Craig Newmark was one of the first programmers to demonstrate how connecting people over the Internet could fundamentally change entire industries. When he started Craigslist out of his apartment in 1995, it was intended as a simple listings of local happenings in San Francisco — posting everything from garage sales to gallery openings. In just a few years, Craigslist blossomed into one of the most popular online marketplaces in the country, radically remaking the classified marketplace (and dealing a serious blow to the revenues of countless newspapers). Seventeen years later, Craigslist is one of the most visited destinations on the Internet, with online marketplaces in cities all over the world.
Newmark has now stepped away from day-to-day operations of Craigslist, and instead is devoting much of his time to a new venture called CraigConnects: It’s Newmark’s effort to use the power of technology and social media to drive social change. The effort combines grant-making, research, and a good dose of evangelizing on a wide array of issues: consumer protection, good government, journalism, and veterans affairs.
Yesterday, I talked with Newmark about this new venture, which he describes as “using technology for the common good.”
Here’s a condensed, lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I’m struck by the logo — the mission statement — you have at the very top of your webpage which says, “Using technology to give the voiceless a real voice and the powerless real power.” In your mind, what is a “real voice” and what is “real power”?
CRAIG NEWMARK: Well, if you’re talking about a real voice, the idea is that the net allows anyone to say what they wanna say. It’s not filtered. Someone else isn’t talking for them. And that represents quite a change, because in the past, other people — say, politicians, would pretend to represent a group, but the politician would not be acting in the interests of that group. Real power has to do with the groups who are coming together – spontaneously, online, to exert power in numbers, and power through effective communications.
Now, it’s a two-edged sword. For example, the Occupy people are managing to get together and do seem to be representing a genuine voice. On the other hand, within the Tea Party movements, and that plural is deliberate, there are some Tea Party groups who have stayed genuine and grassroots, but other alleged Tea Party groups are just really lobbyists pretending to represent a bunch of real people.
My focus has been on how do you give small, genuine grassroots the ability to work with other small, four-wheeled, grassroots groups to combine for real power?
BRANGHAM: If you look at your areas of interest on CraigConnects, there’s a lot that seem like kindred issues: journalism, democracy, voting rights, fact checking, open government. But then “veterans” pops up there. Maybe I’m just being myopic, but that doesn’t seem like an obvious fit. I’m just curious why veterans are one of your interests?
NEWMARK: The reasons, as I begin to examine my own self, are partly emotional. The deal is that during the Vietnam War, I was in my teens, and I saw vets returning who got treated pretty badly. My dad was a World War II vet. I believe his role was to go around the Pacific, blowing things up. And so around five years ago, I went to a PBS News Hour deal in Colonial Williamsburg, and I wound up eating lunch with a guy from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America [IAVA], and so their issues got pretty significant emotional appeal for me, and they actually made sense to me. And then I started thinking, if an American service member is willing to go overseas and risk a bullet for me to protect me, I should give back a little bit.
That got things started. And as I’ve worked with veterans groups, both on the nonprofit side and the governmental side, I realized this was a good case study for getting both small and large groups to work more effectively together. All these groups have difficulty figuring out how to work together. And the larger groups, especially in government, have difficulty listening to frontline workers. Because usually the frontline workers at any large organizations know what’s goin’ on, and they know how to do things better than the boss. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a government reform program going where the Secretary, [General Eric] Shinseki, actually does listen to what the frontline people say, and he’s actually acting on their suggestions, and this normally doesn’t happen.
BRANGHAM: How do you go about figuring out what the needs of returning veterans are? There’s so many organizations that cater to different parts of the veteran community… How do you figure out where to put your efforts?
NEWMARK: I talk to both veterans but also the people in the frontline groups. People with boots on the ground, who — spend all their time with veterans. This weekend, and literally, you know Saturday and Sunday, I was at a veterans hackathon.
NEWMARK: Yes. And this was a hackathon in a sense that some serious Silicon Valley businesspeople sat down with a whole bunch of veterans, figuring out possible new businesses and where the jobs would be. Among the groups were a whole bunch of veterans there. And also, there were guys from Swords to Plowshares, which is a group with a very long, good track record for helping vets.… And these are the guys who have the experience over years. And we can talk and they can help me understand what vets needs in the short term. Also, I speak to the veterans’ families organizations, military families’ organizations, finding out what they need. That’s still in process, but the military families tell me — as an illustration — that military spouses often need help transferring professional licenses when their families are transferred from a base in one state to a base in another state. It’s a big problem, and you know, no one ever hears about it.
BRANGHAM: Meaning, if you’re, say, an accountant in Washington State — your license, your credentials, may not carry over in a new state when your husband or your spouse in transferred?
NEWMARK: Yup. I mean, I’ve been doing customer service for over 17 years now, and that kind of habitual way of looking at things is from the bottom up, from the frontline up, you know? And that applies to everything I do in my life. I’m pretty much permanently grounded, permanently tied to the grassroots. And so I have, I guess, an odd perspective, but it’s an effective perspective.
BRANGHAM: You obviously believe that technology and social media and all of those things can be a counterbalancing force for good. When skeptics come to you and say, “Come on, really?,” what examples do you use? You used Occupy Wall Street as an example, but what other examples come to mind where you say, “No, this is real. This can work.”
NEWMARK: Well, I point out that social media tools are- two-edged swords. They can be used for some really good stuff. There was the Obama campaign. There’s the Arab Awakening. There’s the whole anti-SOPA thing. But it’s a two-edged sword. Like, the jury isn’t in regarding the Kony 2012 campaign.
Going back a little further, social media was used in the past — including bloggers like, oh, Ben Franklin and Tom Paine (laughs) to lead to the American revolution. John Locke used blogging to help get going the British revolution, which, in fact, led to ours. And there was that guy Martin Luther, who used the social media of his time and, well, he had quite an effect. Social media is just about people talking to each other en masse. And the Internet makes it easier, but this is not a new thing.