Craig Newmark at Google in DC Last Week

The DC offices of Google regularly open up their internal speakers series to any locals who may be interested. I had passed on several previous speakers because it wasn’t of strong enough interest to warrant using some PTO. However, being on the search full time, I figured why not take a break from reviewing job postings and scheduling interviews to head down into the District to hear the founder of Craig’s List speak.

It wasn’t a presentation or speech, as I had expected. Rather, Alan Davidson, Director, Public Policy and Government Affairs, sat on stage with Craig Newmark and conducted an interview. Not surprisingly, the topics focused mostly on public policy.

Craig described himself and his service in a very interesting way. He sees himself as a community manager and his real responsibility is to listen to the community at Craig’s List, sift through that feedback to understand their needs, and provide improvements and features that support those needs. He attributed the success of the site and its modest, consistent design to that exact formula, applied iteratively.

Something I hadn’t realized is that Craig’s List hasn’t really gone out of its way to promote itself. When approached by the first folks interested in advertising, Microsoft back when they were building their city guide Sidewalk sites, Newmark stuck with his principles about what sorts of ads would be most palatable to his users. He refused to consider banner ads or any variation of pop up. That conservatism has persisted through to today. The service has resisted expanding its offerings too broadly, too quickly. It really is an object lesson in the power of staying the course and serving a core set of needs or principles.

He shared his thoughts on the negative impact of Craig’s List on the newspaper industry. The way he put it they should concentrate on what makes print superior to online offerings. He suggested sticking to research and fact verification. He even implied there might be some interesting opportunities to work with new media, offering them these complementary services which traditionally have been a weak spot.

He also pointed out that the papers that are really struggling are the middle market players. He suggested that the cost of physical production may have more to do with that than competition with online services.

The discussion shifted to public policy, covering his personal political stance, his thoughts on improving electronic voting, and the effect of the internet on democracy in general. His views on policy are clearly informed by his thoughts on his role as a community manager. He sees the internet as a facilitator of democracy, that it may eventually lead to direct democracy. He did not underestimate the challenges of e-voting, but clearly felt this was the ultimate way forward, challenges and all.

One idea he mentioned that stuck in my brain was that if we could provide means of verifying email as originating from constituents, it would make that medium much more effective at reaching our Congress critters. I had a small epiphany as to why calls, FAXes and letters work in that regard, because staffers can check post marks for zip codes and caller ID for area codes. Craig invited anyone to email him about his ideas on authentication for this purpose. I am intrigued but skeptical as this seems to be a variation on the spam problem. I am still ruminating on whether the costs of lower accuracy are appropriate for this specific communication versus email as a whole.

He is also not surprisingly a fan of Congress folks using all of the communications tools available to them. This would include micro blogging and instant messaging. We are seeing the Congressional rules on these services slowly, oh so slowly catching up with the norms. Craig clearly stated he felt any leader should be using these tools. He even suggested that if we are able to reliably enough solve the constituent authentication problem, that a member’s constituents could be assemble to self moderate and filter these channels. Obviously this specifically is most informed by Newmark’s views as a community manager. I think it is an interesting model worth exploring further, fully contingent on that issue of trust and authentication.

He also seems to be a fan of transparency in government initiatives. I believe he stated he is currently on the board of the Sunlight Foundation. He also urged the audience to look up bill S.223 and act to support it.

He mentioned Change Congress, Professor Lawrence Lessig’s current project. Craig had some more temperate thoughts on lobbyists though. Based on his experience, he believes that not all lobbyists are bad, that many are just working in the best interests of their clients. Not all of those clients are big business. I don’t know how that entirely jibes with his support of Change Congress but I think his remarks are worth considering simply for the fact that the influence of lobbyists is not a black-and-white issue.

Overall Craig seemed like a very genuine and open person. It was enjoyable to listen to him share his experiences building such a successful service and his more recent endeavors into the public policy space.

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