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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 4, 2008 at 11:21 AM

Craig of Craigslist talks about spam, online threats and feuding pet lovers

With his trademark self-depracating humor, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark shared tips on dealing with spammers and online miscreants during a presentation this morning at the Authentication & Online Trust Alliance conference, which began today at the Seattle Westin.

The gist of Newmark’s advice was that people need to trust one another — they’ll help each other out in online communities, and work together to address threats like scams and spam — and that companies need to really listen to user feedback and followup in meaningful ways.

Here are excerpts of the on-stage chat Newmark had with analyst David Daniels of JupiterResearch:

Daniels: Craigslist is an early social Web application, trust had to be an implicit part of that …

Newmark: It wasn’t intentional.

“What we’re doing is not altruistic, it’s not noble or pious. We were just doing what felt right. Only in recent analysis can we see this culture of trust thing is based on some shared values, like you should treat people the way you would like to be treated.”

“For example, I was doing customer service maybe five minutes ago. We just do that and then follow through with it. … It’s not altruistic; it’s not noble or anything like that. It’s just recognizing the values we share with the whole world and then following through with that, and then following through some more.

Daniels: With such a vibrant user community, how do you keep the evildoers out?

Newmark: “Our first line of defense against bad guys is this flagging for removal thing we’ve got going. … Beyond that we have internal tools which can make use of that information to find other bad guys and get rid of their ads.”

Looking ahead, Newmark expects digital certificated infrastructure will be widespread. “My gut tells me that’s going to be the solution for much spam,” he said.

On his place at Craigslist:

“My role is customer service. People think of me as so much eye candy but I want to assure people I used to be smart.”

On other verification methods:

“RSS used to work better for us. We do send a lot of outgoing e-mail, typically to verify an ad. The idea was from the very beginning we figured people would try to use other people’s e-mail to post. There’s petty forms of harassment, that sort of thing.”

An aside:

Newmark: The girlfriend reminds me I’m not as funny as I might think, so I’ll take that into account.

Daniels: I get that all the time.

Newmark: I’m sure you do.

On cookie deletion:

Daniels said cookies are a top concern of customers worried about privacy, so they’re clearing cookies regularly.

Newmark: “We have minimal user cookies, just in some cases to affect what the consumers’ interface will be.”

Daniels: What do evildoers do at Craiglist?

Newmark: The problem with the site, there are people who will sign up for hundreds or thousands of free e-mail accounts and then they’ll use those to hit our sites with lots of spam ads, often in service categories.”

Daniels: The younger generation is using services like Facebook for primary communication. Do we [businesses online] need to be further entrenched in social messaging communities?

Newmark: “I think we all need to be more involved in some of these online communities. It’s the right thing to do for your customers…. We’re all consumers of different products — say basic phone services from the phone company. Just think how much better service might be if there were online discussion boards where you could engage with them and talk person to person…. Sure there are crazy people you’re never going to make happy, but you engage with people and things do get better and I’d say you’ll end up using less of your money because you’ll figure out ways to do things better and cheaper.”

“I think we all want more human connection. The online stuff is no substitute for real life, whatever real life is, but it’s important.”

On how companies can build online trust:

“If you as a company act like you’re real people just talking to people and listening (and then) doing something about it. … We’ve been going for 13 years. The idea is to listen to what your community is saying, do something about it and then listen again. … Frequently companies listen and don’t do anything.”

“I feel like telling people everywhere the time has come maybe within your companies to get serious about listening and then doing something about it. We have the unusual ability to do that within our company because one advantage we have is I realized in 2000, as a manager, frankly, I suck. That’s why I have the gigantic Jim Buckmaster [hired as chief executive]. … The deal is he makes things happen, leaving me the time to listen.”

“I do recommend getting yourself one of those giant CEOs. They’re very effective.”

Daniels: Some of your listing categories must have different challenges when it comes to authentication …

Newmark: “There’s a range of things — in our services categories, we’ve recently introduced phone verification. That’s cut down a great deal of spam. Bad guys have found ways around that, although with limited volume.”

“Oddly enough some of the problem areas are not what you’d think. They tend to be in therapeutic services and household services. For whatever reason, movers, particularly in New York City, are particularly aggressive.”

Other problems in minor ways: “Pets and animals. We have people who are, say, passionate about animals. There are different factions in those areas. They really get angry with each other and they bicker with each other to the point of harassment. That’s a real thorn in my side.”

On preventing fraud:

Newmark pointed to the prominent warnings added to the site about things like cashier’s checks.

“There are still people whe don’t read them and they will get scammed. Our heart goes out to them, but we don’t know what to do about that sort of thing. My gut tells me that when all e-mail has to be from someone who is authenticated strongly … my gut tells me that will help a great deal but that seems to be years off.”

“One thing that cops across the country are learning is that we will respond quckly to their requests for the data we have. Our deal is we try to respond real fast and help out cops and victims to the point where my number is propagating across the country…. We do that in a way that respects the right of the accused and due process.”

Newmark said that some in the audience may be old enough to rememer when we had a Constitution and rule of law in this country.

“We act as if that is is still in effect.”

On self-policing in the user community:

“People are normally willing to give other people a break. We have discussion boards related to this where people will help other people out. … It is not a matter of technology. It is that simple. We encourage people to do that and somehow it works.”

“We’re a flea market in a matter of speaking — flea markets are more social things than they are a matter of commerce.”

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