Craigslist (and Silicon Valley) Greatly Offends The NY Times

First off, I’m friendly with Nick Bilton at the NY TImes. I like him personally. I think he’s a gifted writer and I’ve written good things about him in the past.

But I’ve also criticized him more than once and I’m going to do it again now. Not to generalize, but a lot of people who come to Silicon Valley from the east coast have an odd way of looking at success, more jealousy driven than anything else. I thought Bilton broke that stereotype, but the more I read of his stuff the more I wonder.

There was the Path take down earlier this year, which I thought was extremely unfair. And the recent party article that was more about poking fun at him than any real criticism.

Today his target is Craigslist.

It’s not that he’s criticizing Craigslist. I think there’s lots to gripe about there. But the impression I get from the article is that he decided on his conclusion – that Craigslist is a bully and wins only through legal action – and then built his facts around that conclusion. Because his arguments just don’t work.

From the article:

This isn’t the first time Craigslist has claimed such violations. The Internet is littered with carcasses that once built on top of the listings site. Their pixelated tombstones are inscribed with one-liners that Craigslist killed access without any notice, or they were sent a cease-and-desist letter by Perkins Coie, a top-notch corporate law firm that frequently represents Craigslist.

and

Most of the sites that Craigslist killed began as hobby projects, making little to no money — just programmers trying to make a product they loved, better.

and the money shot:

As intellectual property lawyers will tell you, Mr. Kidd is not off base: facts, like those in classified listings, cannot be copyrighted.

So why hasn’t anyone managed to unseat Craigslist, a site that has barely changed in close to two decades?

It has dug an effective moat by cultivating an exaggerated image of “doing good” that keeps its customers loyal, while behind the scenes, it bullies any rivals that come near and it stifles innovation.

His argument is basically:

1. Craigslist is stuck in the 90′s and sucks.
2. They are therefore ripe for disruption.
3. They avoid disruption by bullying rivals and stifling innovation

So none of that makes sense.

Nick is a design guy and it makes sense that Craigslist would horrify him – “it feels stuck in the 1990s, where links are electric blue and everything is underlined.”

But sometimes design doesn’t matter, even though that thought scares the hell out of designers. Craigslist works because it’s free and everyone uses it. The network effect has kicked in and there’s very little that can stop that. It took the Internet to defeat Windows. Ebay, another listings site stuck in the 90′s, has also yet to be disrupted.

None of that has to do with legal bullying. Entrepreneurs are free to compete with eBay and Craigslist, and often try. But the only way they have any shot at all is to build on top of Craigslist data to try to jumpstart usage. No one’s ever going to go to a listing site that has no listings. And if no one’s there, no one is going to list stuff.

Does Craigslist have some moral obligation to help competitors disrupt it by handing them their data? Nope. And despite Nick’s legal opinion, they can absolutely protect that data in the courts.

Should they? I don’t think so personally. When I was at TechCrunch we took the opposite approach with CrunchBase, for example. Anyone can take that data via the API with very few restrictions. We were right in thinking that as long as the data was free people would feel good about keeping CrunchBase as the central repository for that data. In my opinion it’s a more valuable asset than even TechCrunch today.

But this just proves my point. Craigslist wins whether they take legal action or not, because of the network effect. Nick’s hypothesis that Craigslist is just bullying people with lawyers to keep on top holds no water.

And if anything Craigslist undersells how much good it does. It’s a mostly free service that helps people connect endlessly around the world. To find jobs, buy things, and meet others. They extract very little value from their own network – unlike, say, Ebay, which does the opposite. Craigslist is an unqualified good thing. To say they exaggerate their image of doing good is incorrect and extremely unfair.

As a final point, Craigslist has eaten the NY Times’ classified listings lunch over the years. That’s a conflict of interest that needs to be disclosed in this kind of take down article.

Not everything that’s working in Silicon Valley has some nefarious evil plot behind it, Nick. Take off the New York City goggles for a moment, you might be amazed at what you see without that taint.

16 thoughts on “Craigslist (and Silicon Valley) Greatly Offends The NY Times

  1. scodtt says:

    The reason they don’t disclose the conflict over classifieds is that they don’t even recognize it.

    I worked as a reporter for years, and nobody ever acknowledged that not only did the classifieds make most of the money but there were a lot of readers of the paper who never read the front page and just looked at the classifieds.

  2. Jason says:

    Nick makes a good point that Craigslist, a site built on a hacker ethos of “just do something simple for the good of humanity” is discouraging those same hackers from building useful sites with Craigslist data. I was a user of PadMapper until Craigslist’s cease & desist order. Before then I used HousingMaps which also scrapes Craigslist — for now, at least.

    I’m not asking Craigslist to abandon its simple graphical design — I find it beautiful in many ways — but having even a simple supported API would allow a variety of user experiences and a new revenue stream for Craig N. and company.

    Lastly, The New York Times is effectively a national paper. Even back in the ’90s before Craigslist was eating everyone’s lunch, their classifieds section was tiny. Craigslist didn’t have the same effect on the NYT as they had on papers with a truly local focus.

    I am not employed by or posting on behalf of the NYT.

  3. Since I live and work in the Bay Area, I guess I’m entitled to comment on this issue. And I think what Craigslist is doing is, in essence, evil – they’re pushing the boundary of copyright law in the wrong direction. I don’t blame them for acting in their self interest, but I want them to lose miserably – for the good of society.

  4. zato says:

    I think Nick Bilton is a professional propagandist working for the Microsoft NYTimes.

  5. Joe says:

    Mike, you missing the main issue: its irrelevant if Craiglist wins or not. At the end its about users and customers! Yes, CL seems to be monopoly but their approach to others trying to leverage off of their hose is similar to ex-Yahoo suing Facebook (trolling). If only Craig wouldnt want all the Gs (its started nonprofit) he would see that they should provide an API to everyone that wants to tap into their hose. Small traffic API goes for free (nothing better than another website promoting your data); sites that have large traffic pays something back, like 10c CPM. At the end of the day, customers WIN and its the most important thing. I dont really care where I offer my crap for sale as long as I have the most amount of eyes looking at it; equally I dont care where I look for offers, as long as there is plenty to look through. If a website offers me CL data in a better GUI, I will be more happy, and the credit goes to both to CL (for data) and to the new website for GUI. Win to win situation!

    • Michael Arrington says:

      no, you’re missing the main issue – It’s their data, we don’t get to tell them they have to give it away for free. I’d like them to, but I don’t get to tell them that they’re bad people for not doing it. And this has no similarity to Yahoo’s patent case. A better analogy is me telling you you have to let people come and stay in your house for free. And like it.

      • Joe says:

        When was the last time you post something on CL? You clearly wrong. They do not own the data — you do as a submitting party. You only giving them the license to use this information. If they would own the data, they would be solely responsible for it in a matter of the law, which they are not, and obviously would not want to be liable.
        I am not saying they have to share their data and do it for free. As you read my post, I also suggested paid subscription. Also, AFAIK the recent lawsuit tries on CL copyrighting “facts”, not “data”, which is entirely ridiculous. Sure you can sue someone if they posted online a chapter of your book, word by word, without license or your permission. But you cannot sue someone for summarizing said chapter without any sentence being a word by word copy.

  6. not to bring cl down on me but i made a site on top of their data, and it got some level of notoriety on jalopnik recently, and i’ve heard nothing from them. i think it’s because i tried to follow their rules.

    i do not spider their data, i don’t save their data, i don’t make accesses to their data via a computer between the person and the cl site.

    which i guess makes it tough to make money off of, but again, it is their data to decide how it’s used. i’ve gotten c&d letters before from large organizations, and deserved them. so i try to respect what cl have built and hopefully i’ll be left alone.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      interesting.

      • morgan says:

        Probably shouldn’t have posted, their TOU is stricter than I remember, as noted in the fresh C&D I received today.

        The best part is I have to confirm in writing that:

        “You have ceased and will forever desist from all access to and use of craigslist for
        any reason or purpose whatsoever, directly and through any other person or
        entity;”

        I can’t even use it myself anymore, shoot. And I guess since CL blows at doing any sort of wider regional search I don’t need to use it anyway.

        They are a fun-loving bunch though.

  7. Beavis says:

    You said taint. Hah!

  8. I don’t love the idea that design doesn’t matter…but I’ll argue Craigslist’s design does matter, and has served it well. No, it’s not going to win any design awards. But on the other hand, I don’t hear people complaining that it’s garish, or difficult to navigate, or moves stuff around all the time so you can’t find it. Their design is simple and functional, made possible in part by the fact that their feature set hasn’t changed dramatically. For some definitions of design that’s good design.

    If I woke up tomorrow as head of Product for Craigslist yeah, I’d look into updating the design. But I’d tread lightly.

  9. Nicorette Tesla says:

    just once i would like to see prominent silicon valley voices agree in public with articles like this one by bilton. but no. anyone who dares to point out the amazing hypocrisy in the tech world these days gets flamed by mr arrington and the rest, and all wrapped in high minded sounding bogus apologies (“i like nick bilton, i really do but…” and empty tech jargon rhetoric like “the network effect” — really? when hollywood sues entrepreneurs for stealing its appalling but when craigslist sues its a yawn because of “the network effect”?)

    (what hypocrisy? say, rage about climate change and demand that middle class people give up their creature comforts, all the while living in 10,000 square foot homes and flying private — or tremble with anger and revulsion about hollywood while building the most brilliantly tightly closed walled garden new media networks — or lobbying for net neutrality while enforcing just the opposite on their own search or app discovery platforms – or…)

    finally, for mr arrington to suggest conflicts of interest are at issue here is well, stunning in its own shameless hypocrisy. its irrelevent whether or not there’s a point there. the sheer scale of the “do as i say not as i do” behind such allegations is just… depressing.

    does anyone today have any shame, sir? does anyone?

  10. dghoang says:

    Spot on. This is why Arrington is an investor and Nick is not…

  11. John says:

    Good article Mike.

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