MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Craigslist is turning 25 this year and, super unusual in a digital landscape that thrives on innovation and disruption, Craigslist does not look that different from how it did back in 1995. Over the years, the site has continued to thrive. And Jessa Lingel writes in a piece for the website The Conversation, Craigslist may even hold the key to a more democratic way of interacting online.
Lingel is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and she joins us now.
JESSA LINGEL: Thank you.
KELLY: So there is something remarkable about a site that looks like an old classified section of the newspaper but is still profitable and very widely used today. How has Craigslist managed to do that?
LINGEL: So it's great that you used the word classified because Craigslist is a classified ad site, and it is the most popular platform in any medium at any time in history for posting classified ads.
KELLY: And why leave it so simple and so true to how it has always looked? Is this the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it model of the Internet?
LINGEL: It really is. It sort of comes down to the commitment of its CEO, Jim Buckmaster, who's been at the helm since 1999, and the founder, Craig Newmark. And they're both just old-school engineer-type guys who just really believe in keeping the design as simple and functional as possible. It does not sell user data to third parties. It doesn't have banner ads. The only ads on the site are the ads that users write to try and get rid of their coffee tables and cellphones.
KELLY: Now, Craigslist has had all kinds of challenges. There have been scams. There's been fraud. There have been violent crimes. And I wonder - is that linked to another very distinctive feature, which is anonymity?
LINGEL: So that policy goes back to Craigslist's early days in the 1990s when it was very common to be anonymous online or pseudononymous (ph). And they see that policy as providing a form of privacy to their users. Though it is true that there have been some, you know, very violent crimes; there's been scams on Craigslist - but of course, there are also scams on platforms that we think of as much classier or much safer. You know, there's scams on LinkedIn, on eBay, on Facebook.
KELLY: You did hear one very powerful defense of Craigslist from users who you talked to who are people of color. What did they tell you?
LINGEL: Yeah. So I heard over and over again the sense that Craigslist is part of the poor people's Internet. Craigslist sort of has this stigma that using it means you're lower-class; using it means you're sort of hard up. But it also meant that people of color, poor people found that they could use the site in a way that really made sense for them.
So we actually know for a fact that there have been these high-profile incidents on Airbnb of hosts discriminating against guests because of their name or what they look like. So suddenly, on a site like Craigslist, you can rent an apartment; you can try and search for a job. And you don't have to worry about people discriminating against you because you're anonymous.
KELLY: And when you write that you think Craigslist could play a role in a more democratic Internet, is that part of what you're getting at?
LINGEL: Yeah. I've been studying digital culture for about 10 years, and I've always been interested in platforms that are sort of outside the mainstream. And one thing that really interests me about Craigslist is that it's been online for so long, and it hasn't had to change its politics.
So Craigslist holds on to these early-1990s Web values about a platform being truly accessible, a platform being open and doesn't change its appearance. And in that sense, Craigslist reminds us there's a path that a company can take, and it can feel democratic, and it can feel less commercial and still be incredibly successful. You don't have to sacrifice your profit in order to protect user data.
KELLY: Jessa Lingel - she is the author of the new book "An Internet For The People: The Politics And Promise Of Craigslist." She joined us via Skype.
Thanks very much.
LINGEL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "TRUTH")