What's Craig Newmark's "real sin?" It turns out that his transgression isn't, as the cover of the recent Wired would have it, "refusing to evolve," but rather of pride, an old fashioned desire to do some good.

Michael Hickins, Contributor

September 1, 2009

4 Min Read

What's Craig Newmark's "real sin?" It turns out that his transgression isn't, as the cover of the recent Wired would have it, "refusing to evolve," but rather of pride, an old fashioned desire to do some good.So I have to ask, which is the greater sin of pride: to believe you can change society for the better, or to assail a well-meaning man for daring to try to outdo you?

Wired's cover story on the Craigslist founder isn't exactly a hatchet job, but it doesn't shed a lot of new light on either Newmark or Craigslist. And because reporter Gary Wolf fails to draw Newmark out of his reserve and give his readers a better understanding of the man and the company he runs, he tries to rescue his piece with the dodge known to all reporters facing a deadline and no story -- detached irony mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism:

Newmark's claim of almost total disinterest in wealth dovetails with the way craigslist does business. Besides offering nearly all of its features for free, it scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate.

Note how Newmark's disinterest in wealth is qualified (it's just a claim), but the lack of innovation is stated as fact.

If Wolf is to be believed, Newmark is practically Rain Man: socially awkward, his life boiled down to a series of routines during which he's willing to perform the same tedious tasks "again and again." Maybe Wolf has been so beaten down by his encounters with typical "Type A" Silicon Valley millionaires that he can't believe someone in Newmark's position could seriously say, "people are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day" and actually mean it.

Wolf isn't the only one who has doubts. Apparently "many people" share his doubts, but Wolf doesn't name or quote them; we just have to believe him:

Many people who have heard Newmark's public remarks find the ideals admirable but difficult to apply.

So there must be something wrong with that guy. That is the "tragedy of Craigslist," as the print version would have it, or "why Craigslist is such a mess," as the online version has it.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster isn't spared either: to read Wolf, the guy simply doesn't deserve to be CEO. He's a med school drop-out, perpetual student, self-taught programmer who toiled at some white collar sweatshop until he got hired as a programmer at Craigslist and then somehow stumbled upwards to the top job.

Heck, he's not smarter than Wolf, he's not pals with Newmark, he's not a trained executive, what he knows he learned kind of as an afterthought, and he's an oddball:

Without a computer science research department to work on evil-fighting algorithms, or a call center to take complaints, Buckmaster has settled on a different approach, one that involves haiku.

The main issue with the Craigslist site itself is that it doesn't listen to advice. Wolf adopts a bemused detachment where that's concerned, writing

Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are craigslist has considered it and rejected it.

If there's anything Wolf seems to believe about his subject, it's that Newmark's stated idealism is belied by the anachronistic way he runs his company. Summing up Craigslist, Wolf writes:

craigslist still treats social life as dangerously complex, deserving the most jaded caution. Corporate isolation, user anonymity, refusal of excessive profit, glacial adoption of new features: These all signal Newmark and Buckmaster's wariness about what humans, including themselves, might do if given the chance. There may be a peace sign on every page, but the implicit political philosophy of craigslist has a deeply conservative, even a tragic cast. Every day the choristers of the social web chirp their advice about openness and trust; craigslist follows none of it, and every day it grows.

What Wolf fails to grasp, however, is that life is always full of contradictions. Newmark can be both idealist and realist. While he "seems" to refuse the kind of wealth that could help him achieve social change by throwing money at problems, Bill Gates-like, Newmark has a more central position in the social life of this country than even Microsoft could have ever dreamed of, and his naked asceticism gives him more credibility when he speaks than any number of Silicon Valley executives.

Wolf hints at the possibility of what Newmark has in mind, writing, "He seems to have discovered a new way to run a business. He suspects that it may be the right way to run the world."

But Wolf fails to get Newmark to clue him, or us, in on what that might be. Wolf would like us to believe that's because Newmark is strange. But maybe it's because Newmark didn't trust him to tell it straight.

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