November 2009
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               Craigslist: the failure of an Internet community


               By Jonathan Wallace



           I was producing a ten minute play of mine and it turned into one of those off balance projects: first a director dropped out; then an actor friend quita day before the first rehearsal. I turned to Craigslist twice, once to find a director, the second time to replace the actor. The first ad never ran, despite an email assuring me it was going live. The second was flagged and deleted very rapidly after I posted it.


           Why is this important enough to warrant an article in the Spectacle? Am I using my personal printing press to settle a score?In college, I would sometimes read the “National Review” to track what the right wing types thought; I felt profound distaste when William F. Buckley in his column castigated a famous glass company for refusing to engrave his name in one of their products.


           I think that Craigslist’s failures and glitches are of interest because it is represented as an effective, self-governing Internet community; because it constitutes a virtual monopoly, preempting the competition of newspapers and of other, smaller, commercial or nonprofitventures; and because it speaks to the Libertarian-Internet ideal of self regulating communities with no strong centralized control.


           In 1993, Howard Rheingold published an influential bookcalled “The Virtual Community”. His thesis was that


Because of its potential influence on so many people's beliefs and perceptions, the future of the Net is connected to the future of community, democracy, education, science, and intellectual life--some of the human institutions people hold most dear, whether or not they know or care about the future of computer technology.


           Rheingold prefaced his book with a quote from M. Scott Peck The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace:


We human beings have often been referred to as social animals. But we are not yet community creatures. We are impelled to relate with each other for our survival. But we do not yet relate with the inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community. It is clearly no longer enough to be simply social animals, babbling together at cocktail parties and brawling with each other in business and over boundaries. It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task--to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed.


           Rheingold’s book is remembered for its persuasive and hopeful prediction that the Net, and its communities in particular, would be a powerful force for the “openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community” invoked by Peck.


           One of the few enjoyable things about the passage of decades is to see how the story turned out, at least in its preliminary branchings and transitional conclusions. What follows is a case study of an Internet community Rheingold undoubtedly would have featured had it already existed at the time he wrote. Craigslist appeared at its inception to meet all of his criteria: nonprofit, voluntary, serviced by enthusiasts and completely out of government or corporate control.


           I had placed ads on the system fewer than thirty times in ten years. The first time, I successfully sold a generator I improvidently bought in preparation for Y2K. Later, we rented what was then our weekend house, when local brokers failed to produce a single interested client; and this was a big win, because the people we found came back for three summers. I found one writer for the Spectacle via a listing.


           I had idly browsed Craigslist a few times looking at items like kayaks, Airstream trailers and 88-key electronic keyboards. I placed an ad to help a relative look for work, and I unsuccessfully offered a piano for sale.


           By far the biggest use I made of Craigslist was browsing the gigs-writing section in New York for theatre companies soliciting plays. I have received productions of four or five short plays as a result of answering these ads. I never got paid for any of these, nor did I expect to; the reward was seeing a play of mine in a live performance. I have also sometimes solicited directors and actors before.


           This time,  Craigslist completely failed to be of help in an emergency when I badly needed to find resources quickly. And the reasons, when I look into them, arise from the company's very problematic corporate culture. What I discovered is that Craigslist is a badly distorted variation on the idyllic online community postulated fifteenyears ago by Rheingold.


           My ad for a director, placed from my account while sitting at a Kinko’s computer, apparently went through normally; I received an email notifying me that it would be live in fifteen minutes. A day later, when I had not received a single response, I discovered that despite the email assurance and the fact that the ad was visible from my account, it had never actually been posted on Craigslist. I emailed a query to customer support, which was never answered, and posted to the help forum, where some polite, not highly interested, head scratching ensued.   Doing a little more research on my own, I found out about the phenomenon of “ghost ads”. It seems that Craigslist, whichtodayhas about thirty employees,is using some automated software to detect suspect ads. These include ads coming from IP addresses which post too frequently—so it appears that I torpedoed my own urgent ad for a replacement director by posting it from a Kinko’s computer.   The result was a large reliance and opportunity cost. I lost a day waiting for people to respond to my ghosted ad, which could have been profitably used reposting the ad from my own computer, or pursuing other solutions. As is so often the case with automated technical safeguards, only those in good faith are harmed by them, while the bad guys find easy work-arounds.


           Since ghosting is a phenomenon well known to the Craigslist community, I am intrigued by the fact it was not immediately suggested by the people who answered my post on the help forums. I can't prove it, but I think the information may have been deliberately withheld. Later, I came across numerous other “answers” to other people's questions on the help forums which seem to be more concerned with preserving the hype (and the mystery)than with actually helping the user. More on this in a few paragraphs.


           Ghosting, if it is in fact a feature and not a bug (and it certainly seems, and is accepted by the Craigslist community as,deliberate) is highly unethical. It involves Craigslist telling a deliberate lie to the user, based on a prejudgment (wrong in my case and many others) that the user is a Bad Person and therefore owed no obligation of truth.


           Ghosting software, in its mechanical application of binary criteria (public computer=spam) which can be shockingly wrong, is similar to the censorware used ostensibly to block porn which I covered extensively in the ‘90’s. It is produced by technological arrogance, the delusion that technology alone can be used to make decisions which, in reality, badly need the application of human discretion. It operates by secret rules, so that the people whose postings or web sites are blocked must guess why (and sometimes can’t even arrive at a reasonable theory). And you only ever discover that your post or site has been blocked by accident, as there is never a system for informing you that you have been barred.


           Lying to the consumer is a terrible way to run a business. We are very far away from the Rheingold ideal of an open, free and equal online community.


           My second experience, days later, was even worse.


           The day before the first rehearsal, an actor called to say he had decided to vacation in the Bahamas instead of performing in my play. The first performance was now only ten days away. I decided to try to replace him within 24 hours and avoid rescheduling the rehearsal.I listed the role in NYC-gigs-talent Six hours later,I discovered that my ad had been flagged and deleted.


           Why? I still don’t know for sure. Here is the ad which was rapidly kicked off Craigslist:


For a ten minute play going up for two performances October 24th and 25th in midtown Manhattan, a 40 or 50 something actor is needed to play a working class Brooklyn dad. Rehearsals start Thursday so we need to cast this asap. Please respond to [email address]with resume and headshot, thanks. Nonunion only, sorry.

An addendum to the ad, produced by a “switch” you set when posting your ad, specified that there was no pay offered.


An email to Craigslist customer service went unanswered as always. A careful study of the Craigslist Terms of Use failed to disclose the merest shard of a basis on which my post could be said to violate it.


A visit to a help forum on flagging discovered the following kinds of exchanges:


Q: If someone's ad gets flagged over and over, it is said that their account gets brittle (takes fewer and fewer flags to bring the ad down). Would their other ads posted at the same time also be suseptible to being flagged more easily as well?

           A: not the stupid brittle question got your answer yesterday.

Now, these are forums on Craigslist servers, linked from the Craigslist help pages,and cited in a response you get whenever you try to email customer service.In these “help” forums,you will find a lot of rude and deliberately insulting responses, much shrugging (that’s just the way it is, anyone can flag you for anything) and invocations of infallibility (if you’re getting flagged that much, you must be doing something wrong).


           Each thread starts with an aggrieved request, like this one:


                      Why was this flagged? <bexyandben >

Title: Long-term, romantic, loving, tender -- friends first! mw4w - 4040 (St Charles County)

We posted in the mw4w misc romance section--why was it flagged?

           Many quickly lead to answers that are insulting and critical and have nothing to do with the Craigslist terms of service:


That was your entire ad? One broken sentence?    

           Bexyandben then posted some more details, whereupon someone answered: You sound like creepy Satanists...Further responses criticized the couple’s open lifestyle, and suggested they post somewhere else than Craigslist. Bexyandben objected that their original post completely complied with all Craigslist criteria; if their post was not welcome on Craigslist, why was there a “men and women for women” section?


           The answer: “Just because it is there, does not mean the readers like it.”


           Bexyandben: “So, readers can flag anything they "don't like"?”


           Answer: “Yep”.


           And the thread, which goes on for scores of messages, gets worse, more personal and more insulting from there.


           Occasionally, you find a pointer to something called the Unofficial Craigslist Flagging FAQ, which contains the following remarkable advice for people upset that their post got flagged and deleted:


But first things first. Do a little attitude check. Go ahead, right now. How do you feel? Are you annoyed? Angry? Outraged? A bit bewildered?. Consider that having your free classified ad taken down is hardly a big deal. It's not like your dog came down with herpes or your (now) ex-roomie skipped on the phone bill AND scored your favorite Flaming Turds CD. It's just an ad. Cost you nothing but a bit of time. If you are getting a big emotional reaction over it stop reading right about now. You have emotional issues. You need a therapist, not a FAQ. The authors of this humble document cannot help you.


           Having my free classified ad taken down was a big deal. I lost an actor and needed to replace him within 24 hours and relied on what I understood to be a community system which would allow me to access the largest number of actors with the least effort almost instantaneously. As a result of the deletion of my ad, I lost another half day. I had tried to rely on Craigslist twice that week in related emergencies, and twice the system completely failed me for reasons that were unrelated to any bad faith or bad behavior on my part.


           The best explanation I can come up with for the flagging of my ad was that it specified a nonunion actor and asked him to work for no pay. Like the married couple posting for a polyamorous lover, I relied on the Terms of Usage, and also on the existence of features in Craigslist which assured me my post was proper. For example, you set a switch specifying that a gig does not pay. Why should this switch exist if no pay ads are disfavored?


           I felt that I had been caught in the collision of two communities, one which works pretty satisfactorily, and one which is highly dysfunctional.


           Despite the fact that an actor I thought was a friend harmed my play by dropping out at the last moment, the Off Off Broadway community is an example of one which meets Peck’s criteria, as endorsed by Rheingold, of “inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community.” In the Off Off Broadway world, playwrights produce their own plays, actors, directors and designers work for free and nobody gets paid, or makes any money. Everyone is in it for a love of the craft, and in the hope of breaking through to a higher level. Plays are produced for as little as $1000 (or for virtually nothing in the case of my ten minute work). People who appear in my productions have something they can add to their resume, have at least some hope of being spotted by an agent or someone who can cast them in something bigger, and get to practice their skills. After five years doing this, I know scores of playwrights and directors, and hundreds of actors, some of whom I will work with many times. Others, including anyone who drops out at the last minute, I will never work with again. Part of the glue of the community is that there is no anonymity, that if you harm someone there will be reputational consequences.


           Also, the number of actors who belong to the union, Actors’ Equity, is vanishingly small, and some of those won’t work at all in Off Off Broadway productions. There are many fine actors out there who would love to belong to the union but are not permitted to join, but who rather than toss in the towel will continue performing in any gig they can get, including mine.


           From this point of view, my ad, as seen from within the Off Off Broadway community, was business as usual, and resoundingly inoffensive. It offered an opportunity many are eager to pursue, and exploited nobody.   


           However, when I resorted to the world of Craigslist to replace my vanishing actor, I entered a community, if it can even be called one, that operates on anonymity, mystery, and spite. In general, to be deleted, your ad must be flagged by more than one person, but the exact numbers are kept secret by Craigslist. Someone flagging you is not required to have a Craigslist account, nor provide any explanation other than clicking one of several choices like “Prohibited” and “Misposted”. With onlythirty employees, Craigslist does not bother to monitor flagging trends, and rarely if ever responds to individual complaints.


           There are workarounds to the requirement that more than one person flag a post. “Flagging gangs” exist which collaborate to ensure certain kinds of posts are not seen. There is also software which simulates a large number of different people flagging a post.


           It is easy to find stories of people routinely deleting the posts of their competitors.A fellow named Martin Tobias writes:


In my personal experience zero of my posts have been removed for actual CL terms violation and 100% of them have been flagged by haters.  There are competitors on CL that can flag your posts with impunity and no repercussions.  I have a friend in the rental business and this is a constant war between her and competitors flagging her listings. Her listings have about a 2 hour life on CL. 


           The troll-like interlocutors on the flagging forum get offended whenever thesuggestion is made that people are flagging their competitors—because they are defending a way of doing things, which in all its arbitrariness and mystery, belongs to them.


Apparently, the pet and animal related boards are a primary haunt for flag gangs:


There are groups of people that are ganging up on posters and flagging off anyone’s ad they want - they flag rescues, shelters, community information ads, unspayed or unneutered dogs, people who misspell, people who write in capitols, free dogs, all pit bulls, free cats, all ferrets, all services, too high fee, no fee, supplies and much much more.

          On that same board is the poignant account ofa poster who solicited children’s stories for an audio CD and was flagged. On the “help” forum, she was given this explanation:


I really don’t know if a open call for story submissions is really a writing gig. That is really up for the community to decide, so if you take a break, repost and are flagged again you need to take the hint that your community doesn’t want your type of ad in their category.


           I am particularly stunned by that answer. As a writer who craves exposure regardless of whether I get paid, I know there are thousands of people out there who would be thrilled to have a story included on a CD. It is one thing for some Craigslist users to be offended by this ad, but for one or more to decide that thousands of others should not see it is an abuse.


           On the “help” forum, you are informed that “hundreds” of people flagged your post, but the reality seems to be that on many forums even in large cities, as few as three or six people (or one effectively pretending to be) can get your post deleted. I seriously doubt “hundreds” or even six people actually objected to my posting. And whoever flagged it is not likely a member of the Off Off Broadway community, any more than the people who flagged BexyandBen's ad are members of the polyamory community. Craigslist's unsupervised flagging mechanism is, in fact, an incitement to people to be as judgmental as they want of other people's mores.


           When you are flagged and deleted, you get an email from Craigslist informing you, and claiming that ““98% of the removals are for violations of Craigslist TOU”. This is an obviously false statement and one which Craigslist would have no factual basis for making, as they do not monitor flagging.


           Craig Newmark, the founder, has been quoted as saying: ““[Flagging] works great in all sorts of ways, and it’s also an expression of our values. Mutual trust. This is kind of democracy in real life. Everyone wins, except for the bad guys.” And later, in the same interview: “What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good.” He clearly has not been reading his own help forums. He did remark at the Berkman Center thatflagging is “‘a flawed mechanism,’ but it works better than not doing it.”


           The problems with flagging could be easily ameliorated by requiring people to be logged in to their accounts and to type a few words of explanation. Customer service could monitor individuals’ flagging history on a random basis, or in response to complaints, and could remonstrate with and eventually suspend flag-abusers. Note that Wikipedia, a much more successful example of a user operated community with sufficient centralized control, keeps a history of edits and deletions made by users. “When you make an edit to Wikipedia, you have two choices. First, you can register and leave your username, or you can edit anonymously. But, when you edit anonymously, it uses your IP address, a number which identifies what computer network are you from, in lieu of a username.” Wikipedia has a far better corporate culture, and a dedicated team of people who root out abuse, fix page vandalism, and chase vandals. Craigslist, by contrast, has placed the vandals in charge.


           In the ‘80’s, when the Internet was very small (I remember a report circa 1984 that it had about 75,000 users worldwide), Compuserve was the first large commercial entity which offered email and forum communications. Later, as the Net grew, usenet lists became a popular way of sharing information. A parallel technological development, all but forgotten today, was the growth of bulletin board systems like Fido, independent servers which networked with one another via dial up lines to share email and files.


           In this early environment of experimentation, the first battles between moderated and unmoderated communications were fought. It was an early discovery, repeated across mailing lists and forums on every possible topic, that in venues which lacked a strong central administrator—a “sysop” or list moderator—flames quickly drove out reasoned communication and trolls chased off the good people. My personal experience of this involved a freedom of speech list, created by an enterprising young journalist who refused to take a strong hand monitoring the posts. Within a few years, it became a haven for rants, insults and Libertarian monologuing, and all of the actual First Amendment lawyers and professors who had graced its early discussions had left. In those years, one of the participants in the early Net speech discussions and controversies formulated a famous and amusing observation, that all (unmoderated) Net discussions eventually devolve to accusations of Nazidom (which are rife on Craigslist: “Nazi-racist, flag- addict (your own description) Sadistic (my words) Dude: Can't you like really contribute to the community by going on Citizen's Patrol…”) The moderator of the free speech list ultimately shut it down and replaced it with a one way email blast, in which carefully chosen essays and news items were published to the readers, who could not reply at will.


           This phenomenon is a kind of Gresham’s Law of people: the bad ones, the aggressive, vain, dishonest, vengeful borderline personalities, will drive out the sane, calm, compassionate types on any unmoderated forum. Although this has aspects of universality—the violent dominate the peaceful in any political unit lacking a central government and police force, like the Sudan or Somalia—it also has elements to it that are special to online communications. The very word “troll”, used as far back as the 1980’s to denote the kind of people who dominate Net communications when permitted, suggests someone crude, unsocialized and blinking in the unfamiliar light—the type of people who would have a much harder time taking over a town hall meeting in which they had to appear in person, and risk being held accountable for their actions.


           A metaphor which is useful, although not completely applicable, is the idea of the Internet as a commons. In the “tragedy of the commons”—it should have been titled the tragedy of the UNREGULATED commons—identified by Barry Commoner in the 1960’s, individuals using the resources of a commons have a selfish, damaging incentive to exceed its carrying capacity, say by each herding one sheep more than the commons can sustain. Though the Net, with its flexibility and apparently limitless bandwidth, is not strictly a limited or nonrenewable resource in the same way as a green field near a bucolic village, the idea of the Net as a commons has its utility. Individuals unrestrained by any central or social control do make uses of the Internet which deprive other people of its use and enjoyment.


           A related example is private email, which when it became universal in the 1980’s astonished everyone with its ease, cheapness, and utility as a new medium allowing everyone to stay closely connected to family, friends, colleagues and people of shared interests. Thirty years later, even our personal email is highly compromised as a trustworthy resource. I don’t know if an email which purports to be from my friend is really from her, or a spammer; I don’t know if the apparently innocuous attachment is a virus; and I routinely get email I did not send which appears to originate from my own accounts, so I know that I am being spoofed with some regularity. I get hundreds of messages a day from fraudsters, including many Nigerians who want to send me millions of dollars, so that virtually nothing I receive from a stranger can be taken at face value. Add to that the fact that people who sincerely want to reach me may fail, because their mail is getting trapped in my spam filter, and my own attempt to email others have sometimes been blocked by over-zealous, privately maintained blacklists which identify my ISP as a source of spam. These last groups, which maintain blacklists in perfect secrecy and respond with anger and arrogance to any questions, are highly similar to Craigslist flaggers in their methods. Private email, which was expected to be a panacea, is instead a highly degraded and unreliable resource today.


           Sending spam or viruses, flagging posts which comply with the terms of service merely because you don’t like them or as a power play, and responding to good faith inquiries with insults and rants are all comparable to herding too many sheep: actions which degrade a commons.


           Craig Newmark has said that he identifies the Net as a commons, and regards his flagging militias as being the team which avoids the tragedy:

Well, this is a commons, and the phrase that should trigger in your head is the "tragedy of the commons in economics." When you have a common resource like that you have to tend it, or else it's going to be destroyed. That's happened in a number of cases on the Internet. One great example is the Usenet news groups. The only ones that seem to thrive are the ones that are moderated.

           The most charitable thing I can say is that there is a huge dollop of self-delusion here, as Craig’s enforcement team consists of the very trolls who pollute the commons.

           The more you examine Craigslist, so highly touted as its inception as a leading and beneficial example of the new world of Internet communities, the more unsavory it looks. With its suffix, you could easily assume it’s a nonprofit, but its not.Craig Newmark has said in interviews that the easiest way to organize it was as a for profit corporation, so it doesn’t actually have to make any of the disclosures a nonprofit would, but can be run in perfect secrecy. It is privately held, so that it doesn’t have to make the financial disclosures required by securities laws. A few years ago, there were reports that one of its private shareholders sold his stake to Ebay (a highly unusual transaction, because privately held blocks of stock are not usually saleable by their holder without the consent of the company itself). Craiglist partly pursues a for-profit model, charging for job and real estate postings in certain large cities, but is not required to report its revenues or profits. There have been recent reports that Craiglist has as much as $80 to $100 million in annual revenue—pretty remarkable with only thirty employees.


           If you disregard the hype, Craigslist looks much like a disreputable example of an overblown trend, touted thirty years ago by a business guru named Tom Peters, that a company didn’t need factories or hordes of employees, or even an office, just a brand name and an email account.While this seemed revelatory at the time, it also fed directly into the underlying postulate of the Internet bubble, that a company didn’t even need to have a sustainable business model or any profits, as long as it had hype.


           The Craigslist hype obscures the fact that it is a badly run business. A company with $100 million in revenue could afford to have a team of 100 people dealing with customers and monitoring flagging, among other relationship and quality assurance activities. Pushing these activities off to the least socialized, most aggressive users is not the creation of a community, but an act of astonishing cheapness. The real message is that the quality of the product, of Craigslist itself, is completely unimportant.


           Why would this be so? The answer is likely that Craigslist itself is similar to another giant who has slammed a shoddy product onto every desk to in America: Microsoft, which in four decades has never bothered to release an OS which resists viruses or which even runs for a week at a time without a mysterious crash. Craigslist is a monopoly; it has sucked up al the oxygen in the online classified ad business, cutting into newspaper revenue and so dominating the scene that few people will bother creating any kind of competitor, at a local or national level, as a commercial entity or a nonprofit. In the end, Craigslist is an 800 pound gorilla, and can do whatever it wants.


           I routinely am still shocked by Microsoft’s antics after all these years, most recently when it crippled the installation of Office on my used Mac laptop during an update and insisted I had an invalid key. But even Microsoft would not dare to maintain help forums and semi-official FAQ’s in which users are relentlessly insulted and belittled.


           Craigslist is best understood as a commercial entity, hiding behind hype and with a very unethical corporate culture. “Ghosting” of ads involves a deliberate practice of lying to users, assuring them ads are live when they are not, presumably so they won’t complain or repost. If Craigslist took money for this, it would be a criminal fraud, but even the ghosting of a free ad is a highly unethical action. My experience is a case study: I lost valuable time waiting for replies to a post that wasn’t there, when I could have been pursuing other alternatives.


           Craigslist flagging is also a highly dishonest enterprise. The email the company sends you when your post is flagged insists that there is only a nominal (2%) occurrence of improper flagging, but this is obviously not true. The official word, promulgated in numerous interviews by Craig Newmark himself, and insistently echoed by the trolls on the “help” forums,is that this is the work of an Internet “community” setting its own standards (“I really don’t know if a open call for story submissions is really a writing gig. That is really up for the community to decide….”) The revelation that your posts can be deleted if flagged by as few as three people, or by one enterprising competitor or “hater”, totally pulls the rug out from under any representation that a community is at work here.


           In doing business with any company or entity, I have a few requirements, and so do we all. (I am sure that even the Craigslist trolls insist on being treated better than they treat other people.) The first is reliability. If I have an emergency—a director or actor quits, and I need a replacement immediately—I want to know that as long as I comply with the rules, my post will be visible immediately and will remain on the board for the appropriate time. A second requirement is the transparency of the rules. I need to be able to understand what kinds of posts will be allowed, and which are prohibited. This is what the Craisglist Terms of Use are for.


           The reality is that Craigslist is neither reliable nor transparent. My first ad was ghosted and the second flagged, and I lost valuable time. In neither case was the company’s behavior clear and predictable. The flagging process alone makes posting on Craigslist a popularity contest: your post will survive if no-one is angry at you, or philosophically opposed to your kind of request. There are therefore no rules.


           A third requirement is that people be held accountable for their decisions. Even at Microsoft, if an employee is rude to me, I can ask for a supervisor. At Craigslist, those who flag and who respond on “help” forums are perfectly anonymous, and can never be held even slightly accountable for their actions.


           The spectacle of a completely unreliable $100 million company with rude, juvenile and insulting customer service is remarkable. If Craigslist is in any sense a community, it is reminiscent of the Iks, the African tribe degraded by colonialism who famously shat on one another’s doorsteps, cast away the weak and elderly and stole food from each other. And, if I can be permitted one more metaphor, Craig Newmark, in his quoted remarks, which sound so benign and mask a seriously broken culture, reminds me of the Sta-Puft marshmallow man from “Ghostbusters”, a destructive behemoth with a smiley face.