Craigslist Founder Gets Political
Craig Newmark really doesn't want to be bothered with politics. In fact, he can't wait until the election is over so he can catch up on his favorite TV shows, like "Pushing Daisies" and new episodes of "The Simpsons."
Still, he's on the road for the next month, traveling to swing states, campaigning for Barack Obama. He's an official technology surrogate for the Democratic presidential candidate, which means he can speak on behalf of the campaign about technology policy.
Newmark, the founder of craigslist, isn't even a Democrat. He describes himself as a "Libertarian moderate." He admits he has "nothing to gain" from helping get Obama elected. But he's convinced Obama's ideas about using technology to mobilize citizen participation in the democratic process, using the Internet to make government more transparent and open, and making more voices heard online will transform how the federal system -- and state, county and city systems -- work in the future.
He was in Washington today for a few press events. He spoke at Google's D.C. office this morning, and then to journalists at the National Press Club. I caught up with him this afternoon, just before he returned to his hotel room to check in on the customer service operations for craigslist. (He makes it very clear that he's not in charge of customer service, he's not even a manager. He's a customer service representative -- nothing more.) If he's away from a computer for too long, he says, he gets "visibly tense."
But for a few minutes, at least, he's content to talk about his vision for the future.
"I would prefer to be more cynical, but I can see this grassroots technology make these ideas real," he told me over coffee. "Every day I see grassroots democracy working in a simple and vital form (on the craigslist site). I see the challenges -- I even see the occasional instance of fraud. But I also see great passion for people to be engaged. And I see the mechanisms to make that happen evolving now."
Mechanisms? I ask him to be a bit more specific.
He points to how craigslist users vote on whether suspicious listings should be removed. He cites the popular site Slashdot for giving users the tools to filter out people who try to pick fights and write fake or rude comments, letting users vote to move some comments up in the rankings and to make some comments invisible. It's all a system he broadly calls "reputation management," and the idea is to turn over the policing of the site to the users themselves.
"People with the strongest, most recognized reputations will be influential," he said. "I believe in a culture of trust -- treating people the way you want to be treated."
Why Obama? What makes his campaign so different, I ask.
He starts talking about lobbyists, and how a lot of them unfairly get a bad rap. "They're just trying to get the best results for their clients in what is essentially a sausage factory," he said. But there are some predatory lobbyists who don't operate ethically.
"When I look at Barack's campaign, it's pretty free of lobbyists, especially the predatory kind," he said. "But I look at McCain's campaign...."
He trails off, clearly trying to find a tactful way of conveying his thoughts. "He's surrounded by lobbyists," he said.
He talks about the historical significance of this presidential race. "2008 is like 1776 all over again," he said. "Barack and the people around him are the new founders of this new movement."
Last night, he watched the vice-presidential debate at a downtown bar with a group of D.C. supporters of Obama. He gathered 800 people to go to Virginia, a battleground state, to help get out the vote.
He shows me his watch, with a smiling Obama emblazoned on its face.
"What time is it?" he asked, with a dramatic tone. "Time for change."
October 3, 2008; 5:11 PM ET
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