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from Esquire, December 2002

The Father of Freebay
By Daniel Torday

from The Best & Brightest issue

  • Diana Alden Lang found: her dog Ginger, her cell phone, her couch, her mattress, her car, her speakers, her outdoor speakers, her pro Cuisinart, her bicycle, her VCR, and her two assistants.
  • Lynne Harris found: her apartment and her job.
  • Miriam Boxerman found: her couch, her roommate, her job, and her boyfriend.

Craigslist is ugly. It is ranks of pale-blue links on a field of gray. No pictures, no icons, no banner ads. Yet under the watchful eye of demiurge Craig Newmark, craigslist.org has become the single most useful commerce site on the Internet.

This is the future of alternative e-purchasing; call it Freebay. It carries no paid advertisements of any kind and it takes no cut from the transactions it enables. Yet users, which include 1.6 million unique visitors a month, can buy and sell everything - furniture, computers, trucks, real estate, one another - at prices that rival a yard sale's.

The site was born in 1995 as a kind of bulletin board where Craig, then a forty-two-year-old software engineer, and friends could keep up on arts and technology events in San Francisco. In the past few years, however, it has blossomed into a bastion of local free-market bartering and sales in fourteen cities, from New York to Vancouver. Entirely nonprofit, its only revenue comes from fees charged for posting jobs on the original Bay Area site.

"It is 100 percent self-funded and makes enough from paid job listings to cover all costs" is all you'll get on finances from Craig. Besides, you'd have better luck picking up a watermelon seed off a linoleum floor than holding his attention on the telephone. He is eternally distracted, mostly by his constant interaction with users. He is a ubiquitous presence on the site, interjecting on chat rooms, e-mailing users, mediating disputes, and, with his thirteen-person staff, relentlessly upgrading his service.

And yet for all his obsessive creating, re-creating, and omnipresence on craigslist, Craig himself remains a benign and elusive deity.

A user tells this story: "Craig was like the guy from Charlie's Angels; no one knew what he looked like, and he was idolized. The homeless found housing, the unemployed found high-paying jobs. I was like, 'I must meet this man and thank him.' He turned out to be a balding, short, jolly, portly man. He didn't say anything as I bowed at his feet and thanked him. He just smiled, winked, and had this nice twinkle in his eye, and he walked away as more people were thanking him."