Craig Newmark, founder of the popular online classifieds posting board Craigslist, spoke in Gaston Hall on Wednesday about Internet culture, the future of social media and the dream behind the Web site that led Business Week to declare him one of the “25 Most Influential People on the Web” in 2008.

In an event sponsored by the Lecture Fund, Newmark stated that creating Craigslist was about the exploration of a new social medium where people could share expertise or insight with a more global community.

“I looked at the Internet and I saw a lot of people helping each other out. I figured I should give something back, because I was taking so much . from all of the accumulated knowledge,” he said.

The self-described geek rose to the heights of Internet fame quickly. While working in computer security for Charles Schwab in 1995, he developed an e-mail list to inform people of local arts and technology events. Technical difficulties forced him to move the list to a public message board, which a friend suggested he name “Craig’s List.” The name stuck, and the board soon branched out into public information and classified advertisements.

Incorporated in 1999, Craigslist today serves over 550 cities in 50 countries. Despite this, it operates under the guidance of only 25 employees, part of what Newmark described as a humble business model.

“We have a model that really works effectively: Do well by doing what works for people. It’s not anything altruistic or noble; we just do what feels right,” he said.

Part of the appeal of Craigslist is its decidedly low-tech appearance, which Newmark noted was a conscious decision.

“The technology behind the site is advanced, but the site itself is not cutting-edge. It’s more important for a page to be fast than fancy,” Newmark said. “Keep the site simple and you’ll satisfy many customer’s needs.”

In fact, customer satisfaction is one of the most important parts of running a business, Newmark said, whose official title within the company is “Customer Service Representative and Founder.” In fact, Newmark said that he decided to not sell advertisement space on the Web site, keeping his visitors’ preferences in mind.

“We want to gauge our success solely on the quality of service,” he said. “I could have lived off of the site if I had just sold banner ad space to one person. But I don’t like the way they look.”

An attempt to run the site on a volunteer basis proved to take too much time, so Newmark turned to the Craigslist user base for advice on how to generate revenue, eventually deciding to charge for real estate postings and employment listings in several cities. In 2007, Craigslist began charging users who posted advertisements for erotic services. Newmark claimed that service charges are, in general, kept to a minimum, in keeping with the community-oriented atmosphere of the site.

“We will never charge for people looking for work or for housing,” Newmark said.

The revenue generated by posting charges is enough to cover the low operational costs of the Web site, which Newmark attributed to Craigslist’s low maintenance requirements.

“It’s largely self-policing,” he said, explaining the “flag for removal” function, which lets users vote to remove content that may be offensive or illegal. “We’ve built a culture of trust within the community. One thing I’ve learned . is that people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and good.”

Newmark added that this “culture of trust” model seen on his site could be adapted to government and society at large. While in Washington, he plans to meet with members of the incoming Obama administration in an effort to develop a “Craigslist for Service.”

“Craigslist runs through direct, participatory democracy,” he said. “This is how the United States worked 200 years ago, but it failed because face-to-face communication doesn’t scale. But now . old experiments with grassroots organization are becoming possible again.”

Newmark noted that many organizations were already taking advantage of these streamlined Internet methods, including the microfinance site Kiva.org, started in 2005.

“This is a great opportunity to make a political statement, to help people out,” he said, describing his recent experience with offering loans to business owners in the Palestinian territories.

Because of his work with policymakers and nonprofits – including his own, the Craig Newmark Foundation – he noted that he has spent less time on the development of Craigslist itself.

“I haven’t done anything really technologically oriented in 10 years or so,” Newmark said.

But he remains a frequent contributor, buying – or more frequently, selling – the latest in electronics and hardware.

During the question-and-answer session, a student asked about the most ridiculous item he had seen advertised on his site.

“I once saw an ad looking for someone to take their [Certified Public Accountant] ethics exam for them,” he said. “That’s probably the worst of it.”

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