Craigslist Lurches to Defend its Decrepit Empire

Craigslist, often portrayed as sleeping giant among the Web's most trafficked sites, has stirred in recent weeks - and it isn't happy. Everyone's favorite place to hunt down an apartment or unload a musty sofa hasn't been left in the dust. Rather, it has set up camp there with a coterie of lawyers and a stubborn streak that punishes the users it claims to have at heart. 

First the online listings king began slinging legal threats at third-party developers building onto its data. Then it quietly slid out a job posting looking for UI developers. And now Craigslist has radically redrafted its terms of use, claiming exclusive rights to any content posted on the site. So what the heck is going on, exactly?

First, a brief history lesson, made all the more brief by the fact that Craigslist has hardly changed over the past 17 years. Craig Newmark founded the online listings directory back in 1995. There you have it! Craigslist is the ninth most visited website in the United States, according to Web ranking site Alexa, and the only one in the top 10 with a load time classified as “very fast” (.537 seconds) thanks to its skeletal design. In a Web chock full of widgets, social buttons, popover ads, and other browser confetti, is it such a bad thing that Craigslist refuses to evolve? 

Padmapper's Craigslist Update

Craigslist issued a cease-and-desist order to a small company called Padmapper in June. An MIT grad named Eric DeMenthon had hacked together a service in 2008 to make apartment hunting easier for himself and his friends. “A lot of times, we'd get to the bottom of a listing and see that it was in the wrong place, and we'd have to give up," he says. "What became Padmapper was to help us sift through things" by scooping up listings from Craigslist’s considerable database and draping them over Google Maps. 

"I think [Craigslist] is really good for a lot of things. I think they made a lot of good decisions in terms of finding other stuff, when location is not the most important thing. By keeping it so simple, they've made it easy to make it extremely fast - it's one of the fastest sites on the Web, probably, " DeMenthon says. "It's just a trade-off. But for certain things like apartments, it's not so good.”

Padmapper is how Craigslist housing listings should work. But as it stands, Craigslist's housing listings are just like its other painful-to-navigate sections: a bare wall of links with a general location in parentheses on the index page. if you’re lucky, the listings are accompanied by images, but you have to click through to see them. There's no Ajax or Javascript magic - this is the vestigial Web circa 1995. Padmapper effectively wrestles Craigslist into a time machine, adding the kind of UI features, like filters and bookmarking, that Web users have come to expect. In doing so, DeMenthon's service makes Craigslist practical for millions of users, who are driven back to Craigslist through Padmapper's geo-search interface. 

Padmapper Rises Again, Thanks to 3taps

Padmapper is a high-profile target of Craigslist’s curmudgeonly ire, but it isn’t the first to suffer such a fate. Over the years, the creaky classified-ad elder has crushed a number of would-be innovators hoping to improve on its interface or put its vast trove of data to better, more user-friendly use. Craigslist claims that its defensive action prevents third parties from putting a strain on its servers.

After the cease-and-desist, in a June 22 blog post, DeMenthon announced that he would yank all Craigslist data from Padmapper - and effectively cripple his own service - until he could cook up a workaround. Then, on July 9, he announced that Craigslist data would trickle back into Padmapper, this time powered by 3taps, a service that accesses Craigslist data indirectly through search and therefore dodges Craigslist’s terms of use.

Craigslist's Radical New Terms of Use

The center of 3taps' loophole is that Craigslist can’t copyright the details found in an apartment listing, such as the price, location and specifics of a property. But Craigslist is back on the attack, tweaking its terms of use to head off this strategy at the pass - though it remains to be seen if such an all-encompassing copyright claim can stand. Now, before posting any listing, users must agree to the following:

“Clicking “Continue” confirms that craigslist is the exclusive licensee of this content, with the exclusive right to enforce copyrights against anyone copying, republishing, distributing or preparing derivative works without its consent.”

3taps founder Greg Kidd stands by his guns in the face of Craigslist’s parry. “No Terms of Use can ride roughshod over the fact that there is no copyright in facts,” Kidd says. “Padmapper's use of exchange posting is not infringing use. It is fair use or free use... of public facts."

Kidd finds the implications of Craigslist's claim as disturbing as they are far-reaching. “We think PadMapper is just one (obviously very visible case) of a whole class of use case conflicts if this stands,” he says. “As we read it, a posting retweeted via Twitter is going to be just as problematic as one through PadMapper.”

The Future of Craigslist: Reading the Tea Leaves

"Innovate or die" is the rule for businesses on the Web - well, for businesses that aren’t Craigslist. The site has a fierce commitment to what it describes as an “unusually philanthropic company mission and philosophy,” but its users pay the price of its resistance to change. Craigslist provides a free service to people the world over, but if the site truly had users at heart, it would focus on improving the experience, not just maintaining a stagnant monopoly. A 2009 profile on Newmark in Wired paints Craigslist as a stubborn thought experiment that "scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate," in which the "ambiance of neglect is not a way to extract more profit but the expression of a worldview." Three years later, that portrayal still resonates. 

Craigslist may have the sparse, mid-1990s look of a wiki or a forum, but its attitude is exactly counter to the spirit of the open Web. Just agreeing to open a dialogue with comparatively microscopic third parties like Padmapper would be a step forward. As it stands, stonewalling small developers and flinging legal threats makes it clearer than ever that Craigslist needs to evolve. The site's intentions might be pure, but inferring that is getting harder than ever.

Craigslist is tight-lipped when it comes to commenting on its recent legal action. (The company refused our request for comment.) But a help-wanted listing for programmers and front-end/UI/UX developers that Craigslist posted on its own site might offer clues to the company's plans - and maybe even a glimmer of hope. According to the call out, posted July 10, the company is seeking new talent to "imagine, design, code, and release next generation features," "integrate new technologies wherever appropriate" and - wonder of wonders - "improve the craigslist user experience." The effort might be too little, too late, but it sounds like the Web's best-trafficked separatist community might be ready to lay down arms and join the 21st century.