Craig Newmark Talks Philanthropy, Politics

Craigslist founder talks to us about the online civic-service movement.

By + More

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark is a self-confessed sci-fi "nerd," but he has some very real ideas about changing politics and philanthropy, mainly through strong online participation. The humble entrepreneur (who now works in customer service for said at a conference this summer that "2008 is a year when politics and the way we govern ourselves is changing. It's a year like 1776. . . . Now, we're inventing participatory democracy."

The portly, balding 56-year-old started the popular list site in his living room in San Francisco as an E-mail list between friends in 1995. By 1999, he had retired from his information technology consulting job at Schwab to focus on Craigslist full time. It is now one of the busiest sites online. For many people, it serves as the default when they look for anything from sofas to jobs to dates.

Though Newmark has traded his taped-together, thick-rimmed glasses for a sleeker pair in recent years, he remains accessible and down-to-earth.He brims with new ideas and is constantly involved in online start-ups, mostly of the philanthropic sort. To help the civic service movement along, Newmark has partnered with the congressional watchdog organization Sunlight Foundation, peer-to-peer microlender Kiva, and other progressive groups to change the way Americans think of, and participate in, politics and philanthropy. Newmark recently had a chat with U.S.News. Excerpts:

How are online lists and services changing?

I see a current trend of people more and more both using barter to get stuff done and giving away stuff for free. And that's increasing. Generally, people will give each other a break—sometimes giving away money or time. Some people are predicting that people like 18 to 24 or 18 to 30 as being a new civic generation like the so-called GI or Greatest Generation. We see more people who seem to be younger (judging by tone and references they make) helping each other out. And I do a lot of things outside of Craigslist, so I think I see that more directly, with efforts like Donors Choose and the effort to pass the new GI bill. How's the economy changing online ?

I've seen the phenomenon happening for many years that our attention is worth something—even dollars. Just think about TV programs and broadcast networks. People are willing to provide free entertainment for us with the exception that we may pay for that entertainment with our attention to commercials. The whole advertising economy is based on the attention economy. We see that more and more on the Net. And we do see people in a sense stealing attention by spam ads and things of that nature. The Net moves us further in the attention economy. How would an attention economy manifest itself online?

I do think we'll see a mix of models, for journalism and entertainment. There will be traditional advertising; there will be pay-per-view; and sponsorship. And in some cases, philanthropic mechanisms. For example, in New York there's, and yesterday I spoke to a bunch of reporters who are trying to figure out another way of doing local news philanthropically. What are you watching/working on?

The biggest thing I'm paying attention to is what some people call participatory or network democracy. The notion that people can come together in great numbers not only for an electoral campaign but for new forms of governance. The notion of customer service for local governments. In New York and San Francisco, you can call 311 and get a pothole filled or figure out how to get a license. I think that applies to government at all levels throughout the country. There are now millions of people—mostly young—getting involved in politics for the first time. The idea is that when you have millions of people involved, how do you get those people to figure out what are the best ideas? Because people are going to have a lot of good ideas when it comes to foreign policy, or whatever. How can the Internet change government?

The most important issue, frankly, is that we need to elect politicians who believe in the Internet as a way of getting more input from citizens to government. And we have some politicians who embrace that. And we have some politicians who have actually publicly said they want as little citizen input as possible. [Before the presidential election,] a representative of the Bush/McCain team said that the American people only get input every four years. That's the way the system works. That was [White House Press Secretary] Dana Perino.