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, 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 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.
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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.