact, create Craigslist. His name is Craig Newmark, and this is the story about how an email chain became a multi-billion-dollar business—while still remaining largely free to use.
Craig Newmark was born in Morristown, New Jersey in 1952. He graduated from Morristown High School in 1971 before moving out of state to attend Case Western Reserve University, where he studied computer science. He received a bachelor of science degree from the university in 1975 and a master of science degree in 1977. After graduating, he took a job with IBM as a programmer, which he held for the next 17 years; eventually, though, he moved companies—and it was a new job working for Charles Schwab that brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1993.
By 1995, Newmark, who has commented in the past that he doesn’t have terrific social skills (“I didn’t gain the normal instincts people have for how you relate to others,” he told Inc in 2016), was still looking for ways to connect to a broader community in the Bay Area. So he started a small email list to share information with his friends about upcoming events and other happenings occurring around San Francisco.
Initially, he planned to call it “sf-events,” but his friends convinced him to call it “Craigslist” instead—the point being to “reinforce its personal and down-to-earth nature” per Craigslist’s Mission and History page. Newmark apparently “still finds it awkward that such a visible site is named after him,” continues the page, “but he’ll get over it.”
Expansion, Growth, and Decisions
The first email Newmark sent went out to maybe a dozen people, as he revealed in an interview with Inc in 2016; soon, though, the list of recipients grew—and so did the scope of the project itself. “People just kept emailing me asking for their addresses to be added to the cc list, or eventually to the listserv,” said Newmark. “As the tasks started getting onerous, I would usually write some code to automate them.”
He also “just kept listening” to people when they gave him feedback or other suggestions. “At first, the email was just arts and technology events,” he told Inc. “Then people asked if I could pass on a post about a job or something for sale. I could sense an apartment shortage growing, so I asked people to send apartment notices, too.”
As the project expanded, it became apparent that it was rapidly outgrowing the email and listserv format, so Newmark began developing a website to house all of the event postings, job notices, apartment listings, “for sale” announcements, and more. Craigslist.org went live in 1996, and in the years since, the website’s simple, no-frills user interface has remained more or less the same—even as the types of listings it hosted and the cities in which it operated continued to grow.
The unique thing about Craigslist is that it has never relied on advertising to keep running. Other companies began approaching Newmark about running banner ads on Craigslist in 1997, but in response, he made the conscious decision to keep the platform non-commercial. Instead, fees were eventually implemented for the posting of some kinds of ads—for example, job postings, apartment rentals (in some cities), and for sale by-dealer items—although for most people, the use of Craigslist remains free. Newmark also wanted the company to remain small, so by the time he had made Craigslist his full-time job and began hiring a team to work on it with him, he kept it under 50 employees. That’s still the case today.
A New CEO
When the company became a company and not just a hobby that Newmark handled in his spare time, he quickly realized that he neither liked nor excelled at management. So, in 2000, he handed the reins over to Jim Buckmaster.
Buckmaster, who had grown up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, took a long and winding road to programming; initially studying engineering at Virginia Tech and later heading to the University of Michigan for medical school, neither field ultimately appealed to him, and he ended up falling into programming without really meaning to. After a tough few years in Ann Arbor, he began sending his resumé out to tech companies via the internet—and with all of his responses coming from Silicon Valley, he wound up moving to northern California.
In 1999, Buckmaster posted his resumé to Craigslist after hearing about the site from a friend, only for Newmark to see it, invite him to interview, and subsequently hire him. As the site’s lead programmer, Buckmaster had a hand in the homepage design, the architecture (that allowed it to serve multiple cities), the discussion forums, the search engine, the community moderation system, and more. He was promoted to CEO of Craigslist just a year after joining the company—a position he still holds today—and under his stewardship, the site continued to grow, adding more locations and more types of listings with each passing year.
However, Craigslist has had its fair share of controversies over the years. Several years’ worth of back-and-forth litigation emerged after eBay bought a 25 percent stake in Craigslist in 2004; in 2015, eBay divested its stake back to Craigslist and a settlement between the two companies was reached.
Additionally, in 2010, the company shut down the adult services section amidst claims that this section facilitated human trafficking and sex crimes. Then, in 2018, the personals section was taken down for similar reasons, although this time, it was in direct response to the passage of a specific piece of legislation (HR 1865, or FOSTA, which holds websites liable when third parties unlawfully misuse online personals sections). In both cases, Craigslist defended its right for the website to contain these sections; additionally, at least one study found that, rather than increasing violence against women, Craigslist’s adult sections may have actually reduced it.
And, of course, there was the case of Philip Markoff, who was indicted for the first-degree murder of Julissa Brisman in 2009 as well as armed robbery and several other charges. Dubbed “the Craigslist Killer” by the media and general public, Markoff allegedly targeted his victims by responding to their Craigslist ads. Markoff committed suicide in prison while awaiting trial in 2010.
Where Are They Now?
Craigslist has nevertheless remained mostly unharmed by these controversies.
After stepping down as CEO, Newmark continued working on the customer service end of things for a number of years. Around 2014, he stepped back from this position as well, shifting his focus toward the philanthropic endeavors in which he was already active.
These days, most of Newmark’s work is in this arena. With a net worth of around $1 billion, he puts both his resources and his platform to good use, frequently donating to causes as varied as supporting trustworthy journalism, women in tech, and voter protection. As he puts it on the website for his charitable foundation, Craig Newmark Philosophies, “I’m aware that I got lucky financially and should share that in ways that are meaningful and contribute to the common good.” His goal is to “connect people and drive broad civic engagement, working to advance grassroots organizations that are effective and getting stuff done.” Then, crucially, he “[gets] out of the way to let them do their jobs because they are the experts.” He also serves on numerous advisory boards.
Meanwhile, Buckmaster has continued to run Craigslist with the same spirit that Newmark did. He remains proud of the fact that he is “possibly the only CEO ever described by the business press as anti-establishment, a communist, and a socialistic anarchist.”
And Craigslist itself? It’s still going strong; in fact, it’s both one of the world’s most popular websites and the most-used classifieds service in any medium. It operates in 570 cities in 70 countries, supports multiple languages (English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese), and remains an excellent place to find everything from a desk to replace that IKEA one you’ve been carting around since you moved into your first apartment to random activities to keep you occupied on a Friday night. It’s even got an app now, available for both iOS and Android devices.
See you on Craigslist!