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Driving Silicon Valley crazy for over a decade: Jimmy Wales and Craig Newmark
Craigslist has never done things the way Silicon Valley wants it to.

The company has steadfastly refused to budge from its blue-links-on-white background design, making only relatively minor tweaks to it for more than a decade. It has taken no venture capital. It doesn’t open-source anything. And, apart from a disastrous investment by eBay that resulted in a nasty legal battle, it has never come close to being acquired.

Now, and not for the first time, Craigslist is suing another site — the small one-man startup Padmapper — for scraping rental listings off its site, and the Internet community’s up in arms.

Naturally, that makes people here furious. It’s just not the way you’re supposed to do things!

Like Apple, Craigslist is pretty tight-lipped. Chief executive Jim Buckmaster doesn’t tend to comment to the press, probably because he sees no advantage to getting into a public grudge match. Founder Craig Newmark is well-meaning, occasionally clueless, and mostly retired (he focuses on customer service, charity work, and on being the company’s equivalent of Orville Reddenbacher).

(Disclosure: I’m good friends with Craigslist’s PR person, Susan MacTavish Best, but I haven’t talked to her about the company in months.)

Craigslist doesn’t worry much about releasing apps for the latest smartphone or tablet platforms. Its site doesn’t use AJAX or HTML5. Heck, I don’t think Craigslist even has an app.

Nevertheless, Craigslist is a damn good business. It’s hauling in revenues to the tune of $115 million per year, according to estimates, primarily from companies that pay to list their job openings or, in New York, their apartments for rent. Its costs are low, mostly because it runs on a shoestring staff of about 30 people.

And it’s the #20 U.S. website by traffic, according to Comscore, making it larger than sites that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and employ hundreds or thousands of people, like Twitter, ESPN.com, Yelp, and even NBC Universal. In terms of revenue per employee, Craigslist blows most tech companies out of the water.

Sure, its revenues could be even bigger. But to what end? Buckmaster has said in the past that Craigslist doesn’t carry advertising because its users have never asked for that feature. He once told a roomful of bankers that he’s not interested in maximizing profit, which is kind of like telling the college of cardinals that you don’t believe in God. Generally, the site’s business philosophy is guided by a single principle: Is this good for our users?

Craigslist is that most un-Silicon Valley of companies: A lifestyle business grown large. Its executives seem to be perfectly happy being millionaires, without any particular urge to become billionaires. This way, they can run the “comfortably metronomic” business the way they see fit.

You don’t like that? Suck it up. It’s their company, they built it into a hugely successful classified business (pretty much destroying the American newspaper industry in the process, but that’s another story), and they have every right to run it how they like.

Sure, the apartment-hunting business probably does need innovation. There are probably better approaches to delivering all kinds of classified ads, too, though many efforts have already failed. The problem with Padmapper is that it’s scraping Craiglist’s data without permission. If you had a plan for a new social network, but your idea was based on scraping Facebook’s data without its permission, you can be sure Facebook lawyers would be crawling down your neck in no time. So don’t be surprised that Craigslist is suing the guy.

Update 3pm Pacific: Actually, the story’s a bit more complicated than that. Padmapper is now using data from 3taps, which harvests it from search engines. “Padmapper does not scrape Craigslist, nor does 3taps.  The data in question is already available on public search engines to any and all that chose to look at it,” 3taps founder Greg Kidd told me today. I guess it depends on what your definition of “scraping” is — something sure to be discussed in court.

(On a related note, there’s a Google Chrome plugin that does something very similar to Padmapper, by displaying a map of listings while you’re browsing Craigslist. That approach might pass muster with Craigslist’s legal team, since it’s not technically scraping the site — just rendering additional information while browsing it. There’s an interesting discussion about scraping Craigslist on Hacker News, if you’re interested in the nuances.)

I think the real problem with Craiglist is that it’s got a user-friendly name, a .org address, and a communitarian spirit. As a result, the people who use it feel like they own it. Well, guess what: They don’t. It’s a community-centric site. But that community spirit doesn’t extend to open-sourcing its data, providing APIs, letting people scrape its data, or sharing its revenue with anyone who asks.

You don’t like that? Start your own classified website. Just keep in mind that millions of people continue using Craigslist for a reason — and it’s not the fancy interface.

Photo: Two guys who can’t stop annoying Silicon Valley: Jimmy Wales and Craig Newmark. Credit: Scott Beale via photo pin.

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